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Legal expert predicts evolution of business practices, technology for lawyers

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

In a talk to the State Bar Board of Trustees last month, British law professor and author Richard Susskind stayed true to his reputation as a legal industry disruptor.

Richard Susskind

But the author of “The End of Lawyers?” did temper his remarks at the start by pointing out that the title of his book is in the form of question and not a statement.

“Otherwise, it’s a swift end to my career,” he said via live video feed from his study in London to the audience in the bar’s Los Angeles boardroom.

Susskind shared what he sees as the main drivers of change in the legal profession. Just as pro hockey legend Wayne Gretzky skates “to where the puck is going to be rather than where it has been,” legal regulators need to know where the profession is headed in order to do their jobs well, he said.

Recognizing that knowledge is at the heart of what lawyers do, attorneys need to find new, different and faster ways of delivering legal services, he said.

The first thing driving change in the legal profession is what Susskind calls “the more-for-less challenge.” Lawyers are under pressure to deliver more legal services at lower costs, leading to a fundamental shift in the way lawyers work.

“Clients don’t mind paying for expertise, but not for routine process work,” he said. Although lawyers have traditionally relied on bespoke services, some legal services are getting standardized, systematized, packaged and commoditized, he said.

Legal work is being broken down into pieces for efficiency. Even the largest deals and bet-the-company lawsuits can be divided into tasks, not all of which need to be performed by lawyers, he said.

The second trend is liberalization. Other countries have allowed non-lawyers to invest and own legal businesses. However, the American Bar Association has so far declined to endorse passive equity investment in law firms and the public trading of shares in law firms.

Susskind sees alternative business structures – as long as they are regulated – as a way to increase access to justice.

“I believe we should survive and thrive as lawyers because we can add value with our knowledge and expertise in a way no one else can, rather than regulating others out,” he said. By not embracing this change, the U.S. is at a competitive disadvantage, he said.

The third disrupter is technology. Susskind, who in 1996 predicted that email would be the primary method of communicating with clients, said technological advances are moving at a remarkable rate.

If computer processing power continues to increase at its current pace, by 2020 a desktop computer will have the same processing power as the human brain, he said. One day, it will be faster than all of humanity combined. In 10 to 20 years, that technology could be used in the law.

“We have to keep an open mind,” he said.

This disruptive technology is challenging for lawyers, he said, but ultimately good for consumers.

New jobs for lawyers such as legal project managers and legal risk managers will emerge.

Several of the trustees asked about the role these changes will play in public protection.

Susskind urged them to move away from the assumption that non-attorneys or the use of technology itself poses a danger to the public. The better approach is to identify the risks to consumers and regulate those.

“I’m not saying it should be a free-for-all. I believe you have a vital role in shaping the legal profession,” he told the trustees. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”