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18 May 2021

Where is a lawyer’s place in a world without work?

Natalie Green

Daniel Susskind believes the law profession of the future will look remarkably different from today. To be clear, he means the not-too-distant future.

Ahead of his Legal Tech Fest talk, this Fellow in Economics at Oxford University, acclaimed author and Ted Talker (among other accomplishments), ignites a confronting conversation about the imminent transformation of white-collar work.

He discusses why highly successful law practitioners in high paced, profitable businesses need to think about doing things differently, and how the next generation of professionals will succeed by adopting one of two strategies.

Daniel Susskind

Daniel, you come from a family of futurists – like you, both your father, Richard and your brother, Jamie are recognized authorities on AI and its future implications. What kind of dinner-time discussions took place in your house?

Daniel Susskind: It’s sort of odd family business thinking about the future. This is what we spend all our time thinking about together. Jamie is more interested in technology and politics whereas I'm interested in work. We were just surrounded by books and ideas and grew up talking about these things that we ended up thinking and writing about.

Can you give us a brief taste on what you will be talking about at the Tech Fest?

I'll be sharing ideas from my two books, The Future of The Professions and A World Without Work. I will set out two futures for the legal profession, both of which rest upon technology.

The first future is a reassuring, oddly familiar one, where people use technology to basically do what they already do today, but just more efficiently and more effectively.

Then there's a second future, which is quite different, where people use technology not simply to streamline and optimise the traditional ways of work, but to actively displace traditional professionals from particular tasks in particular activities.

The argument I'll make is that for now - and in the medium term - we'll see these two futures developing in parallel, but in the longer term, that second future is going to dominate. Through technology, you’ll see more effective and efficient ways of solving problems that traditionally only very particular types of lawyers (or any professional) might have solved. This, I think is a big challenge to traditional professionals and I'll be exploring that challenge and how to prepare to respond to it.

Are you going to be telling the lawyers at Tech Fest that they will be replaced?

No, that isn’t the spirit of my work. The challenge over the next 10 years is not one of mass unemployment, but it's instead a story of mass redeployment - a change in the skills and capabilities that people will need. That doesn't mean it's not a serious task though, because many of these skills and capabilities are not what we currently train young professionals to do. Many existing professionals don't see them as being part of their job description, and for them, these ideas are quite troubling, but for those who are more open-minded and more agile and open to working differently in the future, these technological trends are very exciting.

Looking at it from the point of view of more traditional lawyers – who are incredibly busy and for whom business is booming - I wonder what the incentive is for them to change the way they work?

That’s right. My dad, my coauthor, often says that it's very hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they've got their business model wrong. But there is a serious point now for incumbents - when things at least in the short term are going relatively well and it's quite hard to see the case for change. One of the things I'm trying to do in my work and in my talk, is to reveal the change and it’s not only happening within the legal profession – it’s happening in medicine, in tax and accounting and auditing and consulting and journalism. I’m trying to generate recognition that while these challenges may not be bearing down on the bottom line in the short term, they certainly will in the medium term if they go unaddressed.

How do you think this will play out in the education the next generation of lawyers?

A big part of our work is thinking about what roles are going to be important in the future and what skills and capabilities aspiring professionals will have to acquire to be able to do that work effectively. I think there are two strategies that I’ll be explaining more in the talk. The strategies are to compete or to build. The first is that an aspirational young professional ought to try and compete with these systems and machines to do the things that these systems and machines cannot yet do. In spite of all the remarkable technological advances, there are clearly large realms of human activity that cannot be automated; certain types of interpersonal tasks, creative tasks, certain types of problem-solving tasks. The second strategy is quite different. It’s to be the person who can build these systems or machines and who's capable of designing and operating them.

If you look at what we're actually doing in practices - in the first five years of a career as a junior lawyer, often we're training them in precisely the routine activities that these systems and machines can do increasingly with impressive effectiveness. Document review, document assembly, document retrieval, - it’s clear that this isn’t a good way to prepare them for the future of work.

A future where there is likely to be more technological disruption in store for us?

It's not simply those routine repetitive, straightforward tasks that are within reach of automation. Some of the tasks that we find most fulfilling and rewarding - those that might require creativity or judgment or even empathy - are increasingly within reach too. That is the big challenge for white collar professionals - lawyers in particular - that some activities that they thought were indefinitely and inescapably human, with the right technology, either very different types of people or in some cases, not people at all, can take them on.

 

And finally, what is your favourite piece of technology right now?

It would probably have to be my new coffee machine. It’s a very old fashioned mechanical one – not high tech at all. I find coffee making very interesting because it's an example of something where people don’t only care about the taste of the coffee at the end - they also care about how it's made. It’s been revealed in blind taste tests, that although people can't distinguish between coffee prepared with a capsule based machine and coffee a barista prepares from scratch, if they were charged the same price for both, they're furious.

The point about this is that people care about the craft as well as the outcome. And it's something professionals often say as well – that their work is a form of craft. They attach a strong sense of meaning and identity to the way in which they solve problems and not just the outcomes. Now that might be all very well for coffee making, but in the world of law where most people don't have affordable access to high quality legal expertise, that attachment to the traditional way of doing things might be too high a price to pay.

 

Hear more from Daniel Susskind as he speaks in greater detail about the impact of technology – particularly artificial intelligence – on work at the Legal Innovation & Tech Fest, 20-21 July 2021, Hilton Hotel. Daniel will speak live to the community from the UK via a video stream.

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