Richard Susskind’s 1996 book The End of Lawyers predicts that without radical adaptation, lawyers as we know them will become extinct. Since the technological revolution that prompted his thinking is more mature than it was when Susskind first wrote on the subject, it is time to follow-up on his predictions and reassess whether lawyers are [...]
Richard Susskind’s 1996 book The End of Lawyers predicts that without radical adaptation, lawyers as we know them will become extinct. Since the technological revolution that prompted his thinking is more mature than it was when Susskind first wrote on the subject, it is time to follow-up on his predictions and reassess whether lawyers are adapting or becoming extinct. The recent announcement by Dewey & LeBeouf that it was closing its doors and the reported downward trend in new associate hires and salaries is some evidence of a decline in the profession, but what is the cause? And is the end near?
In a depressed economy, it is hard to distinguish between the effects of a general downturn and the influence of the technological revolution. But economic pressures have always accentuated radical changes across the spectrum of industry. Changes in the legal services industry, whether caused by economics or technology, will likely become permanent. Susskind addresses five steps in the evolution of legal services from bespoke services (highly individualized and customized) to standardized services and from there to systematized, then packaged, and finally commoditized services.
Bespoke is the form of legal services most would recognize. Traditional hourly billing is the essence of bespoke legal services. The emergence of other options has for decades now challenged this time-honored form of accounting for legal assistance, but a majority of attorneys in the United States still rely on this traditional legal services model despite evidence that parts of the industry have already evolved to the far end of Susskind’s scale. For example, the emergence of self-help legal services websites is paving the way for commoditized legal services. Because bespoke services remain the dominant form despite these evolutionary pressures, the forces Susskind described are either not as strong has he predicted or they are not evolutionary at all.
Susskind identifies six vital trends in information technology that are driving the evolution of legal services. Those trends are:
1) The exponential rate of development
2) The steady increase in performance satisfaction
3) The transformation of collaboration and community
4) Youth acting as the oracles of future changes
5) The shifting distribution of tasks (from labor to machine)
6) The fact that future technologies will be disruptive to traditional legal services.
However, these trends have been around for a relatively long time now and yet they have failed to generate the pace of change in legal services that Susskind posited.
Change is inevitable, but it is happening slowly enough in the legal industry that lawyers have had time to adapt. Part of what is happening is younger attorneys, more comfortable with legal technology, are positioning their own legal services farther along the evolutionary path, relying more on systematized and packaged services and taking advantage of the IT trends Susskind identified, improving the quality of services across the spectrum of evolutionary development. These trendsetters are satisfying the changes in market demand allowing more traditional legal services providers to continue their approach to legal services without tremendous market pressure to change.
Is it the end of lawyers? No. Not even Susskind believed the end of lawyers was inevitable. It is, however, the end of legal services as we know them. Change is happening more slowly in the legal industry than elsewhere, but change is nonetheless occurring, and lawyers that adapt to these changes will emerge better advocates and advisors. Adaptive lawyering will ensure survival regardless of the speed of evolutionary change in the legal services industry. Lawyers who embrace technological advances i.e. Practice Management technology, will find they can evolve with the market and not only survive, but thrive.