Susskind: Law firms can either embrace the future or wither and die
We interviewed the celebrated law futurologist Richard Susskind about the future of the practice of law. He’s known for being a provocative iconoclast, and he did not disappoint.
You said that it is vital that lawyers learn to work along new technologies and artificial intelligence. Why?
I think it is very important not because technology is important by itself, but because clients require lawyers to work differently. They are saying they want to pay lawyers less and yet they want more services. I believe the only way we can meet clients’ needs is by using technology and becoming more efficient and more productive.
Do younger generations of lawyers have a specific role in the “digital transformation” of the legal services?
That is the great excitement. Young lawyers can actually help reinvent the way lawyers work. They can change the way our courts function and can contribute to a fundamental change in society.
And law schools? Should they play a role?
Law schools have got to play a central role. I worry about law schools because many law schools have not changed much since I was at university in the 1980s. What they teach and how they teach has to change. We have to make sure we are generating 21st century, and not 20th century, graduates.
What can they do in practical terms?
They should not only simply practice law, but for example, but they should be involved in the development of systems that will solve clients’ problems. The future of legal services is a blend of people and systems. I believe lawyers should be involved in the development of these systems and I believe law schools should begin to give them training in a kind of development process.
And law firms?
Well, law firms can either embrace the future or wither and die. It will not happen in the short term but in 20-30 years. Unless they decide to invest in technology and change to meet clients’ needs they will find hard to compete, because there are new players in the marketplace (as well as the big accounting firms, startup legal businesses). Law firms, like so many other businesses, need to adapt.
What is innovation in law? What does it mean for a lawyer to innovate?
There are different forms of innovation. A lot of what people call innovation today is just process improvement. I want to go far beyond of that and transforming the way legal services are delivered.
How is it possible to change lawyers’ minds?
I believe the lawyers are convinced by evidence, and not by arguments. So, it is not a question of writing clever papers or giving good speeches. But it is a question of developing systems that can demonstrate the power of the technology and that clients want. This is the only way to convince a senior lawyer: by showing him/her how these systems work and that clients want them.
How can machines replace human lawyers?
It is true that lawyers use empathy and creativity in solving problems but that is not what clients want. Clients want outcomes and if these outcomes can be delivered more cheaply more conveniently, more quickly than the old ways, clients will prefer this to the traditional empathy and creativity of lawyers. It’s a mistake to think that clients want lawyers. Clients don’t want lawyers.
In your opinion are there areas of law that in particular can benefit from the use of technology?
I do not think there is any area that stands out. One could imagine that machines will take on quite easily just what some people call “high volume, low value, routine work.” But I think it is wrong for people to think the more complex, higher value work will not be changed, because if you bring down more complex or value work, you will find that there are big chunks of that work that can also be routinized.
Are there any tasks that computers won’t be able to do?
There are many tasks that computers won’t be able to do in the future. The question is: Are these relevant for legal practice? I don’t think a computer for many years will enjoy a good piece of music or appreciate a painting. But I am not sure that a static capacity is relevant for law. I believe over time machines will take on more and more of the work of lawyers. I mean over the next 30 or 40 years. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion there will be far less need for human lawyers in the future.