Lawyers like to think they’re unique.
This exceptionalism can explain in part our resistance to change, and our inability to adopt best practices from other industries. Sometimes it limits our ability to recognize that our challenges are part of larger societal trends which everyone is facing.
In The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the nature of legal services, Richard Susskind explored alternative methods of providing legal services, while pointing to some of the many failings of the existing models of delivery. In Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future, he goes further, and describes the types of new jobs and new employers in the inevitably forthcoming liberalized legal markets.
His most recent book, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, he goes beyond the legal profession to discuss other fields and the impact of societal changes on them. Although it includes law, it traverses health, education, divinity, journalism, management consulting, tax and auditing, and architecture. In going beyond law he also brought in a non-lawyer as a co-author, his son, Daniel Susskind.
The book covers some of the theoretical and historical foundations for the creation of the professions, including the need for the centralization of knowledge within individual experts, who would invariably provide customized services. Society was willing to provide a premium to these professionals given the enormous amount of time, training and expertise they developed, and the fact that this was the most efficient way to process and convey the knowledge in these fields.
Technology has already changed everything.
I had an opportunity to speak to Richard and Daniel Susskind this week at a private session organized by the CBA Futures initiative. “We felt it was time to do a general, systematic, rigorous investigation of the issue [of change],” Richard Susskind told me.
The introduction of automation and innovation to the professions means that the definition of the modern professional is increasingly defined by competently using large databases, instead of knowing all of the knowledge first-hand, and communicating this information in new ways to clients. Part of this tend entails making more of this information online for free, but it also means many professionals are developing skills and expertise outside of their traditional roles and into other fields.
To help themselves become more efficient, professionals avoid reinventing the wheel wherever possible. Disaggregation of complex projects allow for delegation to other people or even technological systems, and sometimes offshoring and outsourcing to similarly qualified individuals at a lower cost.
Their roles in referrals to other professionals, or in acting as gatekeepers to this specialized information, is rapidly developing in different directions. New specialists will provide online professional services by using graphic design, system engineering and data scientists. Clients are already using this online content for selection of services, but also for self-help and collaboration.
The growth of information technology around professional content will only increase exponentially, with machines, devices, and people all expanding their capability, pervasiveness, and connectivity with each other.
Beyond the traditional model of professional services, we will see more of the following:
- networked experts: practical expertise by humans who convene as virtual teams
- para professionals: similar to traditional model through consultation, but not by a specialist
- knowledge engineering: systems which make practical expertise available online
- communities of expertise: collaboratively sourced bodies of practical expertise
- embedded knowledge: practical experience distilled into an entity or host and applied automatically
- machine generated: the practice experience actually originates from the machines itself
The authors explain why many professionals resist greater transparency and automation based on what the market actually could be paying for the same services. They apply Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, The moral character of a professional service can be degraded by removing their intrinsic professional worth. Completely commoditizing professional services on a market basis can also accentuate inequalities by allowing those with greater purchasing power to acquire superior services.
Market limits are only likely to arise in law if the alternative to existing models is qualitatively lower. Those with more resources will continue to acquire professional services, and those without will be the ones to explore emerging alternatives. An argument often made about access to justice initiatives with technology is that it might actually make things worse.
Consider a recent news story of a 23-year-old student who created his own braces for less than $60, using his own computer and a 3D printer. The braces appear to have worked so far, and the student wouldn’t have been able to afford the traditional professional services. Detractors emphasize the importance of seeking professional orthodontic help, and suggest the student may not have perfected the process. The concern is raised that amateur do-it-yourself work may result in greater costs later when traditional professional services are employed to rectify the situation.
If the 3D printed braces spread among the public, there could be widespread adoption. For many people this might be successful. For may others, under the current process, they would incur far more pain and money from fixing the mistakes from the self-remedy.
But if this process is analyzed, modified, and improved, possibly even by the existing orthodontic professionals, it could be packages and commoditized on the market in a safer and more effective manner. The lack of personal touch, or expression of empathy, which automation and technology cannot easily replace, can usually be met by the paraprofessional, or sometimes even a machine.
“The AI fallacy is the mistaken assumption that the only way to get a machine to perform a task to a level of a human expert or higher is to understand and replicate how a human being performs that task,” said Daniel Susskind.
“What we’re seeing now are lots of systems and machines that perform tasks which require creativity, judgement and empathy when provided by a human being, but don’t necessarily need to rely on those faculties to solve the problem themselves.”
He describes a second wave of new systems are outperforming human beings at performing tasks, but doing it in very different ways.
This is the same kind of future that lawyers, all of us, will inevitably face as well.
“Professions often act very defensively, and say we are under threat,” said Richard Susskind. “Actually, from the recipient’s point of view it’s a very positive message… here’s a way of improving the outcomes.”
The changes we’re seeing may even present better job opportunities for the professionals of the future. The much maligned millennials may relish and in fact enjoy the ability to work as contractors, working remotely, and often from home. The collaboration of the authors here, father and son, across generations, helped develop some of these insights.
Because this book specifically foresees the growth of professionals who transcend traditional professional boundaries, it is still a good read for a lawyer concerned about the future. The authors don’t purport to have the answers to the questions of our future careers, but can identify some compelling trends.
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.
This book goes beyond Richard Susskind’s previous books to touch on broader societal trends, and may assist in identifying future areas of opportunity between law and other professions. For those in our profession who are trying to identify where we are going, they may get some assistance from looking at where other professions have already gone.
“Although the professions look quite different at a distance, actually they face a common set of challenges,” said Daniel Susskind.
“No-one has enough specialized knowledge to go through the daily challenges of life, so we turn to doctors, lawyers, teachers, and accountants, because they have what we call the practical expertise… to solve these problems that they can’t solve themselves.”
The future of the professions is that we’re not necessarily going to be problem solvers. We will give others the tools to help them solve problems themselves.