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Susskind answers your question: all answers collated

Richard SusskindProfessor Richard Susskind OBE is a well-known author, speaker, and independent adviser to major law firms. His particular area of expertise is the way in which IT and the Internet are changing the work of lawyers. 

Last week, we interviewed Susskind and because not everybody is able to attend one of his fascinating lectures, we decided to ask Susskind questions submitted by our international readers.

This article is based on a transcript of the interview. Topics discussed by Susskind include the Flaherty Suffolk Technology Audit, the surviving chances of small law firms, the future role of automated legal expert systems and the paperless firm. Susskind also provides advice for young starting lawyers.

Susskind's answers to these questions are based on a transcription of a previously recorded interview.

What are you thoughts about the culture change from paper to digital and do you think this is something that will naturally change as the younger generation moves up? (Amanda Recknell - Canon Europe)

It is often supposed that younger lawyers are more sympathetic to and more supportive of information technologies, that younger lawyers are somehow more receptive to change than older lawyers. I'm afraid that's not how I find things to be. I don't know if it is that conservative people are attracted to the law or that practicing law makes people more conservative, but it is certainly the case that when I speak to young law students or trainees in law firms that they are often less sympathetic to change than when I address a partnership.

Now I know this surprises many people because they believe that the internet generation who are widely familiar with social media and so forth would be expected to embrace technology far more rapidly than their elders. But that's just not how I find it. So I'm not convinced it's a generational issue.

Of course there are some young lawyers who are wholly compersion with and very sympathetic towards new technologies, but as a social and professional grouping I don't think young lawyers show signs of being any more supporting of technology than their ancesters. And this is actually a cause of considerable concern and I accept the premise of the question that one should move in as far as it is appropriate from paper to digital, subject to the important observation that sometimes, for example, that reading comprehension is higher when you reading from paper than from screen. 

But as a general proposition, it seems to me it must be sensible in the most documented and information intensive industry in the world for us to use technology far more widely and to avoid massive output of paper and massive killing of trees. The changes are also a change in working practice so that a lot of the well-established and very robust working practices and processes of lawyers that have been established over decades have been built on the assumption of paper-based practice. And so it is not just a question of asking people to be more culturally sympathetic towards digital, it is a question of asking the profession to rethink their working practices pretty fundamentally.

I think we will look back in a decade or so and wonder why we generated so much paper, but we will do so because we have in place, for example, automated work flow systems, automated document assembly systems, sophisticated project management systems which make the move to paperlessness far easier. So what I am saying is that it is, I think, very challenging for lawyers to ask them to move from a paper-based environment to a digitally-based environment simply by encouraging less printing out of documents. We really need to change the way lawyers work.  

What will be the role of legal expert systems in terms of practicing law without licence and in providing legal advice without the intervention of lawyers? (Andrei Kotov - OnLock Digital Authentication)

I wrote my doctorate in Oxford on expert systems and law, and spent about a decade of my life on this. I think when the world wide web came along I became more interested in the use of the internet as a way of making scarce expertise and knowledge more easily available. But I have recently become interested in artificial intelligence and expertness, and, indeed written a long article essentially looking back 25 years to the work I did in the early 80's, and then looking forward another 25 years to speculating after what the future might hold.

It seems to me that if you look at a number of emerging and enabling technologies whether it will be the kind of systems used by IBM and their Watson system, or whether it will be the use of big data, or ever more intelligent search, we are certainly developing more generally beyond the law extremely powerful systems that can perform tasks that we thought require human intelligence.


And expert systems that is one example of that. So the idea here is that essentially that you have a system that can solve legal problems and offer legal advice at the level of a human legal expert. We used to think that the way of doing this was to somehow model a particular human lawyer's expertise and drop it into a system. But we're now finding different techniques for achieving what would be regarded expert performance. 

