Tomorrow’s lawyers: we need a big idea

REVIEW: Richard Susskind has been publishing books with titles like The Future of Law and End of Lawyers? for the last two decades, writes Roger Smith. The ideas in the latest addition to his oeuvre will be familiar to those who have followed his earlier thoughtful contributions. Tomorrow’s Lawyers: an introduction to your future is mainly after the student market but, as ever, Professor Susskind is provocative over a wide canvass.

The young are a tricky market for this author because his basic message is that, as a profession, lawyers peaked in 2006 and is now declining fast. Advances in technology and the pressure on price that comes from a globalising economy mean that, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, ‘these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back’. So, what he has to say will not go down too well with those aspiring to the old steady certainties. There will be fewer galley slaves in the engine rooms of law firms, fewer overseers and even fewer bosses. He tries to get the best of this by drawing out a list of potential new jobs that may emerge (among them ‘the legal process analyst’, ‘the legal project manager’). But, alas, the underlying message is pretty stark as far as law as a career is concerned. In this, Professor Susskind’s warning to those staking large amounts of their own money on a legal career is undoubtedly correct. His analysis of threatening trends is expanded still further if you factor in the potential effect of rival global jurisdictions such as Qatar or Dubai, busily developing their commercial reach as fast as they can.

Going online
Professor Susskind’s major concern is the business world but here, as in The End of Lawyers?, he usefully extends his concern into legal aid and access to justice. The great value of his contribution is that he raises the future of legal services for the poor within the overall context of wider legal developments rather than just arguing about the degree and nature of state subsidy. Consistent with his overall approach, he highlights the need for online services. He raises, but does not pursue, what I think is a really key issue: ‘if we have in England, for example, NHS Direct, an online service that provides medical guidance, then why not have something similar for law?’

NHS Direct was, at its peak, a national and integrated web and telephone based advice service, largely staffed by nurses. The Coalition is, of course, determined to cut it back though it currently deals with about one million hits to its website a month and 400,000 telephone calls. If it had been integrated with GP and ambulance services, it could have made an even greater contribution to health services. Labour should be really proud of what it did with an idea that it actually inherited from the Major administration. It provides an illustration surely of how we should be thinking about for legal aid.

We need a big idea that will grab the attention and imagination of the politicians and which will help us save the concept of civil legal aid as a comprehensive service.

The development of some form of Legal Aid Direct seems a more hopeful line of approach than alternatives canvassed in the book such as ‘communities of experience’ where net users build up a collective body of experience and knowledge. It would not, however, be challenged by such initiatives. Nor would it impede, or be impeded by, the development of on-line dispute resolution, also advocated by Professor Susskind. Courts are pretty scary places for people without legal experience. Why shouldn’t more straightforward claims be resolved through the Internet and the use of such facilities as those provided by Skype?

We need, of course, to maintain the battle over the current round of cuts and the limitations of scope to be introduced in April.

However, the book challenges us to say how we might see the world in 2035 when lawyers qualifying today will be about halfway through their careers. There will be fewer lawyers but there may well be many more people who need legal advice. Well, how are they going to get it? Do we just give up? Or do we try to identify, as does Professor Susskind, how things might change and how we might help fashion the future.

We need to find a way of preserving universal entitlement to civil legal advice, albeit on a means-tested basis. Technology must help us in that crusade.

It also probably means that much advice and information will, for practical reasons, have to be free. That is partly why the state must continue to have a role. The challenge set by this book is to start us examining what might be possible. As a very practical matter, we need to get the cost down to a figure that could be credibly obtained by rearranging the rest of the legal aid budget. So, it impliedly asks, what are we going to do?

Richard Susskind Tomorrow’s Lawyers: an introduction to your future Oxford University Press, 2013, pp180, price £9.99.

About Roger Smith

Roger is an expert in domestic and international aspects of legal aid, human rights and access to justice. Roger is a visiting professor of law at London South Bank University and an honorary professor at the University of Kent. He is a solicitor and has been director of the Legal Action Group, JUSTICE and West Hampstead Community Law Centre as well as director of policy and legal education at the Law Society, London, and solicitor to the Child Poverty Action Group. Roger was awarded an OBE in 2009 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Law Society in October 2012

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