Richard Susskind and Legal Publishing

Richard Susskind has been far and away the most interesting speaker I’ve heard this year. He’s been travelling around the world delivering his message of coming change for the legal profession. He spoke at a recent CLEBC course and at the BC Court of Appeal 100th anniversary course.

For those of you who haven’t yet had the Susskind experience, he predicts that the legal profession is undergoing profound changes as corporate clients are under increasing pressure to cut costs, and as private clients cannot afford the bespoke services provided by lawyers. He anticipates that over the next ten years, the legal profession will be driven by two forces: a market pull towards the commoditization of legal services, and by the development and uptake of new and disruptive legal technologies.

His observations are consistent with recent reports on the use of legal services from the Law Society of BC and the Law Society of Upper Canada. The LSBC report includes this sobering conclusion:

… despite their need for assistance, it’s also clear that most British Columbians do not avail themselves of legal assistance, preferring instead to “go it alone”. It appears that a lack of knowledge, and perceptions of cost are the two key underlying barriers preventing the public from turning to a legal professional for assistance … More than two-thirds of British Columbians have experienced at least one serious and difficult to resolve problem in the past three years … Seven-in-ten British Columbians who faced a serious issue sought no assistance.

And according to the LSUC report: “For the hundreds of thousands of Ontarians who need help with a civil legal issue, the system is poorly understood or perceived to be inaccessible by many.”

Meanwhile, David Bilinsky reports on a recent conference on civil justice at Duke University. Corporate counsel surveyed in anticipation of the meeting agreed that the civil justice system is “too complex” (55%) and “too expensive” (97%).

But what does it all mean for legal publishing? Susskind’s fascinating book “The End of Lawyers?” has a few comments.

He is particularly interested in work being done to create document assembly systems; he admires the work of the Practical Lawyer Company, an English company (with a New York office). PLC is not a traditional legal publisher in that it does not publish primary sources or traditional secondary sources such as textbooks or practice manuals; instead, it provides web-based subscription services to law firms and law departments on specialist business law topics. PLC provides automated document systems for common transactions such as asset and share purchases, leases, and so on. It collaborates with law firms (its clients) to produce finished documents.

In a recent blog, David Bilinsky identified North American companies who are leading the way with online legal services, including North Vancouver-based Self-Counsel Press. Susskind correctly observes that development of these services has the potential to be enormously disruptive to our traditional customers: lawyers and their law firms.

How can legal publishers best support the coming changes in the legal profession? Should we enter the fray with document assembly programs? Should we continue to develop highly detailed secondary sources to support the increasing complexity of practice? Should we abandon print altogether? 

Susskind also muses on the future of law books themselves. He anticipates a decline in sales of the familiar and traditional bound volumes over the next 20 years and wonders whether they will survive. He notes the developing preference for online law reports given improved display technology, storage, and search, and predicts that our move away from print will only continue. 

Even so, I sense some regret behind this prediction. He calls traditional books and articles “reassuringly finite”. “You know where you stand with print. The end is always in sight and in hand”, whereas when you are researching online, it is easy to feel that your research could go on forever.

He also observes that we love the look and feel of bound books; there is enormous satisfaction in collecting and housing them. It’s true that my world is populated by book lovers and book collectors (first edition Iris Murdoch, anyone?), but I don’t know anyone who is madly in love with their bound law books. In fact, I see fewer and fewer bound law books wherever I go. I’m afraid I can’t really worship the hardcover law tome. Too expensive to produce! Not updateable! I believe CLEBC published our first and last hardcover book some time in the mid-1980s. 

I take his point about the beauty of books, though. I heard a prediction at a publishing conference recently: that books will become beauty objects in themselves (more “bookly”) and will be treated as such. Meanwhile, back in the land of legal publishing, we’ll be improving our search engines, considering the viability of document assembly, making our online experience richer, developing community around our resources, and keeping a close watch on the horizon. 

Richard Susskind will be the keynote speaker at this summer’s annual CBA conference.


  1. Wendy Reynolds

    Jakob Nielsen has been doing some work, comparing various e-book readers, pcs and paper books on various ergonomic factors. Paper still comes out as the superior technology – for now, anyway. I’d be intrigued to know if anyone has assessed the quality of the reading experience from a learning perspective. Do people remember the content any differently if you read it from an electronic source or from paper? Personally, I think I read more deeply from paper.

    Thanks for the post – lots to mull over here!

  2. David J. Bilinsky


    As much as I enjoy holding a genuine book, I have realized that the value of a book is not in the physical object but rather the information that it contains. Accordingly, we are looking at information, or should I say, knowledge, in new ways. One is immediacy: the value of knowing the latest developments in any area. Another is impact: knowing the value of how a new development will affect the status quo. A third is community: twitter for example allows a dialogue to begin as soon as new information is known. For these and other reasons, knowledge today must be digital since there is no other way for information to quickly spread out to meet these needs if it is confined to a physical means of distribution.

    This presents a challenge for legal publishers. No longer is it just the dissemination of new developments that has value; indeed it is the impact of and the community around new developments that seems to offer the greater value-equation for legal publishers.

    Perhaps Susskind’s next book will be: “The End of Legal Publishers?”

  3. I’m probably an eternal optimist or a fool. However, “video didn’t kill the radio star”. Yes, radio stations have lost some of their audience of their still alive and kicking; and yes, legal publishing will change it has to. Will books become obsolete — probably somewhere down the line. But then again, I think I read somewhere recently that vinyl is still around though we have all the other “must have” gadgets with which to store and access our music. However, legal publishers I don’t believe have ever been a source of the “immediate” dissemination of information but their one saving grace may be to utilize innovation and above all provide quality (not quantity) information.

  4. I’d be toward the abandon print altogether end of the spectrum. As David Bilinsky says above, its the content that matters, not the format. I don’t know that secondary resources are meant to be read, cover to cover. I certainly don’t use them that way, no matter how much I love my Farnsworth on Contracts. And if that’s the case, then there must be a way to break them up and make them usable effectively online. And if you can do that, then why create the print to go with it when you incorporate the delay and other costs into producing it. I think Jennie Law says it as well as I could: slow reading is great, but not necessarily effective in legal research.

    The book is a great technology and the novel is going to be around a lot longer than the legal looseleaf (especially if we cancel them all). Specialized information does not need to be restricted to a print format. Right now print is often better as a delivery method and for economic reasons, but that may be because legal publishers have not yet found a good way to represent that information online. They certainly don’t have any economic incentive to do so.