Richard Susskind writes extensively on the future of the legal profession, including the technology, firms, people and structures that will inhabit it. He recently released a second edition to “Tomorrow’s Lawyers” which predicts significant changes to the legal profession in the coming decades. The first edition was published in 2013 and the second in 2017. A lot has happened in those few short years. The second edition was timely. It is a must read for anyone interested in the profession, including students, technologists, investors and current practitioners alike. Although short, it is a great overview of the evolution of the legal profession and its medium term future.
A central theory in the book is what Susskind terms the ‘decomposition’ of legal services. ‘Decomposition’ refers to the breaking down of the lawyers role into its constituent tasks – such as advocacy, client management, project management, document review, research. Susskind suggests that over the coming decades the work that a single lawyer currently performs will be split into a number of further specialised roles. Those new roles will variously be carried out by non-lawyer professionals, off-shored, outsourced and automated.
So what will be left for the future lawyer to do? Susskind approaches the question by asking what lawyers are uniquely qualified to do. As an example, he decomposes a litigator’s role into nine more specialised tasks: document review, legal research, project management, litigation support, (electronic) disclosure, strategy, tactics, negotiation and advocacy. He says that of the litigators he has asked, most respond that they are uniquely qualified to undertake only strategy, tactics, and, in the US, advocacy. That finding, albeit anecdotal, makes intuitive sense. Law schools do not train lawyers to be project managers or technologists – in any other field, these skill sets require their own degrees and a lifetime of specialised training. Document review, research and litigation support also draw upon their own practical skill sets and often don’t require years of difficult (and expensive) legal training. It is legal strategy, and written and verbal advocacy that separates the great litigators from the rest.
It is telling that so much of what lawyers currently get paid to do, even on their own assessment, could by done by non-lawyers. To date, the profession has been slow to yield these non-specialist roles to others and to devote more time to their own unique specialities. Susskind is confident this will change. This change will obviously have profound effects on the number and nature of legal roles available in the coming decades. For students, young lawyers or future law-firm leaders wanting to know what their profession might soon look like, this part of Susskind’s analysis is essential reading.
Susskind also asks, “Do we need a legal ‘Profession’?” It is a question that I find impossible not to stumble into when considering the decomposition of the profession. As our roles are divided and specialised, what remains for the traditional lawyer to do will narrow. To maintain a regulatory and cultural environment where all of the current array of tasks (including tasks such as document review, project management and data analysis) are still as heavily regulated and restricted as the current profession, seems unnecessary, cumbersome and costly. Will, or should, people who specialise in these other disciplines, be they legal technologists or legal project managers, be called ‘lawyers’? Will what remains within the ambit of the uniquely skilled lawyer still be regulated to the same extent? They are questions that lawyers, judges, legislators and their clients will need to consider over the coming years.
That final discussion raises a further question about the book’s title – “Tomorrow’s Lawyers”. For if the ambit of the word ‘lawyer’ is narrowed, many of the roles discussed in the book will not be those of lawyers at all, certainly not as we understand that term today. The book, therefore, may more aptly have been called “Tomorrow’s Legal Industry.”
Potential readers should note that the book is, as the opening line admits, “a short introduction.” Some explanations, such as why the legal market is currently in such flux, were brief, and there is little critical analysis of the new technology and business models in the legal market. However the book does not purport to be encyclopaedic and still delivers a broad sweep of the changing industry, if not all that detailed in parts.
In summary, the text is a must read for anyone interested in the future of the profession, including students, technologists, investors and current practitioners alike. Although short, it is a great overview of the evolution of the legal profession and a grounded prediction of its medium term future from an author uniquely qualified to make it.