Rónán Kennedy reviews the 3rd edition of a classic look at the future of the legal profession
This book (now in its third edition) and its author probably do not need introduction to the readers of Computers & Law. Richard Susskind has been a pioneer in the use of information and communications technology for legal practice and the courts for decades and indeed is President of the Society for Computers and Law. This book was first published ten years ago, which is a lifetime in Internet years, and has been extensively re-written to account for the changes which have taken place over that period, with particular attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, which accelerated the adoption of some technologies.
The book is now longer and more detailed. It is still relatively easy to read, with a conversational style and many stimulating insights. Much of what it says is illuminating and useful, and the high-level view that the author has developed over many years of deep engagement with the issues discussed is invaluable. He correctly points to moves to liberalise legal practice, highlights how access to justice is much more than getting to court quickly and cheaply, and has thoughtful comments on the impact of artificial intelligence (AI). Here, he predicts radical change but with more of an empirical basis than most of the breathless commentary that the advent of large language models (LLMs) has encouraged. Perhaps the most helpful part of the book is the chapter which presents a series of grids that can used to categorise and understand the uses of technology and their consequences for business models, although the expanded list of new career paths in law and technology is also valuable.
Some aspects of the book are not as successful. The conversational style sometimes seems to be aimed at winning an argument with senior and late-career lawyers who do not accept the author’s predictions despite his track record. Susskind also says that his analyses apply to the criminal law and criminal courts but the book has little detail on this. While technology has already demonstrated its usefulness in certain types of criminal cases, particularly white-collar crime such as fraud, it is doubtful that an artificial intelligence will be able to demonstrate the clear-headedness or compassion that some criminal judges apply regularly. A darker future would be one in which so-called ‘robot judges’ (which the book suggests should be explored) will apply and augment the structural discrimination which other judges manifest; neither racism nor bias are explored in the book. While machine learning and LLMs have produced some astonishing tools, the author seems to assume that these will only get better: more sceptical voices point out that they only approximate aspects of human cognition. Although AI can be very capable, it will continue to fail, and in ways that humans do not. These imperfections may be tolerable in some contexts but probably not in a functioning legal system. Finally, the focus is on common law and English-speaking jurisdictions; the same winds of change are doubtless blowing through civil law and other legal systems but if the final outcomes there are distinctive, they are not explored here.
My most significant point of agreement with the author is on the extent to which those now graduating from law school are ‘staggeringly ill-prepared’ for the professional context of the future. As he points out in trenchant terms, many legal educators are not paying sufficient attention to the changes that are already underway. Few researchers are exploring the ‘business of lawyering’ in any detail. Although there will inevitably be differences of opinion regarding the detail of the predictions and responses laid out at length in this book, it should be read with care and attention by anyone with an interest in the future of the legal profession, the courts, and indeed democracies founded on the rule of law and access to justice for all. As the author acknowledges, it is not the last word on the topic, but it is a key reference point for a debate that we all need to take seriously.
About the book
Tomorrow's Lawyers by Professor Richard Susskind