The Firms

November 13, 2008 12:24 PM

Welcome to the Future: An Interview With The Futurist

Posted by Paul Lippe

Richardsusskind_2 Based in the UK, Richard Susskind is the world's pre-eminent legal futurist. His new book, The End of Lawyers? (Oxford University Press, Dec. 2008) is extraordinarily timely, as many factors are coming together to accelerate change in law.

In Part 2 of my interview, Susskind details what steps law firms should be taking right now to prepare for the future that he describes. (Part 1 is available here.)

What's the role of collaboration in the future of law?

I like to think of collaboration in terms of online communities. Social networking for lawyers. There will be communities of clients: legal departments will coalesce electronically into groups that use their collective purchasing power to secure better legal services at lower costs. Clients will even come to share the advice they receive with fellow members of their communities. Legal advice will be recycled amongst clients, whereas recycling today is confined to the re-use of materials within individual firms (aka knowledge management). Large collections of advice will build up, not simply in arid libraries but interleaved with online commentary and discussion. Client communities will also encourage law firms to come together and form their own communities, as the Banking Legal Technology Group has done in London - in 2003, nine investment banks asked five major firms to collaborate in providing a single knowledge portal for these clients. Meanwhile, individual clients will establish virtual legal functions, made up of the law firms in their panels and their own legal departments. Lawyers from different firms will work as closely alongside one another as part of these communities as they do with their own colleagues.

Many lawyers take your views as negative, is that fair?

Some lawyers find opportunity in what I say; others see threats. Interestingly, I [recently] spoke at an event in Montreal and a number of people there had heard me speak in Toronto in 2000. They felt I was now less optimistic for lawyers than in the past. I had not really thought about that but I think they are right. In 2000, I was urging lawyers to adopt some exciting technologies which would support the way they worked. Now I am saying lawyers must adapt because the technologies that are coming through are 'disruptive'. I predict that lawyers who are unwilling to change their working practices and extend their range of services will, in the coming decade, struggle to survive. Meanwhile, those who embrace new technologies and novel ways of sourcing legal work are likely to trade successfully for many years yet, even if they are not occupied with the law jobs that most law schools currently anticipate for their graduates.

If you were running a law firm, what steps would you take right now to prepare for the future you describe?

Leaders in law firms face two broad challenges: first, steering their firms through the short-term difficulties; and, second, ensuring the longer term health of their businesses. In relation to the longer term, given that fairly fundamental changes are afoot, I say that it makes sound business sense to subject each major business unit within every firm to analysis (on a 3-5 year time frame). A standard method should be used across all practices and each should report back to the leadership of the firm (after around 6 months). I would advocate two broad processes here: 1) stress-testing--evaluating how each business unit intends to respond to likely pressures (new technologies, outsourcing, credit crunch, diminishing markets etc) and; 2) future-proofing-- planning in a structured and systematic way so that foreseeable threats are covered.

What if you were running a law department?

I would do precisely the same--stress testing and future-proofing.

Anything else American lawyers should be thinking about?

Yes. Legal risk management. Again and again, this is what in-house lawyers tell me is their central concern. They insist that they are in the business of legal risk management - clients prefer to avoid legal problems than resolve them. And yet, hardly a lawyer or law firm on the planet has chosen to develop methods, tools, techniques or systems to help their clients review, identify, quantify, and control the legal risks that they face. I expect this to change. Urgent demand from the market will lead lawyers (perhaps bolstered and emboldened by external funding) to offering a wide range of proactive legal services whose focus will be on anticipating and pre-empting legal problems. This will be quite different from legal work that concentrates on addressing specific deals or disputes. In some ways more like a form of strategy consulting, this legal work will be wider ranging and more generic, helping clients prepare more responsibly for the future. Again, this is not a peripheral job for the legal fraternity. This could fundamentally change the way in which the law is practised and administered.

 You have two sons at Oxford. Are you encouraging them to be lawyers?

No. But I am not discouraging them either. They are both considerably brighter than me. I see my role in relation to their careers as one of mentor rather than evangelist. If they did decide on legal careers, though, I would stress that the life of the lawyer in the future will be quite different from that of the lawyer of today.

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I entirely agree with Mr. Susskind. Not only will his his vision save mountains of research for law assistants, but it will make it easier to and therefore less costly for the Firm. Mr. Susskind's vision of the Lawyer's future will be "Digital Dark Age" counter productive, and that is assuredly a plus. I for one was impressed with Mr.Susskind's view and intend on reading more of the writings of this lawyer.

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