In either event it seems to me - and again, this is probably within a decade rather than in the next couple of years - we will see a lot of stand-alone online diagnostic expert systems which will ask users a series of questions and offer eventually a legal response, a legal answer, to their difficulties and perhaps draft the document at the same time. Now some of these expert systems will be for direct use by citizens without any intervention by lawyers or legally informed individuals. And others will be designed for use by paralegals and junior lawyers, essentially enabling them to function at the level of the human expert.

The question arisen in some jurisdictions is whether or not the delivery of these services online, for direct use by citizens in some sense, constitutes the unauthorized practice of law. And I know the regulatory problem here, it is one for which I hold sympathy, but my passion here is offering greater access to justice, providing systems and solutions that allow people who perhaps in the past could not have afforded legal advice to be in receipt of reliable council. If we can provide this kind of services, if we realize this legal market, then it seems to me we need to rethink our regulation and rethink the boundaries of professional practice so long as the needs of citizens are protected. The main objective should be providing better improved and wider access to legal guidance, and not protecting the traditional ways that lawyers have worked in the past.  

What are your views on the surviving chances and possibilities of small and medium sized law firms? (Felix Hofer - Hofer Lösch Torricelli, Italy)

Of all the arguments and claims I put forward in my last book (Tomorrow's Lawyers), the one that has attracted the most interest is - and perhaps has given rise to the great number of objections was - my observation on small law firms. Because I said there that I see no long-term future for small law firms if they continue to operate in the way they always have done. In the United Kingdom, for example, I think about a third of the law firms are still sole practitioners. And my objection here is that these businesses are fundamentally inefficient; they have no economies of scale, very few of them use information technology with no gearing or leverage. They are essentially a cottage industry.  

And I think that the legal world needs to move beyond cottage industry to a greater form of industrialization supported by appropriate systems and procedures. 

And so it seems to me that small medium sized firms can go in two directions, if they want to succeed that is. They can either become niche and that might rely on either particular areas of expertise or a very high touch personal service. And these will bring, I think, clients to them, that is to say, they will be specialists or highly trusted advisors. Or the other option, I think, is for these firms to merge and come together, to make larger businesses that can indeed achieve the economies of scale to which I refer. 

Why I think these firms are threatened, especially in the UK, is by cost pressures on one hand, technology on the other, and as you could on the third hand by liberalisation which is the option in some jurisdictions of non-law firms participating and competing in the legal market place. When you have, for example, a bank in England and Wales that is committed to delivering routine everyday legal services from hundreds of its bank branches up and down the country, you can see this is entirely disruptive and challenging for the conventional high street solicitor. But we should also remember that on the other side of the coin this should be able to provide lower costs, more convenient and less forbidding service for consumers and small businesses. So both of these disruptions for law firms will bring benefits for the clients themselves.

With firms' IT systems becoming more and more sophisticated and integrated how can we ensure that lawyers embrace the technology and take time to learn how to use it properly? (Joanne Humber - Phoenix Business Solutions) 

The first issue here is that there are two very broad categories of technologies. One is the set of technologies that have been in law offices for many years that to some extent remain underexploited. Secondly, there are new emerging technologies of which some are supporting and some are transforming the way legal practices are undertaken. 

Casey Flaherty's work at Kia is a good illustration of the suspicion many clients have that major law firms have good solid systems in place, but the fee earners are often insufficiently trained to be able to fully exploit these technologies for the client. 

That is one big set of challenges: everything from work processing to spreadsheets to database packages. The challenge here is to make the most of the technologies that are already in place. 

And frankly, that is something cynical partners have been saying for years. They say we shouldn't invest in fancy new technologies until we make sure that we are maximizing the benefits of the ones we already have. I agree that we should maximize the benefits of the ones we currently have, but I think we must go further and make sure we are monitoring and experimenting with emerging technologies as well. 

I can pick a couple of examples here of the more disruptive technologies such as online dispute resolution or automated document assembly, which has been around for many years. Both of these technologies potentially challenge and change the way conventional lawyers work. But we need to face that challenge too. 

