‘As never before, there is an opportunity to be involved in shaping the next generation of legal services’
These are unprecedented times for the legal profession. Funding is being cut from legal aid, and the way it is administered is being reformed – bringing upheaval for criminal and family practitioners. Meanwhile, the force of the Legal Services Act (LSA) – with its host of deregulatory provisions – is increasingly being felt, as new market entrants like G4S and Co-op Legal emerge to offer alternative, cheaper models to the conventional law firm. At the same time, a brutal recession has led clients to push harder than ever for better deals from their lawyers, threatening the long-established hourly billing model in favour of new fee regimes where law firms are required to give more for less.
Understandably, there is concern among many established solicitors and barristers at these developments.
But there is an often-overlooked optimism, too, as the changes create an environment that is set to offer exciting new opportunities for the next generation of lawyers. As Professor Richard Susskind writes in his latest book, Tomorrow's Lawyers: ‘As never before, there is an opportunity to be involved in shaping the next generation of legal services’.
Over the next 25 years, Susskind believes that a sharper, leaner and hungrier legal profession will emerge that is re-defined by new types of more specialised lawyers, who will exist alongside a core of black letter law experts. He has coined the following terms for them: ‘The Legal Knowledge Engineer’, ‘The Legal Technologist’, ‘The Legal Hybrid’, ‘The Legal Process Analyst’, ‘The Legal Project Manager’, ‘The Online Dispute Resolution Practitioner’, ‘The Legal Management Consultant’ and ‘The Legal Risk Manager’.
These lawyers, suggests Susskind, will work not just in law firms, but in the large accountancy firms (who many expect to branch out into legal services over the next few years), as well as in legal publishers like LexisNexis, high end alternative business structures (ABSs) such as Riverview Law, and specialist legal management consultancies. Other lawyers will create their own work environments, taking advantage of technology to shape new law firms. As Alan Kay, a Silicon Valley computer scientist cited by Susskind in Tomorrow's Lawyers, puts it, ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it’.
Not that the road ahead will be easy. ‘You will find most senior lawyers to be of little guidance in this quest’, Susskind warns. ‘Your elders will tend to be cautious, protective, conservative, if not reactionary. They will resist change and will often want to hang on to their traditional ways of working, even if they are well past their sell-by date’.
In shaping the future, Susskind stresses the importance of junior lawyers' perception of themselves - they must not simply be professionals, he urges, but members of a service industry who prioritise their clients' needs. This point is illustrated in the book through a story about the training given by a leading power tool manufacturer to its new executives. During the session, the executives are shown two photos - one of a gleaming drill and another of a hole. Then they are reminded that while the former is what the company sells, the latter is what the customer actually wants. At which point the trainer proceeds to tell the executives: ‘It is your job...to find ever more creative, imaginative and competitive ways of giving our customers what they want’.
Of course, before confronting such challenges, future lawyers must secure a training contract or pupillage. In this sense, Tomorrow's Lawyers – which contains practical advice as well as commentary on the bigger picture – has a very useful chapter entitled, ‘Questions to ask to employers’. Ostensibly a way for prospective lawyers to gauge whether firms are well positioned for the future, the questions – if employed thoughtfully – are exactly the sort of thing top candidates ask during interviews. Examples include, ‘Do you have a research and development capability?’, ‘What are your preferred approaches to alternative sourcing?’, ‘If you could design a law firm from scratch, what would it be like?’, ‘What will legal service look like in 2035?’ and ‘What role will IT play in law firms of the future?’
Underscoring such lines of enquiry is the widely held anthropological theory – to which Susskind subscribes – that human beings have travelled through four stages of information substructure - the age of orality, where communication was dominated by speech, to the age of script, then print, and now the internet. Accordingly, the legal profession's challenge – when viewed on a macro level – is to transition from being part of print-based industrial society to take a perhaps quite different role in an internet-based age of information.
Looking ahead 40 years, Susskind imagines the internet age being superseded by a convergence of genetics and IT allowing chips containing legal information to be accessed directly by people's brains. For now, though, junior lawyers have plenty of work to do to shape an internet age which is only just beginning.