Tomorrow’s legal world, as predicted and described here, bears little resemblance to that of the past. Legal institutions and lawyers are at a crossroads…and are poised to change more radically over the next two decades than they have over the last two centuries. If you are a young lawyer, this revolution will happen on your watch. [p xiii]
So begins Richard Susskind in his latest thoughts about the future of the legal profession. While aimed at young lawyers and law students, the book is relevant also for legal educators and lawyers themselves as a call to rethink the nature of what we do.
Susskind’s argument, already commenced in his earlier works, including The Future of Law and The End of Lawyers?, is that the profession faces significant disruption that will result in shifts in the nature and mode of legal work. In this book he focuses more specifically on the prospects for young lawyers.
The disruptive forces he describes are the ‘more-for-less’ challenge; liberalisation of professional regulation; and IT. To survive, law firms will need to charge less, engage in alternative fee arrangements, outsource, ‘multisource’ and break legal matters down into tasks (decompose) for distribution amongst specialists. The lawyer becomes a project manager, overseeing a flexible and nimble decentralised team of multi-skilled operators. This gives a hint as to the difference in the skillset Susskind foresees as central to tomorrow’s lawyer.
The book is primarily concerned with commercial practice but it does raise important questions about access to justice, including an entire chapter on this issue. Indeed Susskind suggests that technology, the changing role of lawyers, and the court process itself will all provide a range of ways in which the citizen can be empowered to manage their own legal problems. Susskind’s divergent thinking is revealed as he expands our conceptualisation of access to justice, to ‘embrace improvements not just to dispute resolution but also to…dispute containment, dispute avoidance and legal health promotion’. [p 85]
Thus he foresees the use of technology to support citizen education about the law; systems to manage legal risk through embedding legal rules into systems and procedures; and building communities of legal experience. The latter is reminiscent of online message boards concerning IT problems wherein the answers are crowd-sourced.
These are all excellent ways to think about the citizen and the law and I could imagine that community legal centres and government departments might use such strategies, if they are not already. I do wonder however about how many people might deal with unmediated information, and the extent to which the success of such systems relies on a particular type of literacy. Perhaps such systems will serve those in ‘the middle’ who cannot afford a lawyer but have the personal skills to help themselves. In terms of access to justice, we still need to be mindful of those who fall through the system.
In reading the book it struck me that the lawyer of the future is poorly served by the existing model of Australian legal education – even the most progressive law degree is unlikely to impart the variety of skills needed by Susskind’s lawyer. In chapter 11, he describes the different kinds of lawyering jobs of the future. He finds room still for the bespoke adviser, and this means that there is still life in today’s law degree. However the majority of jobs, he claims, will lie in legal project management, knowledge manipulation, legal technologies and online dispute resolution — amongst others. The jobs he cites will all require interdisciplinary study although Susskind maintains that ‘exposure to and understanding of traditional legal service should provide a valuable foundation upon which to build any new career in law.’ [p 119]
This is perhaps akin to the reason I still show my property law students a vellum certificate of title even though electronic titling has existed in Queensland now for two decades…
The book is simple to read yet contains ideas that probably seem revolutionary. To the traditionalist, they may even seem inconceivable. Either way it should form an essential part of the toolkit of the young lawyer or lawyer to be in considering how they will contribute to the evolution of the profession. Likewise, all legal academics should be across these ideas and use them to reflect on the nature of legal education and how it serves the profession and the public.
“Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An introduction to your future” by Richard Susskind, Oxford University Press, 2013; 180 pages; $18.95 (paperback)