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Legal Commentary: Adam Smith, Esq.
Richard Susskind's "The End of Lawyers?"
If you don't know Richard (disclosure: I do, and consider him a friend), it's high time. From the dust jacket:
"Richard Susskind is Honorary Professor of Law at Gresham College, London, IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice, and an independent consultant to professional firms and national governments. He is Chair of the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information, a law columnist at The Times, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the British Computer Society. He studied law at Glasgow University and has a doctorate in law and computers from Balliol College, Oxford. His views on the future of the legal profession have influenced a generation of lawyers around the world. He has written several books, including Expert Systems in Law (OUP, 1987), The Future of Law (OUP, 1996), and Transforming the Law (OUP, 2000), and has been invited to speak in over 40 countries.
He was awarded an OBE in the Millennium New Year's Honours List for services to IT in the Law and to the Administration of Justice."
Parts of the book were serialized last fall in The Times (UK), and by benefit of that Richard was able to pen a self-deprecating Preface to the print edition of his work, starting, "I already know what many people think of this book...." and going on to note that he found "the feedback posted at Times Online to be quite polarized--there were the skeptics (mainly lawyers) who did not seem to think they should read what I had to say before rejecting it; and there were the enthusiasts, often every bit as biased, who were immediately fond of anyone they thought might be taking a pot-shot at lawyers."
Were I a lazy reviewer, I would stop right here. Richard has indeed summarized the polarized reactions this book is likely to induce. But since you, and Richard, deserve a bit more, as the famous pop phrase has it, "But what do you really think?"
Actually, I'm an unfair--or at least unrepresentative--person to ask. For those of us who toil daily in the trenches of analyzing the economics of the legal ecosystem, and who try diligently to stay attuned to threats and opportunities surrounding that ecosystem, much of what Richard writes about has been on our radar for awhile--ranging from the wantonly speculative and hypothetical to the clear and present. Add to that that I find polarized debates singularly uninteresting--I live for the nuance and the grey areas.
So I'm probably a poor person to ask.
That said, The End of Lawyers? is a fascinating and timely book: Probably more timely, indeed, than Richard had any hope or clue when he commenced work on it.
We are, to state the obvious, in the midst of once-in-a-career challenges to the our familiar business models, where yesterday's conventional wisdom may not suffice for tomorrow.
This is where I believe The End of Lawyers? has its greatest virtue: It challenges many things you've assumed. This is a propitious time to invite your brain down that lane for a thought experiment writ large.
Here are a few examples.
The book opens with "four thoughts:"
- Sitting in the "dark wood panelled main hall of the Mercers' Company, in Ironmongers Lane in London, founded in 1394, [...] I thought about other ancient trades and craftsmen, now remembered in London largely because of the livery companies that bear their names--for example, tallow chandlers, cordwainers, and wheelwrights." The reflection was "whether lawyers might fade from society as other craftsmen have done over the centuries." (italics original).
- Second, Richard wondered why many lawyers seem to deny that they're lawyers--that is, to "downplay the legal content of their jobs." His hypothesis is that they do so because they recognize the need to change and diversify in response to shifts in the market. "Lawyers in denial" (my phrase) may be because they realize they need to widen their range of skills to remain relevant.
- Thought #3, the one "that urged me to write this book," came upon reflection when asked to talk to friends' teenage children about pursuing a career in law. He realized he couldn't predict the profession's future: "When honest lawyers are really pushed, most confess to being clueless about how their profession is likely to unfold in the long run."
- And finally: In the fall of 2006 Susskind attended a seminar on the implications of the Legal Services Act, where (evidently for the first time, at least in polite company) he heard a discussion of legal services "as though they were subject to the normal laws of the marketplace and not some kind of special case, sacred cow, or no-go zone."
Here is how Susskind himself summarizes the thesis of the book:
If I may give away the ending, [I] will point to a future in which conventional legal advisers will be much less prominent in society than today and, in some walks of life, will have no visibility at all. This, I believe, is where we will be taken by two forces: by a market pull towards commoditisation and by pervasive development and uptake of information technology. Commoditisation and IT will shape and characterise 21st century legal service.
To support this thesis, he discusses the "path to commoditization," including "decomposing and multi-sourcing," where he envisions sources of legal services evolving along a trajectory such as this:
Don't be put off by the seeming jargon: Susskind nicely describes each of these alternatives and their costs, advantages, and benefits.
Above all, the theme is how technology will change our profession. Although Susskind purports to be an agnostic on "whether the future for lawyers could be prosperous or disastrous," and says that "the arguments and findings of this book can support either end game," it's clear where his heart lies:
"I predict that lawyers who are unwilling to change their working prcatices 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."
As much as I admire Susskind's call to arms--and his thorough and accessible canvassing of the new technologies available not just to your teenagers but to you--he can occasionally launch fusillades which you may view as more incendiary than illuminating. For example?
I do not believe lawyers are self-evidently entitled to profit from the law. As I have said before, the law is not there to provide a livelihood for lawyers any more than ill-health exists to offer a living for doctors. Successful legal business may be a bi-product of law in society, but it is not the purpose of law. And, just as numerous other industries and sectors are having to adapt to broader change, so too should lawyers.
Economists, and MBA's, and yours truly, might have different views on whether profesionals are entitled to profit from their services, but that is far afield from the concerns of The End of Lawyers? Susskind is one of the small handful of genuine thought leaders writing about our profession and our industry (not self-promotingly noisy, spurious, shallow, mercenary, or craven). Agree or disagree with Richard, you need to know what's on his mind.
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