Book Review: The End of Lawyers?

The End of Lawyers? by Richard Susskind (London: Oxford University Press, 2008)

This is an enormously important book, and if you have any interest or stake in how the legal marketplace will operate in future, you have to read it. The End of Lawyers? provides a sweeping assessment (and in places, an indictment) of today’s legal services landscape and describes the architecture of the systems that will replace it. It identifies the pressure points where the legal services marketplace is poised to fracture and describes the forces that will cause the breaks. But what really stands out about The End of Lawyers? is its comprehensive depiction of a profession undergoing massive transformation – it provides a unique panoramic view of a legal marketplace in unprecedented flux. We talk a lot about “visionaries” these days, but in the legal profession, nobody seriously competes with Richard Susskind for that title, and this book shows why.

Now, I’m a little late to this party — many other people have written excellent reviews already, most recently this incisive commentary by Mitch Kowalski at the Legal Post. Others have also covered this terrain very well, including Bruce MacEwen, Jim Hasset, Nick Holmes and Ted Tjaden, as well as numerous consumer reviews at the Amazons of the world. Accordingly, while I’ll provide an overview of the book’s contents, strengths and weaknesses, I’m going to try focusing more on what the book represents in the history of legal innovation (answer: a watershed) and its implications for the legal profession’s evolution (answer: potentially shattering).

The End of Lawyers? relates how technology (especially the Internet), collaboration, globalization, and other forces are changing the fundamental rules by which legal services are bought and sold. The book is characterized by several key observations about how the legal marketplace is being transformed, with three especially significant ones:

  • The identification of an evolving and fluid spectrum of legal services categories: bespoke (one-off, customized or tailored), standardized (drawing upon precedents, process or previous work), systematized (reduced and applied to automated systems), packaged (systematized services exported to clients) and commoditized (packaged services so commonplace as to have little or no market value). Most lawyers insist that their services cluster around the left-hand end of this spectrum; Richard convincingly argues that movement to the right is inevitable for many types of legal services, with profound implications for lawyers’ business models.
  • The decomposition of legal tasks into component parts that can be delegated to various sources, few of them actual law firm lawyers. Twelve types of destinations for this multi-sourcing (reminiscent of unbundling) are identified: in-sourcing, de-lawyering, relocating, offshoring, outsourcing, subcontracting, co-sourcing, leasing, home-sourcing, open-sourcing, computerizing and no-sourcing, each of which is explained in more illuminating detail. Despite this multiplicity of legal work performers, an overarching entity responsible for managing the work must exist, and all the systems and processes involved must work together seamlessly.
  • In the context of astonishingly deep and rapid technological advances, the emergence of no fewer than ten disruptive (in the Clayton Christensen sense) legal technologies: automated document assembly, relentless connectivity, the electronic legal marketplace, e-learning, online legal guidance, legal open-sourcing, closed legal communities, workflow and project management, embedded legal knowledge, and online dispute resolution. These developments offer tremendous opportunity for more efficient and effective legal services delivery; but they also represent major threats to various aspects of the traditional law firm business model.

And this really is just a sampling – only an actual précis of the contents could convey everything that the book suggests. The details and depth in which these and other observations are explained and illustrated, with ample use of current examples, should be enough to persuade most readers that these trends are real and they are irreversible. But over the course of the book, Richard makes other observations that can fairly be called eye-popping ­– they open the mind to possibilities that none of us have been pondering:

  • the existential threat to in-house lawyers, who will be as susceptible as their outside counsel to being swept aside altogether if they fail to create or facilitate value;
  • the possibility that mediators, arbitrators, judges and even courts could be partly or wholly disintermediated by online dispute resolution (think: Facebook juries);
  • new lawyers learning their trade by practising on artificial clients – participating in simulated learning environments not unlike Second Life.

As David Maister notes in a dust-jacket testimonial, you don’t have to agree with all of this book’s assessments and conclusions to appreciate the importance of absorbing these ideas and their implications. I personally think there are far more hits than misses among the book’s prognostications, but what’s really important about The End of Lawyers? is that we now have a comprehensive and fully imagined picture of the new legal service marketplace towards which we are now hurtling – and on top of that, we have an example of the power of imagination in legal services innovation.

The myriad trends identified in this book all have one thing in common: they strip lawyers of the control and influence they’re accustomed to exercising over the legal services marketplace. The clearest message Richard sends in The End of Lawyers? is that from this point onwards, and to a increasing degree as time goes on, clients will call the shots. They will learn from the previous experiences of similarly situated clients, obtain services from reliable sources outside the legal profession, and benefit from technological advances that knock down price and access barriers. The means by which and the price at which legal services are delivered will be shaped by the marketplace, not by lawyers.

