How process and technology are revolutionizing law: A conversation with author Richard Susskind

"It’s hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they've got their business models wrong!"

The legal profession once enjoyed large profit margins and solid year on year growth. But the global economic slowdown that began in 2008 has not been particularly kind to the profession. Clients have become more price sensitive, competition has increased, and information technology has dramatically transformed just about every industry on earth.

All this leaves the legal profession ripe for transformation. In this interview, Richard Susskind, author of Tomorrow's Lawyers and President of the Society for Computers and Law, says that it’s time for law firms to seriously examine how they do business and how they can harness technology to fundamentally transform the delivery of their services.

PEX Network: How have you seen the use of technology change and evolve over your time in the profession?

Richard Susskind: I think it's generally true to say that the legal world has been a late adopter of many technologies. The main use of technology over the last 30 years in law has been in the back office, such as word processing, accounting systems, and e-mails.

They've been transformational, to the extent that they’ve hugely streamlined the work to which they're devoted. But they actually haven't changed the way the lawyers themselves deliver their services. That is still, pretty much, the Dickensian model: the one-to-one, consultative, advisory model.

We're going to see, over the next decade, the impact of technology extending not so much into the back office and operations, but actually to the very delivery of legal services. For instance, in the past, if you wanted a document drafted you would have gone to a lawyer. Now there's the possibility of online, question and answer systems that will generate a fairly polished, first draft of that document.

There are innumerable other examples. The way that lawyers review documents and solve problems and offer advice is changing. The way human beings interact with the justice system through online dispute resolution, rather than visiting court, will be characteristic of the next decade.

PEX Network: Why do you think the legal profession has been slow in adopting some of these technologies and do you think we’re at a tipping point now?

Richard Susskind: The why question is very interesting. I often say that it’s hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they've got their business model wrong! The truth is, many legal businesses, small and large, enjoyed year-on-year increases in profitability and turnover up for about 20 years until 2008 so it really wasn't obvious that the business model was broken and needed to change. They were on a roll and clients seemed very happy as well.

It's only now because of economic conditions and the lack of affordability for consumers and some small businesses right through to major organisations, that people are thinking, "this needs to be done differently".

In turn, that's requiring lawyers to think, not just how do we price our work differently, but how do we actually undertake the work differently?

I think a good, buoyant market has discouraged fundamental change and the conservativism that one finds in many professions - particularly in law – has resulted in a limited appetite for change.

PEX Network: But you think that's changed because of the economy?

Richard Susskind: Yes. Three things are making the change: economy, technology and new competition.

Firstly, clients don't want to pay as much as they used to. Secondly, there are new players in the market who are saying, we can do that work at low cost. Thirdly, technology is changing all corners of our economy and society and there's absolutely no reason to think it won't change law too.

But I'm not a great believer in a "tipping point" in the new legal marketplace. I’d call it "incremental transformation". I don't think we'll suddenly be lights out in one room and lights on in another. I think it'll be far more like the standard, innovation curve, where you've got the pioneers, the early adopters and then a whole bunch of people coming along later.

But it won't come in one lump; I see the transition over a period of a decade. A lot of people say to me, you're absolutely right, Richard, it's all going to happen in two years. That's just not how the world unfolds. Bill Gates says of technology that less happens in two years than you expect and more happens in ten. I think that will be the same for law.

PEX Network: So where do you see the greatest opportunities then, to the application of technology in the legal profession? What kind of technologies are you thinking of?

Richard Susskind: A lot of what lawyers do and much of what is done in legal businesses, is quite routine, repetitive, process-based and administrative. Examples include document review in litigation, due diligence work, routine contract generation, drafting, and rudimentary research. These are the areas that are more susceptible to change and they're changing in two different ways.

In the short to medium-term, they are changing by different approaches to human resourcing. So you might send the work out to India or you might send it over to Northern Ireland. You essentially provide bright, but not expert individuals, with good process and good technology and they're undertaking this more routine, repetitive work. The advantage is that labour and property costs are lower. We'll see this approach right across the profession.

Secondly, for the world class advocates, the deep specialists or experts, it's hard to imagine how one wraps process and technology around those roles. You can’t just give them to a junior individual. So one looks here, as well as in so many other sectors, you look for the routine and repetitive parts of their work.

PEX Network: Is this where process automation comes in? You’ve also talked about the distinction between process automation and innovation – what do you see as the difference?

Richard Susskind: I used to use the distinction a lot when I was speaking in the early 90s. I stopped using it for a while, because interestingly, most people were interested in automation. People were saying, we can see great applications of technology, because actually we're quite inefficient as a document intensive, information intensive organisation. How can we automate it?

So I stopped talking about that distinction, but I started using it again very recently, because we're now seeing a move away from just automating the conventional way of working towards trying to work differently. So, automation is where you take a pre-existing, inefficient, often manual process and you use technology, not to change it, but to speed it up, make it cheaper, more convenient.

PEX Network: You're doing the same thing, just faster.

Richard Susskind: Yes. There's no fundamental change with automation. Innovation is a hugely overused word, but in my view the idea here is to use technology to allow you to do things that previously weren't possible.

That's really exciting, because many people within the community, they're already working efficiently. The real challenge creatively, as well as technologically, is to think of new ways of undertaking our work and our tasks.

PEX Network: Are there examples out there that you've seen in the legal profession of actual technological innovation?

Richard Susskind: I see online dispute resolution as an example of that. If you and I were in dispute over something, rather than going through the court system, we could actually go online go through a process of e-mediation or e-negotiation. That's not taking a court and bringing the files to the judges a bit quicker or improving the listing or diarising for the courts. This is actually saying - we don't need, physically, to congregate together to sort out our problems.

Another example is automatic document assembly, where historically, human beings sit down and draft a document. Your answers to various questions that the system guides you through will cause a paragraph or a sentence or a word to be inserted, and the document is generated on that basis.

These technologies are innovative. They allow us to do things that previously weren't possible, so you can generate a massive document in ten minutes, where it used to take ten hours.

PEX Network: Now, I know you don't like the word futurist and you don't like the notion that there's ‘one’ future as you see many possible futures. But what are your predictions for how technology will be used in the legal profession ten years in the future?

Richard Susskind: There are several pieces to the jigsaw. It's absolutely clear to me that technology is becoming smarter. We're using handhelds more. Robotics – in ways we can't yet imagine - are going to be a bigger part of our lives. There's social media, similarly. I prefer to think at that level.

I love the quotation of Alan Kay, where he says, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. So, in a sense, I'm not answering your question here, but what I do in my talks and writing is say - here are the building blocks, it's up to you now to go and invent that future.

My approach to the future is to say, here's a whole bunch of possible futures. None of them are preordained. It's up to you to create that future. But the most general predictions I'm making, just now in the legal world, is that at a number of levels, in structural terms, the current, conventional law firm as a partnership 2025 will be a piece of history. We will have new business structures and they won't even largely owned by lawyers. I think we're going to see a lot of retail lawyering in the high street, particularly for consumers and small businesses, which will be underpinned by far better process and technology.

I think, fundamentally, we're going to see, potentially, the disintermediation of a lot of lawyers and a lot of work that they do. A lot of what lawyers do is about information processing, in ways that we think now are uniquely human. Within a decade much of this information processing will actually be the kind of things passed either to less qualified people or to technologies.

I'm not saying that lawyers are going to die out, because I think there's a whole bunch of new jobs. What I am saying is that I think conventional legal service - one-to-one, face-to-face, consultative advisory services on an hourly billing basis - will be replaced by a one-to-many, tele-presence enabled, information service on a fixed fee basis.