It isn’t a tardy response to Dick the Butcher’s rallying call in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI to "kill all the lawyers" that may end it for us, according to the forthcoming book The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services. Richard Susskind, Emeritus Professor of Law at Gresham College, England, IT adviser to Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, recipient of an Order of the British Empire award, and consultant to a number of leading law firms in Great Britain and abroad, contends it is rather our own stubborn resistance to the metamorphosis of the business and technological world that will do us in.
"I write not to bury lawyers but to investigate their future…in the face of challenging trends in the legal marketplace," Susskind assures.
Let me paraphrase a few of his points from excerpts of his book.
Ignoring The Future and Its Technology
Susskind, also author of The Future of Law (1996), says that during the more than 15 years he was Executive Editor of the International Journal of Law and Information Technology, not once did he receive a submission of an article on the nature of legal practice in the long term. Governments, managing committees and law schools are not worrying about the fate of the profession for the next generation, in his opinion. The assumption is that the profession will continue to look like it does today– skilled professionals dispensing consultative advisory services on a one-to-one basis. While major oil companies have strategic plans in place for the next 50 years, very few lawyers look beyond the next five.
But the profession is on the brink of a fundamental transformation, in Susskind’s opinion. Within the next 10 years, he contends, all manner of legal guidance and resources, barely imaginable 10 years ago, will be at everyone’s fingertips. The last 10 years intimates the kind of progression that can be expected in the next 10. Technology today already makes the expanding web of hyper-regulation–vast interconnections of complex regulations–manageable. They become search-able, reportable and the questions raised resolvable in microseconds compared to the old system of researching and reviewing regulations and case law. Commoditization and technology will likewise reshape 21st century legal services, making conventional legal advisers less prominent, even to some extent invisible.
The market is increasingly unwilling to tolerate legal expenses born out of inefficiency. So the challenge is to identify lawyers’ distinctive skills and replace the rest by advanced systems or less costly workers. The already apparent tendency of lawyers now to point to their negotiating, deal-making, counseling, risk management, even therapeutic skills, over their mastery of black letter law shows the great tide of recognition of the sinking value of black letter lawyering, which can be increasingly standardized, systematized, packaged and even commoditized without the bespoke handling of an expensive lawyer. New age lawyers will combine law with some other substantive expertise (like IP, for example) and there will be a new cadre of legal knowledge engineers, whose specialty will be to access, manipulate and package relevant law.
The Potential Impact of Non-Lawyer Investors
For the first time in England, non-lawyers will soon be able to invest in law firms. Delivery of legal services will be a very different business when financed and managed by non-lawyers. It is improbable that investors would put money into the traditional law firm business model, with its hourly billing, expensive premises, pyramidic organizational structure, etc.
Savvy business people will surely find that traditional law firms are over-resourced, with enormous duplication of effort, and with too many smart lawyers and too few smart systems. A revolution in delivery will quickly take advantage of the most profits to be rung from high-volume, low-margin consumer legal work. It has been determined that of 10 billion pounds of consumer-based legal services business in Britain, 6 billion could easily be captured by common consumer outlets, like supermarkets and banks.
Companies are starting to decompose the components of their spending into high value, big ticket and other matters. With $40 billion currently being spent on engaging the top 100 US law firms alone, there is likely to be some potential for savings. Big law firms feel smugly secure in their bet-the-ranch niche, but among general counsel it is clear that if new legal businesses emerge offering quicker, more convenient, less costly alternatives, their companies will embrace them. And the incentive is there for those businesses to emerge.
Confident In Our Naivete
Lawyers’ confidence that "disruptive legal technologies," such as document assembly and review, personalized alerting, on-line dispute resolution and open-sourcing, will not impact their practice is only matched by their lack of familiarity with these trends and their naivete.