Susskind on the Future of Lawyers

The Times Online is running its own Law21 column, starring Richard Susskind (OBE) and titled “The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services,” which also happens to be the title of his forthcoming book from Oxford University Press.

Susskind says of the 6 columns — “draft excerpts” from his book:

This is neither a lawyer-bashing polemic nor a gratuitous assault on the legal profession. Instead, it is a collection of predictions and observations about a generally honourable profession that is, I argue, on the brink of fundamental transformation.

Much of what he says in his first column about getting lawyers to rethink the way they work and eliminate as many inefficiencies as possible will be familiar to readers of Slaw, thanks to the perceptive comments of our far-seeing contributors. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore what Susskind has to say; the messages about the need for change cannot be repeated often enough.


  1. Ok, let me play devil’s advocate here.

    I’m not sure I see Susskind’s premise of a diminished role for lawyers as personal advisors. Commoditisation? Sure, we see that now. But the future for one-on-one relationships has never looked better in my books. If the 2.0 trend has taught us anything, in the future we will value more relationships, closer relationships, and relationships based on targeted/niche expertise. Hiding behind expert systems and removing people from the mix is very much a concept of the late ’90s.

    I also think we shouldn’t discount the “just take care of it for me” personality. Downloading & delegation is based upon the trusted advisor role. Even when relationships are digital, human nature has its effect. And not everyone is cut out for the detail work of lawyers (or librarians). Increased client knowledge (via greater access to information) doesn’t kill the need for detail oriented professional services. If anything, it helps illustrate the dire need that some people face.

    Lots of what Susskind says sounds fine – efficiency & process improvements will surely have an impact. But the idea of going beyond, and that the people aspect of the profession can be replaced by “advanced systems” & “self-help tools”? … I’m not quite seeing it yet.

  2. Steve, my reading of Susskind is actually more the opposite — I think he’s suggesting that lawyers’ personal relationships will become more important precisely because technology and the marketplace will strip away all the other procedural, transactional, automatable stuff upon which many current legal careers are based. Susskind seems to be concerned about what will happen to the lawyers of 2010 and onwards, who are poised to enter and adopt a professional model that’s fundamentally misaligned with how the rest of the world does business. Cisco’s Mark Chandler spoke to much the same point at the CBA’s Law Firm Leaders conference earlier this month in Montreal.

    Technology is a major issue for lawyers going forward. But as I’ve said elsewhere, the problem with lawyer automation isn’t with machines being able to do what humans can do; it’s with lawyers insisting on doing what machines can do. And that cuts both ways: lawyers’ primary marketplace difficulty, now and in the immediate future, is that we don’t use our human skills enough: active listening, good judgment, regular communication, and real empathy for the client. We may not think that stuff is important; clients do. Lawyers are trained from first-year law school to distance themselves from their work: “objective” analysis is championed, while students are warned against getting too emotionally involved with their clients’ plights. Well, computers are a little better at detached analysis than we are, and they have that whole transactional/procedural thing down pat.

    The more lawyers value human relationships, and the more we establish and nurture mutual trust with our clients, the less we’ll have to worry about a Susskindian future. But that’s a cultural shift of such a degree that it could require a generation to process, and we may not have that much time.