Pundits lately have made a sport of piling on the legal services industry, making no effort to hide their glee in predicting the end of the world of lawyers as we have known it. A voice of clarity in that cacophony has been Richard Susskind, who, while predicting the end of lawyering as we have known it, has done so methodically and with an eye toward predicting the possibilities that come from the industry’s transformation. Any lawyer who has not read his past works, and even lawyers who have, should read his latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future.
Tomorrow’s Lawyers is a compact synthesis and update of Susskind’s previous works on the transformation of the legal industry, a short read filled with some valuable insights and suggestions. The primary targets of his study are the prototypical large corporate law firm and in-house law department. His basic approach is to (1) unpack transactional and litigation legal services into their discrete components; (2) put those components up against the disruptive economic and technological forces at play now and in the foreseeable future; (3) examine which of the legal services components are likely to come under pressure to be downsized, outsourced, price reduced, etc.; and (4) predict a new structure of the legal services industry coming out of that process, including new employment opportunities for lawyers.
As a former BigLaw partner who has been in full-time legal education the past 18 years, much of what Susskind describes resonates with my experience and my sense of where the legal practice is headed. I don’t agree with everything he says in the book, but I agree with most of it and believe it would be a useful read for senior partners, in-house general counsel, new lawyers, and, of greatest interest to me, law students. Even if you don’t agree with his predictions of where the legal services industry is headed, his descriptions of the components of legal services and the disruptive forces acting on the industry are insightful and instructive.
That said, other than a few pages devoted to how all these changes will make legal services more affordable to the average Joe, the exclusive focus of the book is the upper crust of the legal industry, the 100 hugest law firms and their 1000 largest in-house corporate clients. This 100/1000 layer of the industry is, of course, where vast billable hour dollar amounts are exchanged, but it is by no means the entire legal industry and his predictions don’t map well onto many of the industry’s other sub-sectors. For example, government agency legal counsel, plaintiff’s work, and criminal law prosecution and representation are fundamentally different from the 100/1000 in economic structure, lawyering process, and attorney-client relations. The disruptive forces Susskind identifies for the 100/1000 will influence these sectors, to be sure, but I believe with less impact or at least different impacts. Also, I think Susskind underestimates the staying power of mid-sized and smaller law firms with deep roots in their regional economy, culture, and politics, which Susskind predicts will vanish. They will have to adapt and shrink as well, but if they do I see no reason why what remains of BigLaw will suck away their work in the future any more than it has in the past.
The big puzzle that comes out of Tomorrow’s Lawyers for me, however, is how we are going to train the lawyers who will handle the remaining demand for what Susskind describes as “bespoke” legal services–high-end, hand-crafted work that can only be executed effectively by highly-skilled experienced lawyers. The effect of the conventional BigLaw model was that a lawyer “saw it all” as he or she worked through the ranks toward partner. Yes, it was highly inefficient at some stages, such as paying newly-minted attorneys to read through thousands of transaction due diligence or litigation discovery pages, but by the time a person made partner he or she had a true command of the entire “wall” of a major transaction or piece of litigation. In Susskind’s future that person will see only some of the bricks, because much of the less sophisticated work will be outsourced. He envisions the development of the “legal process expert” who will be hired (presumably by in-house counsel) to manage all the bricks into a wall, but who will train them as well? We will always need legal expertise at that master craftsman level–the lawyers who argue constitutional law principles, advance policy reform, handle bet-the-company transactions and litigation–and no matter how much we reform legal education, law schools can’t pop them out at the end of three years.