Regardless of which of the book’s forecasts are accurate (and even half of them would render the legal services market virtually unrecognizable), that’s a heart-stopping conclusion. And that’s why most lawyers who hear Richard’s prognostications react either with anger or denial. We all know by now that these are the first two stages in the process of accepting loss.

These lawyers might be tempted to dismiss the conjectures and conclusions of this book as mere predictions about the future. What they need to appreciate is that this book’s claims aren’t really “predictions,” in the popular use of the term. Richard is not predicting here, but “presuming,” in the legal sense. My criminal law professor used to explain “presumption” with the story of Dr. Stanley, who, making his way through African jungle in the 19th century in search of a missing British explorer, suddenly came across a Caucasian Briton near Lake Tanganyika. Recognizing that the facts before him led to one very likely conclusion, he said: “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”

In the same way, Richard is presuming the eventual state of the legal marketplace from real evidence and undeniable trends. He’s not making this stuff up, and he’s not just throwing darts at a board. He gathers all the facts on the ground and trends in the air (the unprecedented pressures on the traditional legal marketplace), ties these disparate strands together, and figures out where they logically must lead. As a result, his conclusions aren’t nearly as radical as they might seem — they’re the natural outcomes of forces and developments that he clearly has demonstrated is already taking shape.

This is already a long review, and I could go on at greater length about everything raised in this book. But I want to point out an element of The End of Lawyers? that can go overlooked by those of us primarily concerned with the fate of lawyers. Chapter 7, “Access to Justice and the Law,” is enormously important and valuable for its insights into a far more pressing issue: the unmet legal needs of literally millions of people, and the social cost this unmet need extracts.

Richard comes to the law from an IT background, and throughout this book, you can detect the technologist’s overriding desire for greater systems efficiency. You get the sense that the legal services marketplace offends him not least for its staggering misallocation of resources and wasted opportunities for better processes and results. But when the conversation turns to access to justice, another voice emerges, that of the author’s deep commitment to the ways in which society at large should and could be far better served in the legal services field.

It’s not just that so many people can’t afford their day in court — it’s also that so many people don’t even know that their unhappy situations merit a day in court, that they have rights and channels through which they can exercise those rights. The law delivers too many ambulances at the bottom of cliffs and not enough railings at the top. Unrecognized and unmet (or met too late) legal needs are a blight on society, and Richard lays out the ways in which this can be addressed (noting along the way, for self-interested lawyers, that the flip side of “unmet legal needs” is “the latent legal market”). It’s only one chapter, but if its implications and promises are taken up, it could well prove to be the most important one.

As always, I feel it’s important to identify the less positive aspects even of books I like. I would argue that the 12 multi-sourcing targets are too finely separated, and that the list could fairly have been just 8 or 9. The section on clients contains an evolving series of law firm and client grids that become confusing and distracting as they go on. The language and many of the examples (especially on the access-to-justice side) show this to be a book written primarily with a UK audience in mind – an alternative or future edition conversant with cultures and developments on both sides of the Atlantic would be helpful. This is yet another book about law practice that could use a more comprehensive index. And I would have liked to read more on law firms’ business models and the fatal problems with legal education, although admittedly these are outside the book’s purview. As you can gather, I don’t think these shortcomings damage its power and significance.

Finally, much has been made of the title, and no doubt some people believe (inaccurately) that the author is gleefully prophesying the extinction of homo legalis. Richard reiterates in the conclusion the significance of the question mark, “intended to confirm that this book is an inquiry into whether lawyers have a future rather than a prediction of their demise.” But I think there’s another sense in which the title could be interpreted without the need for the interrogatory.

If we take another meaning of “end” ­– an outcome worked toward or an objective for which effort is expended, rather than the more popular meaning of “disappearance” — then we could say that this is a book about where lawyers are going, and what use will be made of them when they get there. In that sense, the book warns, if the profession stubbornly ignores or resists these clear changes to the surrounding environment, then the end of lawyers could be, indeed, the end of lawyers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it’s not what Richard Susskind is rooting for. He sees a radically transformed legal profession at the end of this process, and clearly hopes that this new profession can and will provide smarter, earlier and more effective legal guidance to a much broader range of clients. That’s an end of lawyers we should all be pulling for.


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