Legal tech gurus predict imminent changes for lawyers

Richard Susskind

In this year’s Annual Review, assistant editor Kapil Summan speaks to legal and business technologists Richard and Daniel Susskind about the ideas in their new book, The Future of the Professions.

When Richard suggested in 1996 that one day lawyers would habitually communicate with their clients using email the profession reacted with incredulity. Fast forward 20 years later to last December when the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd speculated that artificial intelligence would soon supersede QCs in predicting the outcomes of cases. Many will scoff at that prediction just as they did in 1996 because of what Richard and Daniel describe in the book as the “technological myopia bias” — judging tomorrow’s technology by the standards of today.

But rapid change is afoot and has been for some time. The original, unwieldy, iPhone was released 10 years ago and was something of a novelty. Today, people can carry out substantive work on their “smartphone”, a term that has already become quaint. Why should law or any other profession be immune from further change? Richard explains how an employment lawyer will approach his work in the coming years.

“Traditionally, you come out of university, train as an employment lawyer, you advise clients, you draft employment contracts. In the future what a lot of people with experience of employment law will do is they’ll become knowledge engineers. They will actually design and develop and sell automated employment contract production systems. You’re still using your legal knowledge, you’re still sorting out legal problems but you’re not doing so the traditional way.”

But the universities are still peddling the same old dusty curricula, as Richard pithily notes: “A lot of the law schools are generating twentieth century lawyers fit for purpose in the late nineties.”

To get ahead in the future legal profession, lawyers will have to bring more to the table than knowledge of how to reason with and apply rules; they will have to understand the very systems in which these rules are disseminated and embedded.

Daniel, a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford, explains that what you find at the current “vanguard” of professionals, those at the forefront of change, is that they combine legal training with technical expertise.

“Domain experts, for example, are trained lawyers who know the law, and secondly, technical experts, people who know programming languages and so on. Less often than you think there’s one person who does both, so it’s not necessarily as straightforward as: if you want to solve legal problems in the future using technology you want to learn programming because actually when you look at the most successful companies it’s people in there who have trained as traditional lawyers.”

He adds: “The difference there is that they’re applying that legal knowledge in a very different way and it’s that open mindedness about how you bring your legal training and knowledge to bear on a particular problem – there might be other ways to solve that problem using technology.”

The Future of the Professions by Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind. Pub by Oxford University press, 368pp £18.99 (Hardback).

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