Richard Susskind’s visionary look forward at the SCL 2006 Lecture
The most interesting ideas are picked up in a recent interview Richard gave to the Law Society Gazette:
‘Lawyers are correct about worrying about the economics of commodity pricing, because when a legal offering becomes a commodity there’s a good chance it’s going to have to be given away.’
Because lawyers’ work is an information product that can be increasingly replicated and distributed for almost no cost, customers expect to pay ever less for it. For certain categories of law and legal service, it is a matter of embracing this commoditization or going bust. For others, the air up on the high ground will just get that little bit more rarefied.
‘For those who genuinely do bespoke work, and that covers a lot of barristers, the future is much like the present if we’re looking 20-25 years ahead,’ But this is not the market the majority of lawyers in the UK will be in.
‘I think there’s going to be an evolution of services from bespoke to commodity – I know many law firms find the notion of providing a commodity as anathema; that’s not what they do. But if I’m right, you may indeed see some firms failing to survive because they try to hang on to the old model. The dominant way in which most law firms impart legal guidance remains the same as Bleak House and well before.’
‘The interface traditionally between the non-lawyer and formal sources of law has been the lawyer working in the office with books, procedures, colleagues and so forth. That interface is gradually going to change and a lot of the work that was undertaken by the lawyer can be standardized, systematized and provided to the end user. It seems to me there are innumerable [legal] circumstances that can to some extent be replaced by systems and the friendly human being.’
‘The other big business issue is: if that is the case, to what extent need it be lawyers that put that into place? Even more strongly, it’s not really in a law firm’s interest to put that interface in place, because their vested interest is in a different sort of interface.
My money is on the new interfaces coming from entrepreneurial small players or major organizations that recognize that what is done in legal practice is something they already do – knowledge processing with a friendly interface.
‘If we’re really honest, in most law firms, when a client comes through the door, they’d actually prefer something that’s a stonking great dispute or transaction that will involve a team of people, and I think there is a fundamental tension between what it is that a client wants and what it is that the lawyer wants. That is a huge commercial tension.
‘I would say that the law firm that actually becomes as passionate as the client about saving money and doing things quickly and cheaply in a simple way will be the law firm that will immediately benefit. Competitive advantage will arise for a law firm that doesn’t just say it’s client-facing, but actually is.’
It is this commercial thinking that is the future of much legal practice. ‘In the commercial world, the retail industry [for example] has worked in reverse. [Companies] were very keen to get the technology out to the customer. They backfilled and improved their systems, their stock control systems, their warehousing, logistics and so forth, but what’s interesting is that in retail the first step is get a system that adds value in front of the consumer and, in a sense, in the legal market it’s the reverse.
‘I think … for law firms, [the] focus should be “what can we use technology for that can enhance the client-service experience?” rather than saying “how can we use the technology internally?”’
‘If you find yourself in a practice area which you can imagine, hand on heart in the small hours of the morning when you wake up in a cold sweat in bed thinking about it, that “actually what I do is highly process-based and I can well imagine that being systematized” – if you can conceive of it being systematized, I think it will be systematized.
‘When I think of my sons, they don’t want to be lawyers but some of their friends do, and they come to me at 17 or 18 years old and say “what kind of profession can we expect?” and I can sketch out with some confidence that much of what goes on today in the legal world will continue over the next five or ten years. But if I’m looking 20 or 30 years ahead, I find it unimaginable that a great deal of legal work won’t become commoditized and a great deal of lawyers will be doing either different things or not legal things at all.’
The SCL website summarized the talk well:
It is no surprise for readers of this web site to hear that Professor Richard Susskind OBE, a past chairman of SCL, retains the capacity to intrigue and dazzle with his masterly grasp of law and technology. An audience of over 250 at The Royal Society on 6 March was riveted by a presentation which asked what the vast increase in processing power would mean for society – and for lawyers and the way in which they work. If not all left convinced that commoditisation was an overwhelming force whose time had almost come then, judging from the considered and thoughtful exchanges at the ensuing reception, everyone left seriously thinking about the issues raised and genuinely excited by the possibilities which would surely open up.
Richard Susskind began by reflecting on the fact that almost ten years had passed since he last gave an SCL Lecture. At that event in 1996, he launched what was to become a legal best-seller, The Future of Law. That book laid out a 20-year period of change for the law and in this year’s lecture, ten years on and half-way through the transition he anticipated, Richard reviewed progress over the last decade. Many predicted developments have found there way into the mainstream of legal practice and a number of others are poised to affect legal practice. But it was Richard’s firmly held view that the pace of development in the coming decade will be more profound than during the last. Moreover, enabled through emerging technologies, there will be transformations in:
o the nature of legal service
o the way lawyers work
o relationships between lawyers and their clients
o legal training and learning
o dispute resolution.
Richard anticipates a new model for legal services and sees an evolutionary path, running from the bespoke legal service which remains the norm to the commoditisation of legal service. It is a five-stage path which leads through standardisation and systemisation. Central to this is the impact which will be made by explosions in processing power. Richard encouraged his audience to grapple with the inevitability of IT-enabled and online legal service. He does not deny the difficult aspects of commoditisation and sought to confront these (insofar as time allowed).
Lawyers’ methods of working and their working relationships are to see major changes influenced by second-generation KM and by technology which encourages (and perhaps requires) greater collaboration and an appreciation of the importance of online communities. Richard feels that wikis, blogs and webinars carry enormous potential for changing working methods – for example, a partner in charge of a major transaction might keep a daily limited-access blog and would thereby create a more powerful KM tool than could be contemplated by existing techniques.
What Richard espouses with unwavering passion is that the rate of change is exponential and that lawyers are still playing on the edge of massive change. He warned against the idea that we are already approaching the finishing line in the race to harness IT in the provision of legal services. Those attending the lecture left emboldened and reinvigorated by Richard’s enthusiasm.