Internet bad news for small firms

Mon, Feb 11, 2013, 00:00

BOOK REVIEW:In his 1996 book, The Future of Law, Richard Susskind predicted that technology and the internet would make legal services cheaper and more accessible. At the time, Susskind’s views raised legal eyebrows, but indifference soon followed as lawyers clung to traditional practice methods.

Almost 20 years and three books later, Susskind admits change has been slow but insists that greater client demand and better technology have accelerated the pace. In his new book, Susskind explains how radical new legal technologies will wreak havoc on the supply-side of legal services, which could be very good news for clients.

Legal websites, virtual courts, online dispute resolution, and internet legal advice forums will be commonplace in the digital information age, and should improve access to justice while creating opportunities for a new breed of lawyer ready to adapt to the new market. This change is driven by client demand for better-value legal advice, while market liberalisation is increasing competition among lawyers. Law firms are struggling to adopt new methods, and improve service.

Challenge

To meet this “more for less”challenge, Susskind says law firms must become more efficient (eg outsourcing routine tasks). Clients are collaborating with competitors to reduce the cost of mutual legal services. Savings are also being made in big transactions and litigation by dividing them into individual tasks and outsourcing them, thus reducing legal fees.

In some areas, internet-based firms potentially deliver a faster and cheaper service than traditional law practices. Legal documents such as wills, divorces and employment contracts are now widely available online with minimal input required from lawyers. This is what Susskind calls “commoditisation”, and he argues this process will radically increase access to justice for all.

Such developments won’t replace judges, top trial lawyers, or legal experts but Susskind warns, “This will be the end of lawyers who practise in the manner of a cottage industry,” and he sees little future for small traditional law firms in a liberalised market. This is bad news for the 92 per cent of Irish law firms that employ five or fewer solicitors. Susskind suggests the golden era for lawyers is over, due to consumer pressure for greater competition with lower costs, and independent regulation.

Final analysis

As for the future for young lawyers, having painted a bleak picture for old-style practise, Susskind enthuses about a variety of new jobs such as legal risk manager, legal technologist and legal project manager.

Rather than being inferior to traditional lawyers, these experts will be more attractive to the major new players (such as management consultants and retail chains) who are poised to enter the newly liberalised market. So, law schools should revise the syllabus to reflect the new reality, and improve job prospects for graduates.

Susskind concludes that the current legal services model is obsolete, firstly because it can’t provide an affordable and accessible legal service, secondly because the internet is a superior service channel, and thirdly because there’s an unavoidable conflict of interest between lawyers wishing to preserve the status quo, and greater society, which requires affordable and efficient legal services.

This concise book is a compelling glimpse into the near-future of legal services, and provides invaluable information for tomorrow’s lawyers.


Colman Candy is a commercial lawyer and blogger. Tomorrow’s Lawyers – An Introduction to Your Future, by Richard Susskind. Oxford University Press, January 2013. ISBN 978-0-19-966806-9. Price: £9.95