The future for lawyers: Legal service in a cart?  

“We’re in an era of fundamental, irreversible change in the way that lawyers work. We have to think deeply about our future, rather than thinking tomorrow will be a better version of today,” came this sober wake-up call from Professor Richard Susskind OBE, President of the Society of Computers & Law in the UK at a recent conference.  

With pressures from clients to reduce their use of lawyers, and law firms under pressure to both add value and reduce their own headcount – while the need for legal and compliance work escalates – little wonder that the innovation that technology offers is a tantalising option and increasingly taking centre stage.  

If you can’t beat them, join them  

So, what shape will the future take? The good news according to Richard, speaking ahead of his Opening International Keynote Address at Chilli IQ’s Managing Partners Forum on Friday 5 March is not that traditional legal skills won’t be needed. But there is bad news: they’ll be needed less.   

“There won’t be enough work to keep all traditional lawyers in practice, because the market will have moved to different ways of solving problems.”  

– Professor Richard Susskind OBE, President of the Society of Computers & Law in the UK

And these new solutions will flip the legal profession on its head.   

“We’re going to move from legal services or a kind of human bespoke service, to legal service in a cart,” says Richard, setting the scene for the cataclysm to come.   

“The big thing is that we will move away from advisory services to offering solutions and products, that will be available online – and that’s a huge difference. You won’t go to a lawyer to have a document drafted, but you’ll license the use of their system, which will generate a very reliable draft.”  

There’s no use fighting this surge of change by trying to compete with machines, because, as Richard warns, they will, in time outperform you. In most cases anyway.   

“The exciting opportunity here is to reframe what one does within the legal world and be involved in building the systems that replace our old ways of working.”   

Although Richard foresees a role in the future for the traditional “empathetic trusted adviser”, that person may or may not be a lawyer, just like a host of other “special roles” such as legal knowledge engineers, risk managers and legal technologists who’ll be populating the firms of the future.  

Universities to do catch-up  

But most law schools seem blind to this charging Behemoth, with curricula that will need to adapt to start generating 21st century law graduates he says. “We need to extend the range of skills that lawyers have – and that particularly involves a whole range of technological skills.”  

A good legal business in the future, he forecasts, will provide a blend of human service and technology service, focused on meeting the needs of clients using the best available legal tech tools.   

“It’ll be a blend of human being and machine, operating a different business model together.”  

That blend will also continue to shape the charging model, with fixed fees for the automated work, and with a tick to the past, “the billable hour will continue to be a sensible way of charging for the traditional expert, when they’re working on complex work”. 

What will that complex work be? That according to Richard is “the biggest question of all”.  

The future is now  

Although we have some time to transform, we don’t have a lot. “I think most of the claims being made about AI, and its short-term impact on lawyers hugely overstate its impact,” says Richard. “My bigger point is, though, that most of the long-term claims hugely understate its impact.” 

At PwC, they’re ahead of the curve, with digital transformation well underway, thanks to the pandemic. “The speed with which we all shifted to remote working and became entirely dependent on technology to communicate and deliver service really converted a lot of the skeptics,” reveals Tony O’Malley, PwC’s Global Head of Legal Services. 

“Many in-house lawyers, and in-house teams now see transformation as not just a possibility, but actually inevitable. We’ve seen, particularly through our New Law team, a surge in the appetite for real transformation.”

– Tony O’Malley, Global Head of Legal Services, PwC

“Some of it is about cost reduction. But not all of it. Some of it is about setting up their systems so they can access data that helps them run and drive change in the business.” 

Use of data analytics is now mainstream and provides valuable metrics for gauging the performance for legal teams.  It has also empowered them to prove the value of their work to the business, as a return on investment, explained Tony at the Managing Partners Forum. 

Technology to do the heavy lifting 

Then there’s the organisational layer of technology transformation he cited, underpinning the move from siloed business units into broader functional teams. Plus the use of technology to free up lawyers’ time to spend on higher-value, higher-risk issues. 

“High volume, low complexity work lends itself to automation, or some form of labor arbitrage. A mixture of, and some form of, process engineering, and process mapping. You know, it makes sense to start there. Because often, it’s the biggest saving, and it’s the easiest win for you.” 

Bill Reid, Chief Legal Officer at Woolworths, is only too familiar with the benefits of technology with the business undergoing an enterprise-wide digital and e-commerce transformation to improve transactions with its customers and suppliers.  

Reflecting on the future for lawyers, he has the final word. “Their low-value, high volume, repeatable work will become increasingly automated. Whereas their judgment, the insight of human words, will become ever more valuable.” 

Professor Richard Susskind OBE, Tony O’Malley and Bill Reid were eminent speakers at Chilli IQ’s 14th Managing Partners Forum held in Sydney on 5–6 March 2021.

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