I often fantasize (when I’m not at work, of course) about whether one could really predict the future. What a life I would lead if only I could pick the best investments, predict the next big technology, or warn the authorities about impending natural disasters (I throw this last item in lest I be accused of using these potential powers only for personal gain!). Unfortunately, in real life, my predictive powers are relatively amateur — I sometimes lose those court cases I expected to win, and sometimes win those court cases I expected to lose.
One man who has had better luck in predicting the future is Richard Susskind. Susskind, in addition to being a law school professor, is a special adviser to the Canadian Bar Association, and an independent adviser to law firms, governments, and judiciaries around the world. He has been writing about the future of the legal profession for the past 25 years. His most recent book is Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future.
As a junior lawyer with a keen interest in the future of lawyering, I decided to give the book a read. I expected Susskind to write about how lawyering has changed now that our smartphones make us permanently on call, or due to the gradual transition to paperless offices. I did not expect him to suggest, as he does, the legal profession will be turned on its head in the next decade. What follows is a glimpse of what he sees ahead for our profession.
Susskind identifies three drivers of change. The first, and most influential, is the “more-for-less challenge.” Clients need more legal and compliance work than ever but don’t want to pay through the nose for such work. The second is “liberalization,” the relaxation of restrictions as to who may provide legal services and from what types of businesses such services may be provided (for example, in the U.K., the branches of at least one bank have legal services affiliates). The final factor is technology, which encompasses not just IT gadgets and processes that help us do our work, but also new ways in which legal information may be shared (such as through open-source, online legal “wikis”).
According to Susskind, to be successful, lawyers must respond to the drivers of change not by pricing differently, but by working differently.
For example, one such strategy — the “efficiency strategy” — involves breaking down a task (such as a transaction or a lawsuit) into its individual sub-tasks, and then finding the cheapest way of completing each sub-task without sacrificing quality. This is nothing new; more junior (and cheaper) lawyers often do the leg work on a file while more expensive partners set the strategy and handle the thorny problems.
That said, Susskind takes efficiency to an extreme. In his view, legal work should not be done simply using the cheapest resources in the firm, but rather by the cheapest resources in the world. Thus, simpler tasks such as document review could be done at significantly less cost by service providers in jurisdictions with far less overhead. (Susskind suggests even these offshore providers will eventually be replaced by artificial intelligence. Fortunately, some flesh-and-bone lawyers would still be required to set the strategy and assign the tasks to the computers!)
Another strategy is what Susskind terms the “commoditization of law.” Just as there are electronic tools that help users create basic wills and tax returns, similar tools could be developed to create employment contracts, basic pleadings, or incorporation documents, to name but a few. In this way, clients benefit from a cheaper, packaged alternative and lawyers, by embedding their expertise into a licensed software product, can make money while they sleep.
Susskind predicts the drivers of change will also cause clients to develop their own strategies. For example, the more-for-less challenge may compel competitors to jointly retain a single lawyer or law firm in certain circumstances. For example, competing banks could get together to commission a general opinion as to how a legislative change would affect them, thereby eliminating the requirement for each bank to obtain its own opinion (though Canadian conflicts rules might get in the way of this idea).
New roles for ‘tomorrow’s lawyers’
If junior lawyers will no longer be required to conduct due diligence and document review (because the work will be sent offshore), or to take a first crack at drafting certain documents (because clients themselves will draft such documents using software tools), the question then is, what roles will be left for “tomorrow’s lawyers?” Susskind suggests changes in the marketplace will bring about interesting new jobs (with fancy names!) such as, among others, the “legal knowledge engineer” (who compiles and analyzes large amounts of legal information in order to create a commoditized electronic product), and the “legal process manager” (a project manager who breaks down tasks into sub-parts, assigns the work associated with each sub-part, and then ensures that work product is delivered on time and on budget).
Somewhat ironically, Tomorrow’s Lawyers is written for junior lawyers, those who have the least ability to effect the change described in the book. That said, the book is not without its practical lessons. For example, in light of the more-for-less challenge, I always give a second thought as to whether my work need be done by someone at my hourly rate, or whether it could be delegated to someone who is more junior (and therefore cheaper).
The book has also compelled me to look at whether developing some expertise in one or more of the potential new roles for lawyers would add value to my firm’s current practice. If nothing else, by encouraging readers to revisit the status quo and to consider new ways of giving clients the most bang for their buck, the book generates discussion. For this reason alone, I say the book is worth the read.
Trial by Fire guest columnist Brendan Clancy is a third-year associate at Heenan Blaikie LLP in Toronto where he enjoys a broad litigation practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.