(Turning Your) Back to the Future

October 29, 2015

Audiences at Richard Susskind’s talks have doubtless heard his story about tasking his teenage daughter with some chores, for which she was to be paid an hourly rate. ‘Great, I’ll take my time then‘ came the response, which Susskind uses to endorse his view on just one of the legal profession’s archaic habits, hourly billing. If we are to get insight from the next generation, may I quote my own teenage son, who has both parents earning their crust from law? Ask him what he wants to do when he grows up (yikes, the suggestion that a 16-year-old isn’t already grown up) and he will tell you ‘I don’t know, but I know I don’t want to be a lawyer.

My son’s aversion to a career in law has nothing to do with the issues which Susskind has been raising for some years, and now in ‘The Future of the Professions‘, co-authored with Daniel Susskind. Neither is it formed because all teenagers think the preceding generation have got it all wrong and the world will come right when they get into power. Nope, it’s because he thinks the working experience of a lawyer is miserable. I suppose, since both parents are lawyers, he might be forming views from evidence which would correlate with any career these days but which he equates to a legal career: long hours, too much time behind a desk reading boring documents, too many demands to meet financial targets – you know the rest. But, I think not. He has friends with parents who make things, sell things and (he likes this best) do cool stuff.

Daniel and Richard report that society is increasingly ill-served by the manner in which professionals now work. They say professionals are slow to change because, in part, they benefit from the status quo. I’m sure that is true from the perspective of an organisation (a law firm in this instance) but it’s not true from the human perspective of an individual practitioner. If I talk to lawyers, doctors and other professionals at parties (it happens), away from the environs of their ‘firm’, even the partners bemoan their lot.

However well remunerated we may be under the current system (or badly remunerated – because some are), most of us don’t enjoy selling time or performing our work in ways which feel like a struggle between the demands of the regulators and the incessant outpouring of new stuff with which to keep up to date. We are, mostly, all too aware of the downsides of handcrafting output with human frailty rather than the backup of ‘systems’. We know where the pain is ultimately going to be felt if a client/patient/customer is poorly advised, over-charged or inclined to go elsewhere for services. We are not insulated from the effects of how we work.

The future of the professions, then, will not come too soon for many of us – as individuals. Collectively, the herd will, I agree, need a bit more of a nudge. You cannot write as many books and speak at as many events as Richard Susskind without hearing ‘the usual reasons’ to challenge his outlook. Repeating trite objections will lead you straight into the trap set by the authors of The Future of the Professions and prove that you are one of the typical professionals who cannot see things as they really are. Predicting that things must and will change is unassailable.

If I hear one more seminar which begins with a recitation of how the Internet has changed everything, I swear I shall put down my smartphone and reach indignantly for the mints. Of course it changes everything – we know that. And, really, we don’t need our kids to tell us about new tech. Those of us who were educated pre-Internet did not lose our capacity to observe the world around us and assimilate new tools and ideas. Indeed, our experience prepares us better for adapting to change than Generation Y who have only needed to visit the High Street (real or virtual) to access new technology. Daniel and Richard Susskind do not estimate that the thrust of change is a generational difference but rather that change will come because philosophical objections to the way professions manifest their work will grow in tandem with technology which enables a different way.

So, why haven’t we adapted yet? Why does it take two Susskinds to make a bunch of intelligent people appraise the needs and expectations of the future? I believe it’s because we have yet to mobilise as a herd. We haven’t uttered the unutterable in partners’ meetings. We haven’t risked looking like mavericks. We don’t want to put ourselves outside the nest. It’s not clear that disruptive thinking is quite what our peers and clients want to hear at present. And, however unprofessional this admission may be, we do have bills to pay. The value of texts like ‘The Future of the Professions’ is that it creates the space and the impetus for individuals to try out new ideas in front of peers. It allows us to be critical of current practices without appearing indulgent or combative. For those of us who think the current way of doing things isn’t much fun at times, it encourages us to see a better way.

Whether change will be incremental or exponential fuels either complacency or irrational fear. Fortunately, it seems that change will come in rapid bursts of incremental steps, creating the hope that individuals (both as practitioners and as consumers) will have just about enough space to adapt and shape our own futures as long as we don’t allow our cynical bias to get in the way. We are invited to actually prefer a future with a different kind or professional (or none at all) rather than merely reluctantly accepting such a future and hoping that our mortgage will be paid off before it all unwinds.

All of which brings me back to my teenage son, and makes me wonder whether he will ever look at my work and decide that it doesn’t look so bad after all.

Charles Drayson is a solicitor and a director of and principal lawyer at Drayson Law Ltd: http://www.draysonlaw.com

For Laurence Eastham’s review of The Future of the Professions, click here.