British legal scholar Richard Susskind says the current economic downturn will hasten the massive changes to the legal profession outlined in his latest book.
“The fundamental premise of the book is that we have to find ways to provide more legal services at less cost,” says Susskind, who notes that such a premise was easy for lawyers to brush off during boom times. But that will probably change as firms aim to meet changing client expectations, he says.
“You’re going to see far, far greater competition,” he says. “And you’re going to see a more demanding client base.”
Susskind spoke to Law Times in an interview last week at the Toronto book launch of The End of Lawyers?, his latest meditation on the future of legal services.
The book is a sequel to his 1996 title The Future of Law, which predicted the impact of technology on the legal profession and influenced many decision-makers within the legal community.
The new book predicts two significant pressures facing the legal community - a trend toward the “commoditization of legal services,” and the onset of “new and disruptive legal technologies.”
Susskind says there have been some misinterpretations of his use of the term “commoditization of legal services.” He makes clear that he does not mean legal work from which lawyers can no longer make money.
“I mean, to be honest, something I think far more sophisticated,” says the Scottish law professor and adviser to major law firms and governments across the globe. “Commoditization is my prediction that, in due course, online at no cost will be a great deal of valuable and useful legal information, which historically we’ve had to pay for.”
He says successful lawyers will find ways to make money within this new reality, while clients will receive better service because of it.
In terms of the impact of technology, Susskind sums up a few of his key predictions. He says automatic document assembly - a technology that has been around for a long time but is just now taking a significant hold - will have a disruptive affect for lawyers who charge by the hour.
Online communities may also become a disruptive technology for many lawyers, says Susskind. Just as e-mail has become a key source of lawyer-client communication, so too will tools such as Facebook, he says.
He sees the potential for in-house lawyers to come together in a giant online community to share the cost of legal services.
“That’s fundamentally disruptive for law firms because normally they provide services to each of them individually,” says Susskind.
While the title of Susskind’s book has created controversy within the profession since its U.K. release, he says the decision to pose the alarming question effectively conveys what he’s trying to accomplish in the book.
“I want to alert the legal community to major changes,” he says. “I don’t think this is a time of minor tweaking of the edges of the legal profession. I think we’re facing a discontinuity, and it’s quite hard to get lawyers to sit up and take notice. So part of the motive behind the title was at least to create a bit of a stir.”
The jarring title also will help the book stand out on the shelves of bookstores, he says, adding that the goal is to have as many people read it as possible.
“What I’ve got to do is jump over those who are already quite keen and interested to hear these ideas to the larger group of people who are naturally quite skeptical,” says Susskind.
One group that seems taken by Susskind’s ideas is the Canadian Bar Association, which used the book launch to announce that he has signed on as a special adviser to the association. He is expected to speak at special meetings of law firm managing partners, and plans are in the works for him to conduct web casts and publish articles for CBA members.
Susskind says he’s excited to work with the association, as Canadian audiences seem particularly receptive to his ideas.
“CBA needed somebody who could actually introduce these ideas, and I was keen to spread beyond the U.K.,” he says. “I don’t for a second think CBA buy into all my ideas, this is why I quite admire what they’re doing.”
CBA president Guy Joubert says Susskind will act as a “thought guru” for the association.
“He brings with him some very, very interesting ideas,” says Joubert. “The Canadian Bar Association is not advocating or espousing any of the ideas, in the sense that our role is to present these ideas to our members and the legal profession in general so that we can all participate in discussions about improving certain aspects of the justice system in Canada.”
Says Joubert: “The important thing is to be thinking. And that’s what he’s good at. He gets us thinking.”
Susskind makes it clear that his book doesn’t aim to chronicle a preordained future, but rather present a set of likely possibilities.
“It’s not that the future is pre-articulated and I see it more clearly than others, it’s just that I make it my life’s work to try and think [about] what possibilities are out there,” he says. “I’m not the person who makes it happen. That’s [done by] people who run the firms, catalyzed by people like the CBA.”
Susskind clearly wants to motivate lawyers to ponder their approach to doing business. But he is reluctant to take a shot at the traditional, big-firm partnership model. He notes that while efficiencies may be afforded by switching to the corporate model, doing so risks a loss of motivation, collegiality, and focus.
“Do I think law firms, could they be run more efficiently? A million per cent, yes. But the key point is they haven’t needed to be,” he says, noting that partners in big U.K. firms make over one million pounds each year.
But in the future, the old model may not be good enough, says Susskind.
“Looking forward, unless law firms are far more focused in the way they drive efficiencies through, the way they take the costs out of legal service, and the way they respond to the need for new ways of delivering legal services . . . there are going to be great difficulties.”