IN A NEW book, UK lawyer, professor and legal adviser, Richard Susskind, predicts that developments in information technology will eliminate the need for many “traditional” lawyers.
The End of Lawyers?, a follow-up to Susskind’s earlier book, The Future of Law, isn’t due to be published until later this year, but six excerpts have been published in advance on the Times Online website.
In the book, Susskind warns that lawyers and law firms who do not adapt their practices to advances in information technology will be made obsolete.
“The market will determine that the legal world is over-resourced, it will increasingly drive out inefficiencies and unnecessary friction and, in doing so, we will indeed witness the end of outdated legal practice and the end of outdated lawyers,” Susskind writes.
His views are controversial, with Clifford Chance partner Simon Davis describing them as “much exaggerated” in a recent opinion piece published in The Lawyer.
Gerard Neiditsch, executive director of business integration and technology at Mallesons Stephen Jaques, agrees that in certain areas of law involving numerous repeatable transactions, technology is replacing some of the work that lawyers have traditionally done.
He is more hesitant about Susskind’s predictions, however, with respect tohigher-end commercial work, where transactions involve more numerous and complex legal issues.
“Law firms in different parts of the legal market have looked at technology in very different ways. People have been active in what is loosely called ‘commoditised work’. So for example in insurance, mortgages and wills etc, you have some law firms and some non-firms that are using technology to create standard transactions that can be done at a fixed price,” Neiditsch said. He cited the Commonwealth’s Bank legal arm, eCommLegal, which provides wills and estate planning services, as an example.
Also in family law, Neiditsch said, a small number of divorce settlements are now being settled without lawyers through online dispute resolution technology.
“So I think on the macro level [Susskind] is right. I think there’s going to be some displacement of legal work by technology but I think it’s happening in market segments that cannot easily substitute the top end of the market,” he said. “I think [Susskind] is very optimistic about how quickly this is going to happen at the higher end of the market.”
While he doesn’t believe lawyers will necessarily be replaced, Neiditsch does believe technology has improved efficiency and changed the nature of work in some areas at Mallesons.
“It’s certainly improved our productivity and turnaround time,” Neiditsch said.
“For example, think about the telephone tag that used to happen, and still happens in many places, where a client has an urgent legal issue and they need to find the right lawyer to deal with the particular legal aspect they’re concerned with.”
“Even things like BlackBerrys have allowed lawyers to become much more accessible, but we have gone beyond that in the last year or two and now it’s easier to see whether somebody is available or busy, where they are and where they can be approached,” he said.
“We’ve invested heavily in that to make sure that more of the calls that come to us are being dealt with people who can really help the client.”
Neiditsch referred to e-discovery as another area where technical advances have led to workflow efficiencies, by greatly assisting to narrow down relevant documents, saving considerable time and cost to clients.
“In the past you would have had a room full of discoverable documents and sent an army of lawyers in there to go through it. Today it’s much more specialised and we can narrow down the scope very quickly by having specialist people electronically trawl the information,” he said. “In our case we have people with both information technology and legal degrees doing that kind of work so it’s much more multidisciplinary.”
Another area where Susskind and Neiditsch seem to disagree is the extent to which lawyers are aware of and willing to embrace technology. Susskind believes lawyers are only “dimly aware” of the new technologies that “threaten” their future.
“If lawyers are barely conversant with today’s technologies, they have even less sense of how much progress in legal technology is likely in the coming 10 years,” Susskind writes.
Neiditsch on the other hand, believes that contrary to the stereotype, lawyers are very open to new technology.
“I think [lawyers] are actually very fast to embrace it. We’ve got more pressure to come up with innovative ways of addressing commercial challenges
that our clients have than what
we’ve ever seen before. And
particularly the majority of our workforce in the legal and non-legal side who are generation Y or the younger side of generation X, are technologically aware, he said.
“So I think the traditional image of law firms is completely wrong.”