Richard Susskind on the End of Lawyers
I spent the tail end of last week at ABA Techshow in Chicago. It was a good conference in many ways. But the highlight for me was the keynote address delivered Thursday by Richard Susskind, the legal technology consultant, adviser, author and Big Thinker.
His talk was based on his new book, "The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services," which followed from his 1996 book, "The Future of Law." His key point was that the delivery of legal services will see rapid and fundamental change -- not that lawyers need to make it change, but that change will come and is coming despite us. Let me try to sum up a few of his key points:
- The impact of the current economic climate is not a temporary blip. Many lawyers wrongly assume that when the market returns to normal, business will return to normal. "I fundamentally, completely disagree with that," he said. "For it seems to me that actually when the storm lifts, the terrain is going to look wildly different. … What we're seeing courtesy of this dreadful economy is an acceleration of what many of us have anticipated in legal services. And that is the introduction of all manner of efficiencies, largely due to the impact of information technology."
- Lawyers need to look for the hole in the wall. Susskind relates how power tool manufacturer Black & Decker orients new executives. They are shown a power drill and asked, "This is what we sell, isn't it?" When the new recruits answer, "Of course," they are shown a hole drilled in a wall. "No, this is what our customers want. Your job is to find ever more creative ways to give our customers what they want." Lawyers have to stop thinking about the power drill and start thinking about new ways to deliver the hole.
- Clients want more for less. They are under pressure to reduce internal headcount and to reduce their external spend on law firms. At the same time, they have more legal and compliance work than ever before and riskier work as well. Something has to give and the challenge to the legal profession is to provide more services at less cost.
- A key way we will cut costs is through collaboration. "I believe that some version of social networking will come to dominate the way professional services are delivered and will transform legal services. … Clients are going to harness the collaborative power of technology. They're going to harness the power of online community and much of the work that used to be distributed to law firms in a conventional way will be displaced by a community-based sharing of legal experience. … This will be disruptive to the legal profession beyond our imagination."
- Legal services are evolving from a highly bespoke, highly customized product toward becoming a commodity. As part of this evolution, legal work will be unbundled into its constituent tasks and many of those tasks will be standardized and systematized.
- As these tasks are broken into their component parts, they will be multisourced in the same way that the manufacture of an automobile is now. Some components will be outsourced, some will be sent offshore, some will be contracted out, some will be reassigned.
- In the evolution of technology, we are just at the knee of the upward curve of accelerated growth. "We are about to see unimaginable, explosive growth and development in the power of technology. … This is not technology blinking at the periphery of the world's radar screen. It is technology coming to the heart of our society, the heart of our lives, the heart of the way we work. And I see no reason to think the legal world should be exempt from these changes."
- Technology will disrupt and fundamentally change the ways lawyers work. Examples of these disruptive technologies that are already emerging include client-developed online communities for sharing legal knowledge, online dispute resolution, embedding of legal knowledge in business systems, and electronic legal marketplaces.
- In this economy, lawyers should ask themselves what parts of their work can they do differently. How can they work more quickly, less expensively, more efficiently or to higher quality using alternative methods and technologies?
- We don't need faster horses. If he'd asked his customers what they want, Henry Ford said, their answer would have been faster horses. Lawyers should not be looking for faster horses. "It's not about practicing law the same way only more efficiently," Susskind said. "I'm talking about something fundamentally different. I'm talking about transformation and, to use a strong word, revolution – not a revolution in the Big Bang sense, but an incremental revolution."
These are exciting times for lawyers, Susskind said, because very seldom does one get the opportunity we now have -- to be involved in bringing about fundamental change. Legal services as we now know it will not disappear from view, he said, but it will change fundamentally.
Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on April 6, 2009 at 11:59 AM | Permalink
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