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November 06, 2007

Will Lawyers As We Know Them Exist in 100 Years?

Hat tip to Stephanie West Allen at Idealawg for presenting this Times Online Article, " Legal Profession is on the Brink of Fundamental Change." the introduction to this new book. This is not a tabloid piece but a provocative and serious examination of the legal industry from Richard Susskind, Emeritus Professor of Law at Gresham College, IT advisor to the Lord Chief Justice and consultant to leading law firms. This first article is one in a series of six excerpts to be presented by Times Online.

This is neither a lawyer-bashing polemic nor a gratuitous assault on the legal profession. Instead, it is a collection of predictions and observations about a generally honourable profession that is, I argue, on the brink of fundamental transformation.

That said, I do admit, if I may give away the ending, that these articles will point to a future in which conventional legal advisers will be much less prominent in society than today and, in some walks of life, will have no visibility at all. This, I believe, is where we will be taken by two forces: by a market pull towards commoditisation and by pervasive development and uptake of information technology. Commoditisation and IT will shape and characterise 21st century legal service.

Against this backdrop, I should be honest about one issue from the outset. I do not believe lawyers are self-evidently entitled to profit from the law. As I have said before, the law is not there to provide a livelihood for lawyers any more than ill-health exists to offer a living for doctors. Successful legal business may be a bi-product of law in society, but it is not the purpose of law. And, just as numerous other industries and sectors are having to adapt to broader change, so too should lawyers.

This series calls for the growth and the development of a legal profession not by ring-fencing certain categories of work as the exclusive preserve of lawyers; nor by encouraging cartel-like activity which discourages all but lawyers from engaging. Rather, it calls for lawyers, their professional bodies, their policy-makers, and their clients, to think more creatively, imaginatively, and entrepreneurially about the way in which lawyers can and should contribute to our rapidly changing economy and society.

This pressure to change has never been more evident then with solo practitioners, always, in my opinion, the first to see the subtle shifts in the mood of clients and capable of responding before others with creativity and innovation.  There are heated debates about breaking free from the billable hour, a market pressure from clients to have both value and limits built into the fee structure.  Solos respond by capitalizing on information technologies to streamline their businesses, reduce overhead to meet this changing demand.  Sometimes this is camouflaged in an argument for work/life balance because in making these changes we are freeing ourselves, too, from being captive to the standard trappings of a second wave law firm and mentality.  We further recognize the shift by responding to an increased workload by outsourcing or using non-lawyers to fulfill the needs.   

The legal community as a whole, however, does seek to circle the wagons, protecting against perceived attacks to their livelihood, doing exactly what Susskind says, "ring-fencing certain categories as the exclusive preserve of lawyers; ....encouraging cartel-like activity which discourages all but lawyers from engaging."   This can be seen in the push for specialization certification, an act to protect some lawyers from other lawyers as more and more lawyers enter the legal market or, as in the case of real estate law, requiring all closings to have a lawyer for each side. 

Professionals will do whatever they can to keep the collective dollars they believe they are entitled to by virtue of their education or status and the rebellion by the 'consumer' is underfoot.  And sometimes this does significant harm to the very public they are sworn to serve.

One example comes to mind within my own family and it has to do with the medical profession.  My father has suffered for years with heart ailments.  Years of surgeries, the newest technologies and so on has prolonged his life, thankfully.  However, in his more advanced years there are no more surgeries which can be done.  He visited his lifelong highly regarded cardiologist who flat out told him there is nothing left to do to address the frequency of his angina attacks.  He subsequently went to a younger cardiologist who says there is a new and promising treatment which is basically a physical therapy, a machine which massages the legs in rhythm with the pumping of the heart pushing more blood through at timed intervals.  After six weeks of treatments five days a week it has been shown to actually create the growth of new blood vessels, the effects lasting up to three years, the angina attacks minimized if not gone.  My father asked why his renowned cardiologist didn't tell him about this treatment?  The younger cardiologist said, "He probably didn't even learn about it. It's not profitable for his business model.  He didn't go to medical school and become an elite cardiologist to recommend physical therapy to be performed by a lower paying professional.  My business model is different.  It incorporates alternative therapies....and my patients are demanding alternative treatments."

In my opinion this is analagus to changes Susskind envisions.  In protecting your turf and the right to profit, you end up not serving your client or yourself in the long run.  By embracing changes, outsourcing to better the experience of your client you will build your business and reputation.  The law is not there to preserve our perceived entitlement to $1,000.00 per hour. And clinging to the notion that it is will be the undoing of many.  New solos and prescient current solos will not have that problem.  They already are in the forefront of the change revamping their fee structures, changing their office procedures, downsizing, outsourcing, creating collaboratives and living better lives for it.  It is exhausting holding onto a framework of operation which has you swimming upstream, the majority destined to perish. 

Does this mean the lawyer will cease to exist?  No.  There will always be a need for intelligent counsel and expertise in matters that are beyond the abilities of the average consumer especially in areas of the law which are highly complex.  Will we be highly paid and revered for this expertise?  I don't know. Do you?  The tide has shifted against many other types of professionals when it was perceived profit was the main motivation; the market couldn't and wouldn't sustain their outdated business model any longer.

Excerpt #2 - A Decade On: Much Changed, Much Still To Unfold

Excerpt #3 - How the Traditional Role of Lawyers Will Change

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