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.