Thursday, February 3, 2011

More evidence the Susskind prophecy is coming true

We previously blogged about Richard Susskind's book The End of Lawyers in which he predicts that routine legal work will become commoditized and sold to clients much more cheaply than it is presently billed.  Essentially Susskind believes that the same free market forces that drive down the cost of most fungible goods and services are about to hit the legal market big time.  That's good news for clients and those lawyers who are able to adapt; bad news for most lawyers who stay wedded to the billable hour.  

For instance, Susskind predicts that innovative firms will gain market share by developing software that allows them to dispense legal advice at the push of a button (after inputting some client background information much the same way that the big accounting firms dispense computerized tax advice).  According to this column from the ABA Journal blog, at least one New York law firm is already on board:

[During a presentation by] Michael Weber, a partner at Littler Mendelson . . . to a group of New York law students participating in an innovative class on knowledge management . . . [he] described how Littler has organized its internal legal research and document information so it could provide answers to legal questions “at the touch of a finger,” thus providing fast and reliable advice to clients, but doing so in less time and therefore at lower fees. Not content with just creating an internal environment, Littler has also streamlined and automated the high-volume administrative dispute work for one very large client through technology and developed a pool of former associates who could manage basic procedures virtually. In this scenario, Littler was doing work that other firms might dismiss as “commodity,” but at profitability levels comparable to normal billable-hour work.

. . . Weber explained that Littler had to take “an R&D approach,” led by Littler's innovative Chief Knowledge Officer Scott Rechtschaffen, making a short-term investment (and therefore necessarily impacting near-term shareholder distributions) to be able to create the capacity to deliver better value at lower costs, thus also impacting short-term revenues to some extent, but creating a better platform for long-term revenues.

The future is now, baby!  And you can read more about it by clicking here.


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Aside from the practice bar following the trend of tax practitioners (which alone should give attorneys reason to pause and rethink a lot of things), the key is to note the difference between providing information to clients that can be obtained by "pressing a button," so to speak, and helping a client solve or prevent a problem, which requires focused human thinking on a situation unique to the client. For years I've been telling my students that clients pay for the latter, not the former (especially now that the former is so easy to acquire). Thus, those who study law with the "tell me what the law is" perspective (usually disclosed in comments written on about one-third to one-half of student course evaluations) are missing the boat. Those who study law with the "teach me to think" are much closer to attaining the goal of having the ability to provide thinking skills rather than mechanical repetitive information retrieval skills.

Posted by: Jim Maule | Feb 5, 2011 6:45:30 AM

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