By Richard Susskind
In her introduction to ‘A Guide to Strategy for Lawyers’, a booklet that I have written for CBA members, Michele Hollins, the CBA President, quotes Jack Welch, the former CEO and Chairman of General Electric, who advises organizations to ‘change before you have to’. I had not heard this phrase before, but will undoubtedly use it again, because it so succinctly sets the agenda for practising lawyers in Canada and advanced jurisdictions around the world.
The legal marketplace, in my view, is in the middle of a period of unprecedented upheaval. Indeed I believe we will see more change in the legal profession in the next two decades than has been witnessed in the past two centuries. What is happening, though, is not an overnight, big bang revolution. Nor is it a leisurely evolution. Instead, I characterize it as an ‘incremental transformation’ – countless significant advances in the way that legal services are delivered, none of which in isolation might appear to be earth-shattering but, cumulatively, will add up to legal and justice systems that look radically different. These will be systems that are fit for purpose in the 21st century rather than systems that owe their origins to the 19th century.
Three main factors will bring this change. The first is what I call the ‘more-for-less challenge’ – the need for all legal clients, from the largest to the smallest, to reduce the costs of legal service at a time when there seems to be more law and regulation than ever before. The second factor is the emergence of new providers in the legal marketplace, such as legal process outsourcers, legal publishers, international accounting firms, legal technology start-ups, and new-look law firms. The third is information technology and the Internet, which are fundamentally changing all corners of our society and there is no reason to think they will have less impact on the legal world which, after all, is so highly document and information intensive.
This line of thinking underpins last year’s seminal report by the CBA – ‘Futures: Transforming the Delivery of Legal Services in Canada’. That report should be a wake-up call for lawyers in Canada. In measured tones, and backed by solid evidence, it compellingly points to many changes that are afoot in law and to the need for lawyers to rethink the nature and scope of their work. In turn, the Guide that I have written is intended to help CBA members to plan for their future, in a structured and systematic way. I have distilled my many years of advising firms into a simple how-to manual. If the word ‘strategy’ seems too highfalutin, think instead of putting together a road-map. Every firm needs one and my Guide shows how to put one together.
I have one misgiving however and that is that many lawyers, in Canada and elsewhere, are not prepared to accept that the changes the CBA and I envisage are as fundamental or irreversible as we maintain. Of course, some seasoned lawyers will be hoping that they can reach retirement before cost pressures, new competitors, and technologies engulf them. These elderly lawyers aside, however, many intelligent and experienced practitioners reject the very idea of transformation in law. They argue, variously, that when the global economy recovers, then the legal industry will go back to normal; that the changes we are seeing are temporary blips rather than indicators of structural shift; that no-one can predict how things will unfold and so future-gazing is a distraction from delivering the monthly figures; that there is and will be change but there is a danger of over-exaggerating its impact; and that, no matter what the future brings, there will always be a place for traditional trusted legal advisers. These skeptics tend to believe that lawyers will be able to adapt when they genuinely need to. When the platform begins to burn, then lawyers will be bright and agile enough to respond, survive, and thrive.
In all the work I do with clients of law firms, I never hear these views echoed. But if skeptics do not want to listen to clients, they should certainly listen to Jack Welch – ‘change before you have to’. Do not wait for the platform to be burning: for clients to defect to alternative providers; for new technologies to replace the routine work of lawyers; for high performing lawyers to leave for more innovative firms; or for turnover and profit to shrinking sharply. These are developments that might occur so swiftly and pervasively that recovery may not be possible. For lawyers in law firms, changing ‘before you have to’ means changing now.