The New Normal

Richard Susskind Q&A: ‘The competition that kills you ... may not look like you’


By Paul Lippe

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Richard Susskind

Richard Susskind.

In anticipation of author and legal consultant Richard Susskind’s visit to the U.S., he and Paul Lippe discussed the impetus behind Susskind’s new book (co-authored with his son, Daniel), The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, and the challenges facing law and all professions.

Q. You’ve been focusing on lawyers most of your career. Why did you decide to expand the focus to other professionals?

A. It was a coincidence of interests. I was frequently getting feedback from other professionals (doctors, accountants, consultants and others who had perhaps been at one of my lectures) that my thinking about the impact of technology on the legal profession applied equally to theirs. At the same time (about five years ago), Daniel began to talk to me about the work he was doing in the U.K. Prime Minister’s [No. 10 Policy Unit] on health policy, education policy, justice policy and on technology. We found we were seeing the same phenomenon—signs of impending and massive change. And we thought this was worth investigating together. We also thought it would be great fun to co-author a book. And so we did.

Q. How much do you think different professionals (e.g., lawyers, doctors, clergy, accountants) view the other fields as facing similar challenges?

A. Clearly, the professions do differ in some respects—in the problems they solve, the bodies of knowledge of which they rely, the traditions they embody, and more. But, in the end, we argue, almost all professionals seem to be solving the same basic problem. Human beings have limited understanding, and when faced with serious difficulties beyond our knowledge and experience, we turn to people we call professionals. We turn, in other words, to people who have expertise and experience that we do not. However, our professions seem to be creaking. Look at health, law and education. The best services are unaffordable for most people, the professions themselves are antiquated, and they are opaque too—non-experts have little grasp of what professionals are doing or even if the service they receive is technically sound.

Q. How will technology most change the role of lawyers?

A. On the one hand, technology will “automate” antiquated practices. It will streamline and optimize our traditional and often inefficient ways of working. But, far more radically, we will see the emergence of technologies that “innovate”—those that will disrupt and replace many areas of legal work, especially routine legal work that today is the mainstay of many legal practices. The use of videoconferencing is an example of automation. The lawyer still meets with the client but does so virtually and so saves some time and money. In contrast, the availability of online automated document production without the direct involvement of lawyers is an illustration, in our terms, of innovation. The lawyer is disintermediated, removed from the scene. Lawyers will face a stark choice—they can hang onto old ways of working, hoping that some parts of their practice will remain unaffected by technology or they can reinvent themselves—as, say, legal knowledge engineers or legal risk managers or legal process analysts, and help their clients to solve problems in new ways.

Q. If clients increasingly use more automated systems, how can we preserve the “moral character” and trust that the professions should bring?

A. For many lawyers, this is a key question. In our book, we say that we urgently need public debate on those areas of professional work that are considered, for moral reasons, to be the sole preserve of human beings, even if our machines can outperform us. We surely don’t want robots making the decision to switch off life-support systems, nor machines to pass life sentences. We should be discussing the boundaries of acceptability of machine involvement sooner rather than later. As for trust, we recognize this is fundamental to the current model of producing and distributing expertise in society. If we use professionals, then they surely must be trustworthy. But if we embrace any of the six alternative models of production and distribution that we identify, then the case for trust is less compelling. We develop an account of what we call quasi trust, which is better suited to the Internet age. It provides confidence and reliability in our machines and services but falls short of the utmost duty of good faith that we expect of our human professionals.

Q. How do you think the U.S. and U.K. differ around these issues?

A. In the most general of terms, the leading U.K. law firms are more advanced in their use of technology than U.S. firms; U.S. law schools are more technologically progressive than U.K. schools; clients in the U.K. are more demanding than in the U.S.; while the U.S. has a richer and larger community of legal tech startups.

Q. Why do you think professionals are broadly resistant to change?

A. As I often say, it is hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they’ve got their business model wrong. The most prosperous firms are convinced that there is enough price-insensitive work to keep them going in the traditional way in perpetuity. They are wrong. Most clients tell me that the volumes of price-insensitive work are declining (or perhaps they are becoming more discerning) and that, in any event, even on bet-the-ranch deals and disputes, they will require even the best firms to decompose and undertake the routine elements in radically lest costly ways. As for less-profitable firms, it’s hard to change the wheel on a moving car.

Q. If you could change one thing in lawyers’ training, what would it be?

A. We need radically to overhaul our law schools. With the exception of about a dozen law schools in the U.S. and none in England, our law faculties are training their students to be 20th-century and not 21st-century lawyers. What they teach and how they teach has barely changed since I began as a law student in the late 1970s. This worries me deeply.

Q. What was it like to write a book with your son?

A. It has been a privilege and a pleasure. We are very close and, although we were demanding of one another and had our moments, we are closer than ever. And we are having a great time now, travelling the world and sharing platforms together. I should add that Daniel is much brighter than me so I genuinely feel that our book is better than my previous eight.

Q. If professional work is becoming more integrated across the professions, which profession is most apt to lead, and what can lawyers do to enhance their leadership chances?

A. Within the existing professions, leadership in multidisciplinary work is likely to continue to come from the major accounting firms. They are massively successful and influential businesses with remarkable gravitational pull and market penetration. But we also have to be alive to other players. The competition that kills you, we keep on reminding professionals, may not look like you. And so the very large professional publishers, high-tech and acquisitive as they are, may well assume a key role in the delivery of integrated professional service.

Q. When are you next in the U.S.?

A. We are speaking at Harvard on Feb. 16 and formally launching the book in New York on the evening of Feb. 17 (White & Case are very kindly hosting the celebration). But we will be back throughout the year and are planning book events in Chicago and the West Coast.

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