The End of Ferries?

May 19, 2009

I commenced reading The End of Lawyers? on a Sea France cross channel ferry travelling from Calais to Dover – of which more later. It is in some ways hard to take a fresh approach to Richard Susskind’s subject matter because it is, as he himself acknowledges, a part of a journey rather than a sudden epiphany and like many of us I have shared in parts of that journey in the form of reading previous publications or attending Richard’s talks. However I enjoyed this book and the way that it pulls together all of his ideas in the latest instalment and does so in what I see as a real challenge to all practising lawyers.

The central theme of the work is that the exponential march of technology will have a material impact not just on the retail industry or businesses such as travel agents (where the web and ecommerce is having an obvious and increasing impact) but also on the way in which professionals such as lawyers operate. This is sometimes termed disintermediation or ‘removing the middle men from the process’. There is historical precedent for this in the ancient livery companies in the City of London. Richard suggests that the challenge for lawyers is to understand and adjust to this inevitable change. If we cannot do so then our days may be numbered. I tried out some of Richard’s ideas on fellow lawyers and met as he has done with scepticism over the degree to which we as a profession may be at risk if we do not adjust.

We tend to see ourselves as indispensable trusted advisers. However our clients do not necessarily see us in this way and law firms are under pressure to provide legal services more efficiently and cheaper. Richard uses a model to illustrate how professional services may evolve from Bespoke to Standardized to Systematized to Packaged to Commoditized and suggests this can apply to most areas of legal practice. I have come across this concept quite a bit before, with different terminology such as Rocket Science advice, Grey Haired advice and Commodity advice. However the essential concept is that if you break any legal task, such as a corporate transaction or litigation matter, down into component parts it becomes apparent that you do not necessarily need an ‘expert’ senior lawyer for all aspects of the matter. For example, due diligence can be supported by an electronic disclosure mechanism and even outsourced to India or China. Document management systems already play a critical part in dispute resolution. We will all be subject to pressure to decompose tasks and to multi-source them to meet the economic demands made of us by our clients

What is unique to Richard’s approach however is the way in which he links this analysis to the evolution of technology. As IT practitioners this is perhaps why we can more readily grasp Richard’s ideas and his predictions than, say, our real property colleagues. He suggests we are on an exponential curve of technological development and cites for me two striking examples to illustrate this. By 2020 an average desktop machine costing US$1,000 will have the same processing power as a human brain. By 2050 the same machine will have the processing power of all human brains on earth! He also points to the way the ‘net generation’ has embraced social networking systems such as Facebook and MySpace which ‘now lie at the epicentre of their lives’. I can relate to this having seen how my eldest son uses Facebook at university to organise a football team. As this generation moves into the workplace they will naturally bring with them these very powerful collaborative tools. Lawyers will increasingly be placed under threat from ‘disruptive technologies’ – innovative technologies that periodically emerge and fundamentally transform companies, industries and markets. These include automated document assembly, relentless connectivity, the electronic legal marketplace, e-learning, online legal guidance and workflow and project management.

From my own parochial perspective as an in-house lawyer, Richard makes it clear that we are by no means immune from this process. As our businesses demand ‘more for less’ and legal compliance becomes increasingly complex and globalised, we will need to work in different ways with the law firms we instruct. We will perhaps inevitably seek and need a closer alignment of data, knowledge sharing and working practices with external law firms. We may well also benefit from a closer alignment with our fellow in-house lawyers by means of online legal communities where we share knowledge and issues.

Richard also indicates how he thinks that technology and its innovative use are already enhancing the dispute resolution process, but points out that there are far greater opportunities to do so. Online dispute avoidance as opposed to full scale litigation is likely to become more prevalent in the future. The ability to find out the law and to access justice will also enhance the empowered citizen’s rights to understand and use the law and its remedies. I was minded in a rather absurd way of an episode of the television science fiction series Red Dwarf where not only was justice dispensed by a computer to miscreants, but the prison they were sent to if found guilty operated on the basis that if inmates sought, for example, to stab a fellow prisoner, the wound was in fact inflicted on the perpetrator! Far fetched of course even in the world that Richard is pointing us to, but he is asking us to take on board concepts of the future which we are not yet even thinking about. He considers that it is particularly telling that not even the universities and law schools are posing these sorts of questions, but instead are preparing students to be practising lawyers on the assumption that the status quo will be maintained.

Richard’s prognosis is not in fact pessimistic, but he does predict fundamental legal change. ‘I do not therefore anticipate (in the next twenty or thirty years at least) that there will be no lawyers. I expect instead that there will be significantly fewer lawyers providing traditional consultative advisory service; and I predict the emergence of new legal professionals with quite different roles in society. We will witness the end of many lawyers as we recognise them today and the birth of a new streamlined and technology-based generation of practising lawyers who are fit for purpose in the twenty-first century’. This will result in changes in the structure and size of legal businesses, the way we innovate and the type of people who will be most successful as lawyers in the future. The technologies we use will not just be internal facing but will touch the lives of our clients. More creative people as opposed to ‘systems’ people will be best placed to take advantage of and indeed drive these changes forward. There will be new interfaces between the non-lawyer and the law, and between the citizen and the state. We need to recognise that there is a ‘trust model’ of lawyers as benevolent custodians of the law and legal institutions and the ‘George Bernard Shaw model’ where ‘all professions are conspiracies against the laity’. Whilst it is not helpful to generalise about the motivation of lawyers ‘if IT-based services or other forms of sourcing can give rise to a quicker, better, more widely available, or cheaper service then Richard supports these wholeheartedly. As I must say do I.

And so back to ferries. Why do they exist at all? The tunnel under the Channel, with the roll-on, roll-off service and ‘Le Shuttle’, provides a train service carrying cars and lorries with their passengers between Folkestone and Calais which is quicker, easier and generally removes the hassle from a continental road trip. And yet there are still ferries – I was on one. Why and how have these dinosaurs survived? The answer is that they have adjusted. They are about half as cheap as the tunnel and they have greatly improved the quality of their service – they are more like floating hotels now. They survive because they provide a viable alternative to the tunnel which is cheaper and where, like me, you can take a breather on your journey and have a full English breakfast served by a French garcon. This is the real challenge we as lawyers will have in the face of the changes Richard Susskind discusses. We should see this as an opportunity and look to how best we can adapt, like the ferry companies.

I commend this book to any lawyer in whatever branch of our profession who cares about the future of the practice of the law. 

Clive Davies is Senior Counsel with Fujitsu Services.

‘The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services’ by Richard Susskind is published by Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-954172-0