Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An interview with Professor Richard Susskind

Richard Susskind’s new book, called Tomorrow’s Lawyers, was published on 10th January.  Recently I interviewed Richard about his book for Modern Law Magazine, and the interview is reproduced here by kind permission of the magazine’s publishers, Charlton Grant.

Antony Smith (AS): In some ways this may be your least radical book, not least because there are examples of law firms and new legal service providers already doing some of the things you suggest.  Does this mean the legal industry is now past the ‘new ideas’ stage and into the ‘new delivery stage’?

Richard Susskind (RS): Tomorrow’s Lawyers is intended for young and aspiring lawyers, as well as for older lawyers who could not bring themselves to buy or read a book called The End of Lawyers? (my last one). It brings my thinking up to date, but lays it out in shorter form than my earlier books.  There is a lot of new thinking in there too, I like to think, not least about what the next generation of lawyers should expect to be doing in their working hours. For readers who are familiar with my past work, the new book may seem less radical but, for the great majority of practising lawyers, most of whom (alas) have not read my stuff, this work will seem not just radical but seditious.  It is true that some law firms have moved from ideas to action but they are still exception.

AS: Notwithstanding the above, I think some practising lawyers will be affronted by some of your assertions, in particular the following two:

for much of the legal market the (business) model is not simply unsustainable; it is already broken.

and

I do not see much of a future (beyond 2020) for most small firms in liberalised regimes.

What do you say to people who would dispute these views?

RS: I say, ‘speak to clients’.  Almost all the General Counsel with whom I meet tell me that they are under huge pressure to reduce their legal spend and that law firms will need to transform to help them make these reductions.  Equally, look at the research into individual consumers and legal services – a majority suggest that customers would be more comfortable securing legal help from a high street brand than a conventional law firm.

 

AS: You refer to lawyers struggling to meet the ‘more for less’ challenge?  Most lawyers will understand what this means, but how would you summarise this challenge?

RS: There are three elements.  In-house legal departments are under pressure from CEOs and CFOs to reduce their internal headcount, to spend less on law firms, and yet they have more legal and compliance work than ever before.  So, these clients need more legal service at less cost and this challenge will define the next 10 years of the legal industry.

 

AS: And your advice to lawyers needing to meet the ‘more for less’ challenge is?

RS: My main suggestion is to stop thinking about this challenge as a call for alternative fee arrangements. Much of the debate on alternatives to hourly billing is misdirected, because when most lawyers move, say, to fixed fees, they are still working out these fees with an hourly billing model in mind.  My advice is to move from pricing differently to working differently, above all to implementing new and much less costly ways of sourcing routine and repetitive work.

 

AS: Many lawyers say clients want to speak to the lawyer doing the work (and this is a selling point for many firms), so is decomposing and perhaps outsourcing legal work realistic?

RS: The idea here is that we can break down deals and disputes into component parts and source each part as efficiently as possible.  For the routine and repetitive work, this might call for off-shoring or outsourcing or computerising (or one of the rest of the 15 alternative ways of sourcing legal work that I have identified).  Generally, and here is the key, clients don’t want to see the lawyers who are doing this kind of work.  They only tend to want to speak to lawyers who are undertaking the complex, bespoke work.  But, on my model, that kind of work stays with traditional lawyers who will interact with their clients in the way they always have done.

 

AS: You also advocate collaboration between law firms.  Is it realistic to suggest to firms who compete against each other that they should now collaborate?

RS: If left to their own devices, law firms will not tend to want to collaborate.  However, a number of very major clients have recently been asking their panel firms to collaborate. This drive from clients changes the tune.  Law firms have to make it ‘realistic’.

 

AS: A surprise in the book is that you have very little time for AFA’s, including value pricing.  Could you summarise why?

RS: I have already said something about AFAs. They do not, in my view, change the price of fish.  Value billing is superficially attractive but misses a crucial point – that even if a law firm delivers great value, clients will not wish to pay more than the going market rate.  Tax lawyers who say to a client that they want a cut of the action because they have saved the client £x million will only succeed if they are the only firm that could have delivered that value.  If others could have recommended a similar scheme, then the market will trump the value as an index of price.

 

AS: But if a law firm has become more efficient and re-engineered its legal service delivery, surely there is inherent value in that, which they can then seek to reflect in their pricing?

RS: I agree.  If a law firm reengineers, it can take advantage of the savings by being able to offer a lower cost service to clients (or by achieving a greater profit margin; or both). Again, it is all about the market and clients.  There is value for the client, in your sense, if the client pays less. But when most people talk of ‘value pricing’ or ‘value billing’ they mean charging according to the overall value delivered to the client as opposed to the numbers of hours spent by the firm.  They are saying look at output rather than input.  I say the market sorts out pricing (methods and levels).

 

AS: You are actually quite optimistic about the employment opportunities for tomorrow’s lawyers, why is this?

RS: Read the book for this one. There I lay out a whole new set of new jobs for lawyers.

 

AS: From my point of view I am very pleased to note that you have long been a vocal proponent of legal project management – why do you believe a project based legal service delivery model is so important?

RS: Because many deals and disputes are complicated, resource intensive, document intensive, high pressure activities that deserve the rigour that project management can bring.  Too often, today’s lawyers are haphazard and ad hoc in their matter management.

 

AS: You implore young lawyers to ‘work in the law in the interests of society and not of lawyers’.  Some would say this is overly idealistic and that, to quote the famous phrase, there is ‘no such thing as society’.  What would you say to that?

RS: I want lawyers of tomorrow to be passionate about access to justice and the rule of law.  I would like them to make a good living but for that to be a bi-product and not a prime objective of working in law.  It may be idealistic but I like to pursue ideals.

 

AS: A consistent theme in your writing over the years has been the need for greater access to justice and trying to satisfy the ‘unmet legal need’.  Would you agree that, compared to all other suggestions made in your other books, progress has been slowest here?

RS: Not at all.  It is of course hard to measure.  But I think the wealth of government websites and sites put up by the third sector have made simple legal guidance far more widely available and easily accessible than in the past.  But we are just warming up.  Wait for online dispute resolution.

 

AS: I have just realised that none of my questions so far relate to particular kinds of legal I.T.  I think the reason for this is that there is no question in my mind that technology can deliver – the issue is when the legal profession will properly adopt it.  Would you agree with this?

RS: I cannot be sure what is going on in your mind!  Less flippantly, there is no reason to think that I.T will continue to transform all corners of our social and economic lives but, somehow, the new technologies have no application in law.  The big question is can and will lawyers embrace the new systems? Or will new competitors?

 

AS: Applying technology to assist with the delivery of legal advice and maintaining legal norms – it is never going to end, is it?

RS: Never. There is no finishing line when it comes to IT and the Internet.  That is part of the excitement of it all.

(AS): Thank you for your time.  I am sure that your book will be as successful as your other ones and that you will find a new readership – made up of tomorrow’s lawyers.

Postscript:  I don’t agree entirely with all of Richard’s views about value pricing and we had a lively discussion about this outside of the interview.  He has promised that we can continue our discussion another time and, when we do, I will report it here in a further blog post.

Meanwhile you can purchase Richard’s new book directly from Oxford University Press  or Amazon.

The interview will also appear in the next issue of Modern Law Magazine, due to be published on January 21st 2013.

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