Transforming the Law - Essays on Technology,
Professor Richard Susskind OBE probably needs no introduction to the audience of this journal - he is, arguably, the world's leading law and IT guru. His previous book 'The Future of Law', was ground-breaking in that it laid out a coherent vision of how technology might not only automate but also transform the practice of, and access to law. In terms of his original 'blue sky' thinking on the inter-relationship between law and information technology, he is in a market of one. So having doffed the metaphorical cap to the leading thinker in the field, what can one say of his latest offering?
It is 'something of a mixed bag' as the author freely admits (Susskind, Preface, page i). Consequently will appeal to a very diverse audience of practising lawyers, civil servants, members of the judiciary, academics and fellow consultants. Readers should pick what they require from it. The book is a series of essays on four themes: legal services in the New Economy; the Future of Law, a re-appraisal of the themes contained in his earlier book of the same name; Expert Systems in Law; and IT in the Justice System. From my own point of view, I found the two new chapters on legal services in the new economy to be the most relevant and will therefore confine the majority of my comments to these.
While one can criticise this book for the brevity of the original contributions, one cannot knock the quality of Susskind's original thinking on this topic which occupies the first two chapters. The first chapter concerns what Susskind calls 'the Grid'. Given that Susskind is a prolific public speaker, this model has become well known to the legal profession over the past 12-18 months, but it is no less useful for being familiar. The Grid is a simple yet persuasive model 'designed to help explain and clarify the complex and often confusing interrelationships between the concepts of IT, information and knowledge' (Susskind, p.5). A version of the Grid is represented below.
Figure 1: A version of 'the Grid'.
The horizontal axis of the Grid 'seeks to reflect the spectrum of concepts embraced by the term 'IT'' and is a representation of what Susskind previously described as the 'legal information continuum'. This axis is then bifurcated by a vertical axis showing the internal/external (for example, the law firm/client) divide. This creates four quadrants representing internal use of technology (in the bottom-left quadrant) external technology links (top-left), provision of access to knowledge (top-right) and internal management of knowledge (bottom-right).
The point that Susskind makes is that most law firms have been concerning themselves with the bottom left area - internal information technology. A few firms have been making tactical forays into the top-left quadrant e.g. using email and virtual deal rooms, while some other firms are addressing issues in the bottom right quadrant in terms of know-how databases and intranets. Meanwhile, a very small handful have embraced the top-right quadrant in terms of online legal services. His ultimate conclusion is that by 2005 all successful law firms must have fully addressed all of the quadrants that make up this grid. He then offers the Grid to the reader as a tool to help law firms define their IT, information and knowledge strategies in order to be one of those law firms still in business in 2005 and defines eight different strategies as possible variants or different routes to that success.
A criticism that one might make of the Grid is the implication that any law firm might invest in the top-right hand quandrant without first investing in the bottom left i.e. launch complex online legal services without first investing in some form of internal content management system or the necessary IT 'plumbing' to support that system. However, such criticism does not hold. In his defence, Susskind stresses on a number of occasions that 'these back-office systems will frequently provide the foundations upon which developments in the other three quadrants are built'. Another criticism that may be more valid is this - if a particular law firm were to adopt one of Susskind's eight suggested variant strategies in order to achieve coverage of all four quadrants, there is no indication how the firm might achieve that goal from their current position. The grid only demonstrates the end, ('where we want to be') not the means to the end ('how do we get there?').
The second chapter addresses what Susskind calls the 'Client Service Chain'. At present, the chain works as follows: a client recognises a legal problem, the client selects a lawyer, the lawyer provides a service. However Susskind claims (rightly in my view) that this process is being transformed through technology as legal services are unbundled. Susskind suggests that in future at the low end of the market, legal services will be highly commoditised, completely unbundled from human intervention. Other moderately complex legal services will also be unbundled. We can already see this happening on some law firm Web sites - information gathering interviews are being replaced with forms on the Web sites which act as a information filter. However Susskind is far more radical with his suggestions in this area. (One senses a sharp intake of breath among some readers here). He writes:
'it is both possible and desirable...using the interconnectivity provided by the Internet, for document management (and even project management) to be undertaken...by specialists in these disciplines' (Susskind, p.47).
At the high end, consultative advice will be provided in the traditional way. He goes further to suggest that a new type of legal professional will emerge - the legal infomediary:
'legal infomediaries will specialise in helping clients to understand the nature and scope of their legal problems, identifying a suitable blend of human and technology-based service for each particular matter, and securing favourable commercial arrangements on the strength of their bulk purchasing capabilities'.
This is a pretty daunting scenario for the legal profession - one where it would subjugated to a mere legal service provider, no different from the project manager or expert witness or the researcher. Control of the entire matter would be handed over from the lawyer to the infomediary.
Susskind has also taken note of some other commentators on the impact of new technologies on existing business models. For example he draws on the work of Clayton Christensen in his book, The Innovator's Dilemma. Christensen draws a distinction between technologies that sustain and those that disrupt existing markets and business models. Susskind then maps this work back onto the Grid and finds that online legal services (top-right) disrupt while client relationship systems (top-left) sustain. The point made by Christensen is that sustaining technologies are useful for a while but his research in other areas suggests that ultimately the entire business model will collapse as new entrants to the market (e.g. the large accountancy firms) gain a huge competitive advantage through their use of disruptive technologies. Again the prognosis for law firms existing business models is not good. Susskind suggests radical action is required such as law firms setting up separate 'dot-com' ventures to attempt to drive, rather than be driven by these changes in legal services. It is bound to cause some consternation in some circles and one can't help feeling that the author enjoys 'setting the cat amongst the pigeons'.
The chapters on Expert Systems in law will probably find a small and widely divergent audience. The jurisprudential debate may be of value to legal academics who still have an interest in this area. In addition, a few of the London Magic Circle firms and their technologically-innovative US counterparts (e.g. the Davis Polks and Brobecks of this world) may begin again experimenting with expert systems now that more advanced technology is available. But one wonders whether this writing will add any additional value to such firms. Moreover, outside of this elite group of firms, the vast majority are still grappling with some very humdrum yet critical knowledge management issues such as the ability to retrieve and maintain useful work product.
This book is, in many ways, a distillation of previous Susskind thinking. The Grid, in particular is a diagrammatic representation of the various themes addressed in the Future of Law (1996) and as such is an invaluable tool for helping lawyers to understand their own IT strategy and where their weaknesses may lie. Given that it is only one diagram with many variations it is easy to understand and easy to represent - this picture really is worth a thousand words. No lawyer with an interest in the future of their own profession should ignore the message contained within the first two chapters of this book and for this reason alone, it is a 'must read'.
This Book Review was published on 28 February 2001.
Citation: Terrett A, 'Transforming the Law - Essays on Technology, Justice and the Legal Marketplace, by Richard Susskind', Book Review, 2001 (1)The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT) <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/01-1/terrett.html>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/jilt/2001_1/terrett/>.