Q&A: Richard and Daniel Susskind on the future of law

Richard Susskind, one of the legal industry’s leading prognosticators, was in Toronto yesterday promoting his new book, The Future of the Professions. It prophesies a massive technological disruption in how expertise, legal and otherwise, is delivered.

Susskind’s 2008 bestseller, The End of Lawyers?, sparked furious debate within the profession by suggesting that advanced systems could replace much of the work held to be within the exclusive domain of lawyers.

This time, he and his son Daniel — himself:  a senior adviser to the British government and an economist of some renown — are taking a broader look at the professions. The co-authors sat down with Legal Feeds before the book launch to talk about what the future holds for lawyers as advanced computer systems and artificial intelligence become a reality.

Legal Feeds: Why should lawyers care about how different professions — teachers, accountants, and doctors — are using technology?

Richard: What’s happening in law is happening right across the professions, and we can actually look at other professions and learn about what’s likely to happen in law — not least because law is more conservative than other professions, so we’ve got insight that we can gain from all of them . . . because they face the same challenges and because they’re a few years ahead.

LF: Does that mean that these other professions can give lawyer a glimpse into what their future holds?

Richard: By and large, I think it’s fair to say the legal profession is at the back of the professional groups in terms of uptake. But there’s nothing inherent in the nature of legal work that means that what’s happening in other professions shouldn’t also happen in law. . . . The major accounting firms are probably a decade ahead in some of their uses of technology. And while they weren’t competitors, that might not have been an issue, but they’re now direct competitors.

LF: Will analyzing the technological evolution of these other professions give law firms the potential to avoid some of the turmoil?

Richard: I think if you’re wanting to give your readers the hope of a soft landing, I think that would be to mislead them. . . . The looming nightmare, I suppose, for traditional lawyers is that an Amazon in law comes along and does to law what Amazon did to bookselling. My gut tells me it’s unlikely to unfold in as simple a way as that because the market is far more complex . . . but we should expect that large parts of legal practice will be done very differently, and that these new techniques are unlikely to come from the mainstream traditional providers.

LF: So who are likely to lose their jobs? Secretaries? Paralegals? Associates?

Daniel: One of the unhelpful things we do when we talk about the future of work is, we tend to talk about jobs. So we talk about traditional lawyers, legal secretaries, things of that sort. Why is that unhelpful? Because it encourages us to think of the work that professionals do as monolithic indivisible lumps of stuff, whereas in actual fact when you take any professional’s job and look under the bonnet, they perform lots of different tasks, lots of different activities in their job.

LF: But certainly some of those activities can be done by a computer and some can’t, right?

Daniel: Even for the most prestigious professionals, when you break down their work into their component tasks, it transpires that many of those tasks can be done differently — either by other people using technology or by technology alone. And this task-based approach, trying to recognize that professional work isn’t a lump of stuff of a given difficulty, and instead is composed of lots of different activities and tasks is I think quite an important thing to do.

Richard: I think it’s pretty fair to say that a lot of the work of paralegals, a lot of the work of fairly junior lawyers, if you look at things like document review, that machines are now in some of the tasks they undertake outperforming them. But if because you’re a senior associate you think you’re safe, I think that would be a false level of comfort. . . . One’s career prospects we believe depends on one’s adaptability. If you think you’re going to carry on doing the work that an associate has always done, I think you’re going to be disappointed.

LF: What’s timeline for this, 10 years, 20, 30?

Richard: In the book we expressly say we are not pinning ourselves down to dates. . . . But we reckon that the ’20s is going to [be about] redeployment rather than unemployment, by which we mean, there’s a whole lot of new roles one needs to take on, a lot based on technology. Whether it be the knowledge engineer, the systems designer . . . but once one gets into the ’30s and ’40s, one can predict a more fundamental decline of the traditional professions.

Daniel: It’s not the case that people are going to wake up tomorrow and find an algorithm sitting there and your job has been replaced by a robot. What we’ll see is tasks here and tasks there — a gradual change driven by technology. A relentless change but a gradual change.

LF: Do you think the law societies will stand in the way of this change? There has to be some kind of professional regulation, doesn’t there?

Richard: Do I think, though, that the professional bodies are likely to be major obstacles to some of this change? I think, for the general population, the answer is yes. . . . But it’s not professions or free-for-all. We can have other providers in the game, but being regulated in different ways. But, again, we want a task-based approach to this. Some tasks are so crucial that they require deep expertise and they require maximum client protection. Others are fairly routine and repetitive, and we think that, although they still need to be regulated to some extent, you don’t need the same severity of regime.

LF: What do law firms need to be doing right now to prepare for the new reality?

Richard: Often what lawyers want is what I call “off-the-shelf:  competitive advantage.” They want to know what’s the answer really. But it’s really about thinking more fundamentally about issues such as market opportunity, differentiation, competitive advantage, all these notions that sound for most lawyers, I’m afraid, like management jargon — but they have very important applications. For the first time ever, law firms need to be able to engage in long- and short-term strategic planning. . . . As a firm, you need to allocate a group who think deeply about the way the market’s changing, the opportunities and threats that that throws up for you. You need to identify the markets you think you can have a sustainable offering in. You need to think about the ways you’re going to compete.

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