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Days of one-on-one advice could be over

Days of one-on-one advice could be over

Be ready to present your case before a computer judge.

A computer judge may sound like something from the pages of a science fiction novel, but it will be just part of the revolution taking place in the legal profession, international legal IT expert Richard Susskind says. The technical adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales says in the future lawyers and their clients will increasingly network and research on legal versions of Facebook, MySpace and Wikipedia, where city firms farm out work around the country and offshore, and where courts use artificial intelligence.

"The nature of legal work is knowledge-based and it seems improbable that it will remain firmly rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries while other industries move on," he tells The Australian Financial Review .

Susskind says that while the "first wave" of technological developments has revolutionised communication habits, the "second-wave" developments, which allow for more interactivity, such as Facebook and MySpace, will help drive structural change to the way law is practiced.

"The next wave won't just oil the machine, it will change the machinery itself," he says. "The days of one-on-one legal advice are over."

The other major driver for change is an increasing demand from clients for cheaper, commoditised legal services, rather than what Susskind calls "bespoke" work - tailored legal services for which corporate clients are prepared to pay high hourly fees.

The commoditisation of legal services is already well advanced in the United Kingdom and Susskind says that while demand for some bespoke work will continue, it will be much reduced.

The next decade will have greatly improved public sources of legal information, and closed communities of organisations, even corporate rivals, collaborating behind a virtual closed door to pool legal resources, he says.

Just one example is the Legal OnRamp project based in California. The brainchild of Cisco Systems, the site is still in development but already has more than 500 members from roughly 15 companies and 80 law firms. It is partially modelled on popular social networking sites, where users have public profiles, can search a member directory of all members' profiles, and add a person to their online team. The site will also offer a legal Wikipedia for users to share information, links and attachments, as well as a document repository where lawyers can share generic policies and contracts.

Susskind says such developments will create some losers in the legal profession. "If you are an in-house lawyer it is a solution, but for many lawyers it's very threatening," he says. "Some see great opportunities to pioneer legal services. As has occurred in so many other industries, they will reap the benefits of being early movers."

He adds that if lawyers do not step up to the plate, then external investors, in countries where this will be permitted, certainly will. Developments in IT and law may not affect the overall staff numbers of lawyers, but they will affect their distribution and the way firms are run.

"You will decompose work into work packages," Susskind says. "Sometimes it will be offshoring to India, sometimes subcontracting to Tasmania. Sometimes it will be systematic . . . there are 10 or 12 different ways of sourcing legal services."

There are already technological developments that facilitate this. The new generation of video technology, called "immersive telepresence", allows people to hold meetings that are just like a real face-to-face encounter, Susskind writes in The Times newspaper in London.

Computer judges are further off, he says. "When is justice going to be replaced by machines? That's not in the strategic plan of any serious justice system, but in 20 years' time, serious legal issues will be settled automatically."

Susskind has specialised in legal technology for 25 years and written several books, including the The Future of Law in 1996. He is now working on a new book reviewing the predictions he made in that book and making more.

From a 2007 perspective, many of his predictions in 1996 were so accurate that it is difficult to remember that 11 years ago such developments were not commonplace.

He predicted the publication of legislation on the internet and substantial in-house intranet resources to capture a firm's experience, as well as email becoming a more dominant form of communication than the telephone.

Australian Financial Review

© Fairfax Business Media

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