The boy who cried automation and the downside of doomsaying

Richard Susskind is not afraid to make big calls. Author of the acclaimed bestseller, The End of Lawyers, Susskind holds professorships at the University of Oxford, Gresham College and Strathclyde University – in addition to being the IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

Having graduated with a PhD in Law and Computers from Balliol College, Oxford in 1986, Susskind has spent the past thirty years researching the relationship between disruptive technologies and the law, namely the internet. More often than not, Susskind concludes that technology and the law are on a collision course with the former destined to win out – though some find this prediction melodramatic.

Changes in legal practice have been driven not only by technological advancement, but also by consumer demand for less costly legal advice. This places a demand on law firms and in-house counsel to continually adopt new practices while simultaneously improving output. In short, lawyers are being asked to do more with less.

Enter Icertis, a cloud-based contract automation company which employs machine-learning and AI to enable companies to pro-actively manage thousands of contract entitlements and obligations with ease, dealing with a multitude of legal entities across different jurisdictions.

While the innovation that Icertis represents might not necessarily be of interest to lawyers just yet, the benefits of contract automation are plain to see. Technological advances allow for the leveraging of data to transform workaday consumer relationships into strategic advantages.

Therefore, using machine-learning and AI to standardise contracts, while also creating automatic notification systems to manage discharge dates, contract automation might actually be simply a useful tool to lessen the load on the embattled in-house counsel class – allowing lawyers to do more with less – as opposed to being some form of nefarious dark art designed to destroy jobs.

At the centre of Susskind’s theories is the concept that the internet made access to law cheaper. In the past decade, internet legal advice forums have become commonplace, and in Britain the groundwork is being laid for mechanisms which would allow for online dispute resolution. This improves access to justice while creating opportunities for lawyers willing to adapt to the new market.

In an interview with Priori, Susskind rather ominously noted: ‘Unless small firms radically change what they do, they’re going to struggle to survive in the early 2020s… If you want to stay general purpose and do everyday law, you are going to struggle.’ He advises general practitioners to either specialise in a niche area, or focus on becoming more of An everyday confidante to clients, providing ‘business acumen and psychological support’ as well as ‘regular legal advice’.

Perhaps these stark words would perhaps carry more weight if Susskind had not been crying wolf for the past thirty years. To many, he is seen as somewhat of a human harbinger of doom for legal sector. However, that is not to say that his conclusions are completely without merit, as technological change is likely to have some sort of effect on smaller firms – we just can’t say for sure that will be. This is worrying in light of the fact that over 90% of Irish law firms employ fewer than five solicitors.

With disruptive developments like AI, automation and blockchain technology finally showing real-world applications, it is fair to say that while some firms may need to embrace technology to enable them to do more with less, the fundamentals of legal practice will always remain the same – helping clients to reach satisfactory outcomes through knowledge and application of the law.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor in 1981, lawyer William G. Harrington noted that the computer will ‘probably’ revolutionise the practice of law, enabling lawyers to give immediate advice to clients over the phone – following a ‘quick search on an electronic law library’. Nowadays, lawyers need not hold every single section of every statute every written in their heads – though some do – but rather, can consult online services for case reports and commentary that is so vital to remaining abreast of legal developments.

Much like the befuddled Harrington, practitioners ought to remain open to the possibility that disruptive technologies can actually help improve their firms, even if the fast-paced nature of such changes renders accurate prediction impossible. Perhaps automation will actually enhance the legal profession, as opposed to undermining it, freeing up gifted individuals for more meaningful work and providing a better work-life balance for all. To paraphrase the great Charles Darwin, it is not the strongest of the firms that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptive to change.

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