Richard Susskind: “The market will show no loyalty to the traditional way of working”

Professor Richard Susskind says that the stiffest new competitor to law firms is an AI-empowered client, in reflections on a year that showed new promise as to how to crack the huge access to justice problem via non-expert, tech-enabled providers. This article first appeared in the November/December Orange Rag newsletter.

According to Professor Richard Susskind, author of books including The End of Lawyers; Tomorrow’s Lawyers, and The Future of the Professions, there are three key takeaways from 2023, following technological advances that he described recently as “the most remarkable developments in my 40 years.”

Susskind, who advises professional firms, general counsel and the judiciary on technology trends and developments, has for decades been at the forefront of driving UK legal sector preparedness for AI developments.

He says that for the first time, technology has become a board level issue, not as an operational issue, but as a strategic issue, commenting: “The board has talked for years about things like ‘we’re getting a new practice management system’ and ‘what does it cost?’ However, generative AI means that we’re seeing the development of systems that will take over the work of lawyers. I spend a lot of my time with managing partners and speaking to boards, and for the first time they recognise that this is not a back office operational issue, but it will affect the future of legal services.”

The second takeaway from 2023, Susskind says, is that there is a great under appreciation in the marketplace that ChatGPT and generative AI is just one new chapter in an ongoing story. He says: “We’re still at the foothills. Although we’re seeing a huge level of activity and interest both in our exploitation of the technology and in the evolution of AI, it’s still very early days.”

The third point, which Susskind says is the biggest, is that while the focus of most lawyers has been on how AI affects productivity, there are longer term, more existential questions to be answered. “The real key to AI, not just in law, is how it will empower non-experts to do the work of experts. In law, we are beginning to see how we might crack the access to justice problem. We can also see that the new, stiffest competitor to a law firm is an AI-empowered client,” he said.

“If the technology evolves as I expect, it will enable organisations to do a lot of work themselves, so a lot of the work that is done by law firms will be done internally.”

As law firms agonise over self-disrupting and the extent to which and when that must happen, Susskind says: “Meanwhilethere is an industry emerging which is trying to do just that. It’s not going to play out in the next 18 months for cultural, commercial and regulatory reasons, but I can clearly see towards the end of the decade the emergence of new competition.”

He adds: “It’s the innovators dilemma. Law firms might say they are not going to change until they need to, but by the time they need to change, it’s too late.”

In terms of what this means cumulatively for the future of the legal profession, Susskind says he still denies that there will be an overnight revolution or a single Uber or Ebay moment, referring to thoughts he published here in the summer. “It will be a collection of breakthroughs that will have a huge impact,” he said. “But what I do insist is that as we get to the end of the decade, the legal landscape will look very different in terms of how people seek help. AI is a way for people to gain access to help that they don’t have now.”

Susskind at a LegalUK event in the Old Bailey this summer called for the creation of an AI Institute to help ensure that English law remains a global leader. Reflecting on that now, he says: “We have succeeded historically by having great judges, a great common law system, and great law schools. That has helped us as a world leader because people know that our global trade is underpinned by reliable law but if we want to continue to be a world leader we need to innovate. The solution is a rich body of innovative thinking on technology.” Talks around the Institute are ongoing.

One of the biggest challenges as we move into 2024 and beyond, is that in law, unlike in medicine, there is no concept of randomised trials and peer reviews of new ideas and products. Susskind says: “A lot of legal reform has been great ideas from impressive individuals, but it has not been subject to the same rigorous analysis before launch. We don’t have the same tradition and feedback loops and have tended to simply assume that it seems like a good idea. What I would like is to develop techniques that allow us to reassure the public that this system is demonstrably better than nothing at all.”