Future Perfect? A Review of Richard Susskind's
The Future of Law
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, £19.99
ISBN 0 19 826007 5
Introduction from the book. (Added 28/02/97)
Date of publication: 30 September 1996
Citation: Widdison, R (1996), 'Future Perfect? A Review of Richard Susskind's The Future of Law', Book Review, 1996 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/elj/jilt/bookrev/3widdis/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1996_3/widdison/>
Until recently, neither legal practitioners nor academics have paid much attention to the question of what the future holds for law. The relatively small amount of discussion that there has been has tended to involve piecemeal examination of the short term future - for example, how will casework management systems change the nature of legal practice over the next three to five years? Richard Susskind in his new book 'The Future of Law' has undertaken an altogether bolder and grander enterprise. He has sought both to project the big picture of how information technology (IT) will change the nature of law and legal practice and also to span an epic time scale - a whole human generation of 30 years or more.
At first glance the book seems to be a rather odd mixture. There are not two main strands, as one might expect, but three - law, IT and management science. However, as one progresses through the work, it becomes clear why Susskind thought it necessary to weave the management strand into his thesis. Not only does he demonstrate that his decision to adopt this approach is justified, he has also completed the self-imposed task successfully, if the emphatic plaudit from management guru Edward de Bono is anything to go by.
Key to Susskind's thesis is the idea that lawyers are only half way through their information revolution. At this midpoint, a huge amount of legal information, both primary and secondary, has already been captured and made accessible in the electronic medium. However, we have not yet developed the IT tools that enable us to convert this mountain of legal information effectively and efficiently into knowledge - to extract, in Susskind's words, 'all but only' the information that we require for the job in hand. The second half of the legal information revolution will, according to Susskind, be characterised by the development of these vital knowledge tools. And thus, the problems that IT itself has helped to create will be solved by further advances in that technology.
This prediction, is not, however, the conclusion of Susskind's thesis. Rather, it merely provides the raft upon which he floats a set of far more profound and intriguing speculations. Here is a taste of some of these speculations. Susskind argues that the completion of the information revolution will trigger nothing less than a 'paradigm shift' - a sea change - in what we understand legal practice and process to involve. He predicts that the nature of lawyering will develop away from the dominance of one-to-one legal casework towards an ever increasing focus on the construction and maintenance of information services - interactive knowledge based products made available not just to one but to a multitude of 'clients'. As the corollary of this change of emphasis, lawyers themselves will operate less like the practitioners of today and more like 'knowledge engineers'.
The more widespread availability of specialist knowledge, coupled with billing based on a fixed charge for each access rather than on the familiar metered hourly rates, will not only benefit existing clients, it will also open up a substantial 'latent legal market' of potential clients who at present find conventional law firms either too expensive or too impractical to consult. Another striking claim is that the coming shift in paradigm will spur a move away from the traditional reactive 'fire fighting' methods of legal problem solving towards a much more proactive approach based on the prior identification and assessment of potential risks coupled with the resultant dispute avoidance.
Are Susskind's predictions accurate? Who knows? Nobody will be able to say one way or the other with any confidence for a decade or more. That is not what makes this book important. The service that Susskind has performed is to present his personal vision of the future of law both powerfully and persuasively. In doing this, he has challenged us to debate his ideas and to put forward our own views of how we think that the future will (and ought to) look. I, myself, hope that the publication of this seminal work, together with the reaction that must surely follow, will help lead to the emergence of a new branch of legal science - a new discipline - which we may choose, perhaps, to call 'legal futurology'.
One of my school teachers often used to berate his pupils with the statement: "It's later than you think." By this, he simply meant that we had less time to revise for examinations than we might have supposed. Such a sentiment could, however, just as well be addressed to the legal practitioners and academics of today. We no longer live in the present (let alone the past!). At some point, we all began to live in the future. The sooner we wake up to this predicament, the sooner we will be able to begin to control the speed and direction in which our law and our legal system are travelling.