Susskind for dummies and all other legal professionals

In January Richard Susskind released his new book “Tomorrow’s Lawyers”, which by some reviewers has been called “Susskind for dummies”. And yes, the first part of the book is a restatement of much of what has gone before in Richard Susskind’s earlier works, albeit updated, like the ‘more for less’ challenge around client expectations, market liberalization and technology. But the following parts contain interesting in-depth analysis and explanations how lawyers can work differently in the new liberalized landscape, which skills tomorrow’s lawyers will need, new legal professional roles and other key issues of concern for law firms today. And, not to forget, Richard Susskind is different from many other commentators in that he has a long series of accurate predictions, making it almost per se worthwhile reading his books.

The commoditization of law is one of Richard Susskind’s core ideas expressed in the book, i.e. the evolution of legal service from the common belief amongst lawyers today of the uniqueness of legal service (or “bespoke”) through different stages of standardization, systematization and packaging to commoditization. Another core idea is the focus on disruptive legal technologies that will fundamentally challenge and change the functioning of the legal sector. “It is significant that many new and emerging applications do not simply computerize and streamline pre-existing and inefficient manual processes. Rather than automate, many systems innovate, which, in my terms, means they allow us to perform tasks that were previously not possible (or even imaginable). There is a profound message here for lawyers – when thinking about IT and the Internet, the challenge is not just to automate current working practices that are not efficient. The challenge is to innovate, to practise law in ways that we could not have done in the past.”

Most of today’s legal professionals seem to look for future solutions by extrapolating from the past and on the assumption of continuity in the legal profession, whereas Richard Susskind has another view, expressed in the book: “In contrast, I foresee the discontinuity over time and the emergence of a legal industry that will be quite alien to the current legal establishment. When I was at law school, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, few students gave much thought to what the future might hold for the legal profession. We took it for granted that the work of lawyers in, say 25 years’ time, would be much as it was in our time. In contrast, in looking 25 years ahead from now, I argue that it would be absurd to expect lawyers and courts to carry on operating as they do now.”

When reading the first part of the book, one key question becomes apparent – to what extent lawyers’ work can be undertaken differently but to a higher or maintained quality, by using alternative methods or working – to meet the ‘more for less’ challenge around client expectations for faster, cheaper and more efficient legal services?

Previously alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) have been seen as the key to meet client demands, but according to Susskind AFAs seem to be failing to deliver significant savings for clients, mostly because they are derived from hourly billing thinking and because very few law firms when proposing AFAs do so with the intention of becoming less profitable. In short, AFAs are often not more than just a repackaging of the original proposition and do not change anything profound. As Richard Susskind points out, “I believe that it is now necessary to move from pricing differently to working differently”, and his two winning strategies for this is (i) the efficiency strategy and (ii) the collaboration strategy.

As regards the efficiency strategy, Richard Susskind points to the fact that in most legal businesses, significant amounts of work by young lawyers is administrative or processed based, which provides a great opportunity for change by identifying work that can be undertaken more efficiently, for example by less qualified, human beings or through computerization on the path towards commoditization, decomposing and multi-sourcing of legal work.

As regards the collaboration strategy, Richard Susskind proposes that clients can come together and share the costs of certain types of legal service, but he also agrees that this strategy is more radical and might seem implausible for many lawyers. Such collaboration has however started to take place, for example by six major banks and the law firm Allen & Overy in the creation of a joint online legal risk management tool.

The book contains two extra interesting chapters directing the shifting role of in-house counsels and the packaging of law, which we will analyze further in separate blog posts later on, before highlighting the new legal landscape and the prospects for young lawyers. Richard Susskind’s predictions for the future are not so grim as could be expected though. At least not for large and medium-sized firms, which could even prosper via mergers and changed working methods, but for smaller firms he predicts that the competition from new legal service providers, bringing cost savings, efficiencies and experience with packaged legal services will make it hard to survive in the long run. The change will probably not come as a big bang revolution however, but according to Richard Susskind as an evolution in three stages – denial, re-sourcing and disruption.

In the new legal landscape, Richard Susskind points to a need for fewer traditional lawyers, but on the other hand, that there will be new possibilities for new forms of legal service and new career opportunities, as legal knowledge engineers, legal hybrids (lawyers taking on an added discipline like strategists, management consultants, psychologists etc.), legal project managers, legal risk managers and others. The question is then if you need to qualify as a conventional lawyer for these kinds of new legal roles? Richard Susskind’s view is that “This may not be necessary but I think desirable, not simply because it will for many years yet be useful to enjoy the status of being, say, a qualified solicitor or barrister, but because exposure to and understanding of traditional legal service should provide a valuable foundation upon which to build any new career in law.” But it needs a shift in focus to proactive from reactive for lawyers to take on any of the new legal roles. As for new legal careers, Richard Susskind also predicts the return of the global accounting firm as players in the legal market. Other new legal businesses predicted are legal publishers, legal know-how providers, legal process outsourcers, online legal service providers and legal management consultants. The reason is that it most likely will be easier for new careers and occupations to be fashioned by those businesses, which can design a new legal service strategy from start, as opposed to law firms, which will often disrupt their conventional businesses to create such new jobs.

The key message in the book is “the need from pricing differently to working differently” and the major conclusion to be drawn from it is that we will see some fundamental shifts to the legal market, no doubt, but also new opportunities and the rise of new legal businesses, and new legal careers. The legal training at university will need some re-thinking and practising lawyers will need to adapt to the changes, but for those who are flexible, open-minded and entrepreneurial, Richard Susskind believes that “there has never been a more exciting time”.

Even if many lawyers do not agree with Richard Susskind’s predictions for law firms, most agree that the winds of change are blowing through the industry, and as Richard Susskind himself points out: “Even my fiercest critics will concede that in my numerous books and newspaper columns over the last 25 years I have been more right than wrong in my predictions. So, I say this: if there is a better than even chance that the radically transformed legal world I predict will come to be, then it should be worth spending a few hours contemplating its implications.”

Please find here some other articles with reviews on “Tomorrow’s Lawyers”: