How can technology transform the legal services market to improve accessibility and what needs to happen to make this a reality? We speak to Richard Susskind OBE, author of ten books about the future of legal and professional services. His latest and most ambitious book, Online Courts and the Future of Justice, moves the conversation from automation to transformation.
1. Why do you think legal technology is important?
We face some very serious problems with respect to legal services and the courts in that they have become unaffordable and inaccessible for most people. I see legal technology as one, but not the only, solution to the access to justice problem.
When it comes to solving this problem I don’t think the answer simply lies in an increase in legal aid, as many still believe. I think that if the legal system is too expensive, then it’s too expensive no matter who is paying for it. Spending months of time, thousands of pounds, having to take days off work, all on a highly combative process presents fundamental problems to accessing justice which are not fully resolved by an increase in public funding.
When I talk about technology I am not talking about automating old practices and removing inefficiencies. I am talking about transformation – using technology to enable us to deliver legal and court services in ways which previously weren’t possible. The last 40 years have been about automation. We now need to look at transformation.
2. What do you think needs to change for legal services to be made more accessible and relevant to consumers?
At the highest level, we need better, easier and more affordable ways to enable people to understand their legal rights. There then needs to be affordable and convenient ways of enforcing those rights. I think the key is moving away from giving bite to legal rights through traditional court service to a self-help system enabling more people actually to enforce their rights.
3. You’ve been an advocate for using technology to improve access to the legal system for years. Do you feel lawyers’ attitudes towards technology have changed?
I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years since 1981. I’ve certainly seen a shift in attitudes, and I’ve seen more change in the last three years than in the previous 37 years. Lawyers are asking how and when they are going to implement technology rather than whether they will implement it. There are different levels of acceptance of legal technology. The big international firms’ commitment to technology is considerable and unwavering.
Many smaller practices can stay afloat because they use basic, but significant, technology to allow them to run their small businesses.
Many lawyers, judges, policy makers and commentators are united behind the principle that technology can offer greater access to legal services.
Looking forward, I’m excited to see a change from viewing legal technology as a way to help law firms do their jobs, to legal technology helping citizens understand and enforce their rights themselves.
4. Given you’ve been doing this for 40 years, what has been the most surprising reaction to some of your ideas?
In 1996 I wrote The Future of Law and I said that in the future the main way lawyers and clients would communicate would be via email; and that lawyers’ first port of call for legal research would be the internet. The reaction wasn’t positive. Officials at the Law Society said that I shouldn’t be allowed to speak in public and that I was bringing the legal profession into disrepute! Lawyers and judges united in condemning me about online research – they said I didn’t understand the practical and cultural significance of law libraries.
Things have changed. The very same Law Society is now a strong advocate of legal technology and the vast majority of lawyers use online research.
When I talk about online courts, most lawyers’ instinctive reaction is that it will never happen. But we have seen lawyers’ attitudes shift and legal change happen, so that I think the same will hold true for online courts.
5. What do you think is holding the legal market back from adopting technology?
Looking at different segments of the legal market, for big commercial law firms the short answer is that it’s hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they’ve got their business model wrong.They might be using technology to automate some tasks, but they are not transforming themselves quickly because they are not commercially incentivised to do so.
Turning to the clients of law firms, many themselves are not sufficiently sophisticated in their knowledge of technology to know what to ask for. The market incentives aren’t there to bring about quick change.
Meanwhile, the problems facing the courts are of a different nature. Here it is the enormity of the challenge which is holding them back. I think transforming the current court system to an online system is a 10 year project, but that is not a popular time frame for policymakers and politicians who like to deliver change in 3 to 4 years.
Finally, I don’t think law schools are taking legal technology sufficiently seriously. Law schools are still generating 20th law graduates rather than 21st ones. The teaching has not fundamentally changed.
6. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing law firms today?
I think there are three main challenges facing law firms today. The first is relentless cost pressure from clients. The second is new competition – whether that’s from the Big Four or alternative legal service providers. The third is that technology itself is emerging as an enabler of new ways of delivering legal services. This combination would place considerable pressure on any business.
8. What three qualities do you think a modern lawyer should have?
The first is open-mindedness. We need a new generation of lawyers prepared to think differently about how legal services can be delivered.
The second is familiarity and expertise in legal technology. This cannot be an “add-on” but integral to training.
The third is great communication skills: written, verbal and analytical skills.
9. What’s your long term prediction for the legal sector as a whole?
I actually think this is the wrong question.
We shouldn’t ask what the future holds for lawyers, but rather – in the future, how will we resolve the problems to which today’s lawyers are currently the best answer?
The real question is what problems do people have and how can we best solve them. This may involve lawyers and the courts in the future or it may not.