Dragging the legal sector into the 21st century

Lawyers must prepare to embrace technology, author Richard Susskind tells legal conference in Co Clare

Mon, May 12, 2014, 01:10

Its costs are high and opaque. While other sectors have undergone huge changes, its essential structure looks much like it did a century ago. It’s one of the most paper-intensive activities in the world, largely bypassed by the technological revolution.

These were the starting points for the lawyer and author Richard Susskind, who - in an address earlier this month to the Burren Law School in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, challenged the legal sector to dispense with some of its more anachronistic features and drag itself into the 21st century.

Not that lawyers necessarily have a choice. Susskind, who has advised governments and large professional services firms, predicted the next two decades would bring more changes to the legal profession than did the past two centuries. In trying to prepare for these changes, he believes, individuals and organisations need to ask themselves a basic question: what are lawyers for?

“Most lawyers, when they think about the future, tend to think, ‘what do we do today’ – one-to-one consultative advisory service, usually on an hourly billing basis – and ‘how can we make it a bit quicker, cheaper, better’. Not often enough are lawyers taking a step back and asking the question: what fundamental value is it that we bring to those we advise? Why is it that clients pay handsomely for our service?”

These questions are growing more acute given three major forces at work in the sector: what Susskind calls the “more for less challenge”, liberalisation and technology. Most ordinary people struggle to afford lawyers. In many advanced jurisdictions, public legal funding is falling. Even large companies, under pressure to spend less on external law firms, are cutting back. This means law firms must bring down their costs by doing their work more efficiently. And to do that, Susskind argues, they must accept a truism that lawyers have long resisted: most of the work they do is routine, repetitive and administrative.

‘Not demanding’

“As lawyers, we may know this in our heart, but we don’t reflect it in our business,” he told the law school. “As clients, we suspect it. Huge amounts of what goes on in law offices is actually very process-based. And the bigger point is this: we don’t actually need what is usually quite expensive young lawyers in quite expensive buildings in quite expensive cities doing what is essentially quite complicated paperwork. It’s not demanding of the legal mind.”

The idea that all legal work is bespoke and creative is a fiction, Susskind believes, a piece of self-deception that has sustained the current legal model. Technology has existed for decades that would allow lawyers to automatically generate letters by entering data into an on-screen form, but “if you charge by the hour, you can see why you’re disincentivised from using it”.

According to Susskind, some types of lawyers tell him none of this applies to them. Litigators, for instance, don’t see the relevance, as every case they handle is different. Susskind’s reply is to divide litigation into nine tasks, including project management, document review, strategy, tactics, negotiation, advocacy and disclosure. “The question I have been asking the best law firms around the world is, ‘which of these nine tasks are you uniquely qualified to undertake?’”

“The answer in the United Kingdom is two: strategy and tactics. In the US, it’s three, because they add advocacy. But on a list of nine, six or seven can now be provided by other legal service providers to a higher quality or a lower cost. Take document review. In large-scale litigation you might have millions of documents to review. That can now be done in India, by people called legal process outsourcers at a seventh of the price of law firms in England.

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