Well-known legal commentator Richard Susskind again predicts the end of law practice. I respectfully disagree. 

The TimesOnline is publishing extracts of Susskind’s forthcoming book. The kick-off article, Will lawyers exist in 100 years? (10/22/07), links to landing page The End of Lawyers, which in turns links to book excerpts – the first is Legal profession is on the brink of fundamental change) – and comments from two well-known managing partners. The article aptly summarizes Susskind’s key point:

“The driving force towards the end of lawyers as we know them is twofold: information technology and what Susskind calls the market pull towards commoditisation – carving up a lawyer’s job into identifiable and discreet pieces that can be outsourced and done more cheaply by others. As a result, the jobs of many traditional lawyers will be substantially eroded and often eliminated.”

After two decades in the legal market working for and with large law firms and with extensive experience in legal technology, online systems, and legal outsourcing, I do not share this view:

  • Information Technology. Robust infrastructure and a myriad of applications do make lawyers more productive and efficient (at least those who have taken the time to learn). It’s not, however, revolutionary and developments to date have not endangered lawyers. As for sophisticated interactive advisory or document drafting systems, no one has yet developed an effective economic model to support more than niche use, at least not in the business-to-business market. I am among the handful who tried creating this market: I left a large law firm in 1998 to join expert systems platform developer Jnana. I wrote several articles articulating the business case for interactive advisory legal systems. I also track this market via my online legal systems blog posts and my list of online legal services. The list is a bit dated but that’s because not that much visible has happened since my last update.
  • Legal Outsourcing and Offshoring. Joy London and I have documented the growth in “legal process outsourcers” (LPO) in our list of legal outsourcing and our November 2006 LLRX article, Developments in Legal Outsourcing and Offshoring. Personally, I voted with my feet this year and now work for Integreon, a company that provides legal and knowledge outsourced services. The legal market is adopting outsourcing and offshoring. For example, substantive tasks such as contract drafting / management, due diligence, business development research, and document review in litigation are easily moved offshore; similarly, administrative tasks such as word processing and finance & accounting support are easily outsourced. This outsourcing, however, substitutes neither for high-end lawyering nor for the “hand-holding” that many clients need and want.
  • Where is the Empirical Evidence? Many, Susskind and myself included, have previously predicted all types of changes in the legal market. Yet the market is not so different now than 20 years ago. Large law firms serving the business market continue to grow in size and profitability. In the US, many ethical barriers continue to make providing alternate services to consumers difficult or impossible. In the UK, simple assertions that UK legal reforms will transform the market do not suffice. Where is the empirical evidence? What percent of High Street (Main Street) legal services can realistically be automated or outsourced? Of that slice, how many consumers will choose self-service over traditional hand-holding? And will there be new matters that keep High Street lawyers busy, taking the place of whatever may in the future be commoditized, outsourced, or handled by technology? Are there any data to support predictions of demise? The ultimate indicator will be a drop in the number of lawyers per capita.

One of the related commentaries is by former Clifford Chance managing partner Tony Williams. His Ten trends that will shape the legal market offers what I consider a more balanced and realistic view of the future.