Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why Are We Afraid of the Future of Law?

Below is my most recent column in the National Jurist [PDF version].  Although 100% targeted at law students, I think lawyers and law professors might find this topic interesting. [Bill Henderson]

200px-SusskindhighresRichard Susskind is a famous British lawyer and technology consultant who travels the world giving speeches on how the legal industry is on the brink of a fundamental transformation.  Because his topic is change, Susskind’s ideas are quite controversial among lawyers.  But as a futurist, he has a pretty good track record. 

Back in 1996, in his book The Future of Law, Susskind predicted that e-mail would someday become the dominant method for lawyers and clients communicate with each other.  Because the Web was still a novelty limited to universities and computer aficionados, Susskind’s comments were viewed as reckless and unprofessional—lawyers would never rely on such an insecure method to communicate with clients.  Yet, 16 years later, lawyers are daily lives are comprised of an endless stream of emails coming over their desktops, laptops and smart phones. 

In June of this year, I attended the LawTech Camp in London, which is an event that attracted a wide array of entrepreneurs and lawyers who are figuring out ways to use technology to improve the delivery of legal services and products.  There were three major themes that underlie many of these innovations. 

One is ability of machine algorithms to replace people, particularly when it comes to finding information.  For nearly all of the 20th century, a substantial part of lawyer’s job was to know where to find the answer to the client’s legal problem.  A Google search can now find many answers faster than traditional legal research methods.  And company’s like Legal Zoom, which are well capitalized by nonlawyers, are selling do-it-yourself solutions for wills, trademarks, forming a corporation, or other legal needs. 

A second theme of the conference was the emergence of a global supply chain in which price sensitive, labor intensive work is increasingly flowing to destinations like India.  There is now sufficient technology infrastructure in place to make the integration and training of Indian lawyers a highly cost-effective decision for many international businesses.  This means that to garner a good living, U.S. and U.K. lawyers need a substantial competitive advantage over Indian-trained lawyers.  Deep expertise in the most complex areas of law is one strategy, but the technologists are constantly trying to find ways to standardize and systemize the expensive work that lawyers would prefer to do by the hour.

A third theme of the conference was the value and importance of developing a deep, trusting relationship with your client.  This part has more to do with our humanity than our technology.  It means investing our own time to understand our clients’ business and doing a better job seeing the world through their eyes.  This gives us the best opportunity to use our legal expertise to solve their legal problem in a way that makes us indispensable.  Thus, as our client grows, we have the opportunity to grow with them.

Fittingly, the keynote speaker for the LawTech Camp was Richard Susskind.  Many of the innovations and trends being discussed throughout the day were identified by Richard Susskind in his 2008 book, The End of Lawyers?  Richard had earned the right to be taken more seriously than various other commentators on the legal industry.

For the last two decades, Susskind’s work has required him to stand in front of skeptical, disbelieving, recalcitrant audiences and telling them things they don’t what to hear—some variant of “we need to change and adapt to survive.”  Over the years, I have heard Susskind speak several times, and I can vouch for the attitudes he inevitably encounters.

Yet, I was quite dismayed when I heard Richard say, “I talk to many audiences, nearly all of them skeptical and conservative.  And consistently, the most conservative audiences are law students.”  That’s right, law partners, in-house lawyers, associates, law professors, and bar association officials, as disbelieving as they might be, are all more prepared to hear Susskind’s message.

This raises a critically important question – why?  Susskind suggests that many young people entered law school with an image of their future careers based on idealism and pop culture.  If their careers are going to dramatically different than these preconceptions, surely their professors would have told them.  (New flash: few law professors track the changing structure and economics of the legal profession; they tend to be specialists in narrow areas of substantive law.)  So law students are the least emotionally braced for a different future—one a lot more challenging and uncertain than they imaged.

As a law professor who routinely presents evidence of a changing legal marketplace, including Susskind’s work, to 1L students, I can personally attest to the student blowback.  The students find this information “depressing”—at least initially.  Yet, my students tend to differ from older audiences in how quickly they reconcile themselves to this new fact-based reality.  Although their idealized version of the legal profession is tarnished, they also see the opportunities to create something that is new and important that resonates with their values. 

As my experience at the LawTech Camp makes clear, there is tremendous creative ferment taking hold in many corners of the legal profession, albeit the safe and established legal brands are not leading the way.  So that is our dilemma—in the year 2012, there is no conservative path that will take most law students to where they want to go. Every option has risk. 

My advice?  Invest time understanding the intersection between law and technology. Read Susskind’s books.  Subscribe (via email or RSS feeds) to the many publications in the network, including the Law Technology News, and the ABA Daily Journal (most content is free).  Some terrific blog include Law21, Strategic Legal Technology, 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, or The Legal Whiteboard (my own blog).  Identify some of the new, innovative companies and ask for informational interviews—don’t be shy.  These companies will be flattered.  And remember the advice followed by countless successful people: “luck is when opportunity meets preparation.”

Current events, Innovations in legal education, Law Firms, Structural change | Permalink


Great article. I, too, am a fan of Susskind. As a futurist whose focus is on the legal profession, his insights are as practical as they are educational. Yet it doesn't take an expert in the law, or even a lawyer, to recognize the inherent challenges facing the profession. Fundamentally the changes taking place are driven not by innovative lawyers, but by paying clients who have seen progress -- in technology, in communication, in service posture, in budget predictability -- in every other sector and are simply fed up with a segment of key suppliers who have failed to keep up with the times. So the startling insights that some of us in the pundit class offer to the legal profession are fairly routine business practices elsewhere. I have no doubt current and future law students will continue to enjoy and thrive in this profession, even as they incorporate tools and techniques in their practices that, while foreign to many existing leaders, are comfortably familiar to them.

Posted by: Timothy B. Corcoran | Sep 6, 2012 3:11:20 PM

Yes indeed. It's why we ran the Topics in Digital Law Practice MOOC and where students and faculty can find the videos to use in their courses right now.

Posted by: John Mayer | Sep 8, 2012 8:52:04 AM

I am not surprised at Mr. Susskind's comments. As a current law student, I have witnessed first hand how my fellow colleagues in law school are very slow to embrace innovations in the practice of law, particularly technology. As future lawyer who is interested in such innovations, I found it important to participate in programs like Law Without Walls and 21st Century law practice which give students exposure and insight into innovative ways to practice law. I also had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Susskind speak at the TechLaw Camp in London and am grateful for such programs and his participation in them. An added upside to these types programs was the collaboration and camaraderie I experienced with fellow like-minded students of the law. I would encourage the perhaps small group of law students who are interested participating in the transformation happening within the legal profession to seek out such programs, as I have no doubt that as disruption in the legal profession takes place there will be many law students who wish they had payed attention.

Posted by: Lynnett Brooks | Sep 22, 2012 2:09:08 PM

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