March 24, 2009

The End of Lawyers?

The title of Richard Susskind’s new book reads like the end result of every lawyer joke, but he doesn’t mean it. He does, however, believe that the way lawyers and law firms deliver legal advice and services will change profoundly in the coming years. The billable hour will be out, since it rewards lawyers who take on a sluggish and inefficient pace, and a web-based, fee-for-product system will be in. While commentators have prematurely predicted the death of the billable hour for decades, there is some reason to think that Susskind knows something we don’t. A few years ago, he prognosticated that email would invade the legal workplace and surpass communication by mail or fax. Many scoffed, but today most lawyers conduct the vast majority of their work via Outlook.

So what is the soothsayer predicting now? In The End of Lawyers: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services, he argues that:
  • General legal advice and standard documents will be provided by law firms over their websites;
  • Small, specialized law firms will be pushed out by bigger, technology-based firms;
  • Large law firms will take a more holistic approach to client problems by having different experts, including lawyers and accountants available to tackle issues from various angles;
  • Basic legal services will be outsourced to quasi-professionals and provided through retail kiosks and online; and
  • Corporate clients will collaborate with their competitors on regulatory issues to reduce costs;

While many of Susskind’s predictions are driven by the changing needs of larger corporate clients, there are some benefits to this futuristic legal system for the average person with a legal problem. Having legal advice accessible online would bring some competition and access to isolated rural areas where finding a lawyer can be challenging. Having some certainty as to the amount you will pay for legal services, and what you can expect in return, will also benefit those on a budget. Finally, the technology which is being developed to allow the provision of legal advice and documents over the internet may also provide the platform for the better provision of online pro bono legal advice one day. So probably not the end of lawyers, but maybe the start of better legal advice.

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