It's not simply a question of maximizing the benefits from sustaining technology, it is a question of making sure we are up to speed with and making the most of the disruptive technologies which themselves will play a major role in the changes in the profession that we see around in most jurisdictions. 

It seems to me, having been in the legal technology for over 30 years, that the best way to convince and compel lawyers to embrace technology and to invest their time in using technology is not by argument, is not by presentations, or good articles, or books. No, it is by case study and example, mainly within the firm. So that good, positive experience within a particular practice of relevant technologies can quickly convince lawyers to take part. Also case studies from other law firms and from clients as well can contribute, but I think the time for intellectual arguments is over. 

What it is that convinces lawyers most, is to learn in practice what the actual benefits are being and to see concrete case studies, because it seems to me that for any set of experiences or ideas, clever lawyers can always come up with counter ideas or counter arguments. But it is harder to resist or deny the reality of successful case studies.

What do you make of the Flaherty Suffolk technology audit initiative and what impact do you think it will have long-term on the relationship between corporations and the attorneys providing services to them? (Michelle Spencer - Bracewell & Giuliani LLP)

In my response to the previous question, I did mention this audit and it strikes me of being of considerable significance. The suspicion that many of us have that lawyers underexploit the technology that is already in their laptops, I think, has been found to be entirely justified by the work of Casey Flaherty and supported by the Suffolk Law School. I congratulate them both.

First of all it is a fine example of the way in which legal practice and the academic legal world should be collaborating. There has not been nearly enough collaboration or cooperation between legal academics and practitioners at the coal face, and I think there is a very powerful lesson here for law firms that this is a collaborative project involving both in-house lawyers and academics. And hopefully we'll find more law firms similarly cooperating with the academic world. 

As for the actual initiative itself, I think it is challenging, I think it is imaginative, and I think it is highly pragmatic. It goes to the heart of the prime concern of many in-house counsel, which is that we need to reduce the overall cost of legal service. And there the conclusions that are being drawn suggest that one key way of saving expenses is to drive out efficiencies from everyday legal practice. This is what I would call the efficiency strategy.

You may recall, I have two broad strategies to respond to what I call the 'more for less' challenge: the efficiency strategy and the collaboration strategy. The efficiency strategy suggests we need to find a way of cutting costs, of picking costs out of conventional legal service, and using advanced technology -indeed fairly basic technologies too- to try and improve the way we manage our documents, produce our documents, undertake reviews of documents and conduct everyday legal practice seems to me to make perfect sense.

But what this initiative does, is it makes the work of lawyers to some extend measurable. You know that old phrase that 'if you can't measure it, you can't manage it'? And what this initiative, it seems to me, brings is one way at least of measuring the productivity and efficiency of lawyers.

The profession of law is getting more and more competitive to join. What advice can you offer young students who may be thinking of joining the law profession? (Lena Ahad - Technology PR)

My main advice for young aspiring lawyers is to be aware that the way in which they will work in the legal profession in the future will bear little resemblance to the way in which lawyers have worked in the past. The 21st century lawyer will, I believe, take on a whole different set of rules from the 20th century lawyer. And so the law student who enters the profession in the hope that it will be like the lawyering that they have heard of from their parents or their parents' friends, will be disappointed. 

As I often say, the future of legal work is not John Grisham and it's not Rumpole of the Bailey, it's entirely different it seems to me. Young aspiring lawyers should be immersing themselves in the kind of tools and techniques that legal practices of tomorrow will require. For example, legal project management, legal process analyses, and what I call legal knowledge engineering. I think it will be important in law as elsewhere for young aspiring professionals to be entirely familiar with the potential and the limitations of online service in their areas. 

And also to be able to recognize that a lot of the work that used to be what I term 'highly bespoke' that's hand-crafted and tailored and customized and delivered in a one-to-one consultated advisory basis will actually turn out to be delivered as part of a more complex package and mix of services, some of which will be online, some of which will be highly standardized and much less of which will be hand-crafted in a way that we have expected in the past.


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