Susskind on Tomorrow’s Lawyers: ‘Surely our generation will redefine the way that law is practised’

LAS VEGAS - Legal futurist and author Richard Susskind says the new jobs for lawyers will be in the area of designing, developing and implementing systems that will transform the way legal services are ultimately delivered.

“I often say that the only career decision you need to make as a lawyer and only strategy decision you need to make if you’re in the commercial world is do you want to compete with machines or build the machines? Surely our generation will redefine the way that law is practised,” said Susskind, speaking Tuesday at the Corporate Legal Operations Institute (CLOC) in Las Vegas.

In a Q&A session with Jeffrey Franke, assistant general counsel of global legal operations at Yahoo! Inc., Susskind discussed his views on the impact of artificial intelligence, the impact of new players in the legal services industry and what law schools and firms need to do to produce lawyers who can be successful for the future.

While many are predicting that AI and other tech tools will eliminate jobs for lawyers, Susskind, author of Tomorrow’s Lawyers, An Introduction to Your Future, says the time is now to embrace technology and to find a future in the disruptive areas.

He says the legal sector is going through three stages, the first being denial, although that stage is coming to a close — most recognize that substantial change is afoot and there is no turning back.

The second stage is re-sourcing — using cheaper people to do legal work. Whether it is outsourcing, offshoring or the setting up of low-cost legal resource centres — the idea is to take cost out of legal services.

The third and current phase is the stage of disruption in which technology takes on more of the tasks historically done by intelligent human lawyers.

“On top of AI, I think a lot of the hype just now is unhelpfully overstating the short-term impact but is underestimating the long-term impact of these technologies,” he said.

When it comes to the next generation of lawyers, Susskind says law schools are training lawyers to become 20th-century lawyers, not 21st-century lawyers. The question he asks the schools is: “How often have you had a talk from a general counsel or in-house counsel from a legal department?” Too often, the answer is “never.”

“Contrast that with medicine where by third year you’re doing more clinical work than classroom work, but many law students can complete their degree with never having seen a client,” he said.

It’s time, Susskind insists, for the practising profession to be influencing and shaping the thinking of the law schools to “make sure we’re turning out 21st-century lawyers.”

Despite what many are preaching about the increasing capability of machines to do legal work, he doesn’t foresee a decade of unemployment for lawyers but rather one of “redeployment.”

“We can increasingly see — whether it be undertaking due diligence, document review litigation, drafting of documents, contract life cycle management, rudimentary legal research — that there are technology tools that if not yet quite replacing, playing at least a very strong role in taking out some of the costs,” he said.

That means in law firms and in-house legal departments it will be important to have legal technologists — those trained in both fields of law and technology — to know how to deploy the tools efficiently and effectively.

Progressive lawyers in the future will be doing legal process analysis, legal project management, legal knowledge engineering and legal systems design, he said.

When it comes to innovative law firms, Susskind said the best tend to be the ones where the leadership team is driving innovation, or two or three individuals are producing compelling evidence to embrace innovation.

“The most successful law firms are the ones who just get on with it — they stop talking about it and actually start experimenting — very much in the R&D spirit of consumer electronics and pharmaceutical industry where these businesses don’t know where their income is coming from in five years time so they engage in R&D. We’re seeing a small number of firms doing that,” he said.

However, for many firms not yet touched by a significant loss of business, it can be a tough argument to push.

“By and large, with prosperous firms, I always say it’s hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they have a business model wrong. These are often very successful individuals with a few years to run to retirement,” he said.

But until there is constant, relentless demand from the market, there won’t be widespread innovation from law firms.

“You won’t move beyond what is tokenism in law firms where innovation is fairly piecemeal. You won’t get through innovation until there is constant, relentless, informed, discerning demand from the market,” he said. “As long as there is limited competition, law firms will continue to practise as they have always done.”

While he thinks there will be some more law firm mergers/consolidation, he said they would be better served by setting up new vehicles for delivery of legal services.

“New competitors to the marketplace will be a very significant driver,” he said. “One old law firm merging with another old law firm becomes one bigger old law firm. It’s not the change that I and others would want. Rather than going for greater mass, I think we’re interested in new service delivery models and new ways of working.”

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