New Susskind book reveals profession’s fate

by Samantha Woodhill06 May 2016
Renowned author, advisor and legal industry theorist Richard Susskind has released a new book, The Future of the Professions, co-authored by his economist son, Daniel Susskind. 

NZ Lawyer sat down with Richard Susskind, who is in Australia for the release of the new book, to find out what the future holds for the legal industry.

Though he has famously predicted a decline in today’s professions due to advancing technology, Susskind said it’s far from a doom and gloom message.  The book found that there is more legal work than ever before, but firms will undoubtedly need to adapt to what Susskind calls ‘new labour models’, in order to satisfy that demand.

“[Clients] don’t mind paying high fees to expert lawyers where deep expertise is genuinely needed,” he said.

“But a lot of what goes on in a law office they say is routine, its repetitive, its process based, its administrative and they want new ways of delivering these services.

“The good news in all of this is that nothing that we have seen suggests the need for legal help is shrinking, that’s not true, and it’s probably increasing.

“The question is, how best to satisfy that market demand.”

The book sets out two alternatives for the future of the legal industry.  One is ‘reassuringly familiar’, where technology streamlines and improves traditional ways of working.  The second is where technology fundamentally challenges traditional working methods.

“The profession, the way it is currently organised, is a product of the print based industrial world,” Susskind said.

“When people needed help on difficult issues they go to people called professionals and they get one-to-one consultation advisory service, often on an hourly billing basis. 

“But we ask of the internet society, with the advent of artificial intelligence and a whole bunch of other new techniques and new labour models coming through that are enabled by technology, there might be an entirely different way for professionals to work and our answer is: yes, indeed.”

New players have seen that the legal and compliance market is huge and are looking at different ways of working.  It’s direct competition to the traditional way law firms work, Susskind said.

“Actually, this is a time of immense opportunity, there has never been a greater need for legal services, all we have to do is think of more innovative ways of delivering the services,” Susskind said.

“That’s why I think in 10 years from now; the big names in the legal market are likely to be entirely different from the big names today.”

In his opinion, technology and new market players are a threat to the way traditional legal businesses work, not a threat to lawyers.  But upskilling is still a fundamental part of staying relevant.

“We’re going to see, I think, a huge investment in training by the more successful legal businesses,” Susskind said.

“That’s something we’ve seen in the accounting firms, the scale of their investment is remarkable.  One of the big four accounting firms spent more on training last year than the turnover of the largest law firm in the world.

“I think there’s been a little bit of a view that training is something you do just to top up people’s traditional skills but actually we’ve got to reconceptualise what the toolkit of the legal advisor is.”

Rather than just looking to save money, Susskind said that the market is now at a point where there is appetite for innovation.

Pinsent Mason has been looking at this for years.

“We think of innovation in absolutely everything we do and challenge ourselves in that way, in order to be able to have a sustainable future for all the people that work in our business,” said partner and head of strategy Alastair Morrison.

With a team of six computer science engineers, the firm is dedicated to finding efficient solutions for their clients.  But it’s the firm’s culture, not strategy, that will drive it into the future, Susskind said.

“What you should start doing is thinking and reflecting and a lot of it is about open-mindedness and opening up our eyes to it,” he said.

“It’s about thinking more deeply about your client’s needs more than ever before so that the first step is trying to create a culture which innovation, fresh thinking, and new approaches. 

“It’s not just about being tolerated but it’s actively welcomed and that’s tough, that requires very strong leadership.”