Richard Susskind Serves Up “Tough Love” to Northern Ireland Barristers

On Friday 15 November the Bar Council of Northern Ireland held its conference, Transforming Legal Practice Through Innovation (preview here). Fittingly, the eminent legal futurist Richard Susskind (@RichardSusskind) headlined the event. Proceedings were facilitated by the BBC Ireland correspondent and avid Tweeter Mark Simpson (@BBCMarkSimpson) who set a tone that was vigorous and ambitious. As well as Richard Susskind, other esteemed speakers addressed the conference. Encouragingly, over 250 members passed through the day-long event, triple the number from other years. 

If I may, the day can be summarised in two points. Firstly, the Northern Ireland barrister is competing on a global marketplace and must compete in the possession of the latest tools. Secondly, while Northern Ireland needs digital barristers for a digital world, those barristers must guard against simply using technology for the sake of it. The digital barrister must use technology to enhance their practice and to further the interests of the client and the profession. Below is a quick overview of the speakers who came before Richard Susskind.

Northern Ireland Attorney-General John Larkin was the first to take the conference podium. He said of note:

“We lawyers should also be solvers of problems. Seek better solutions. I commend this conference heartily as it takes its first step in that direction.”

QUB alumnus and Supreme Court Judge Lord Kerr then took to the podium. He said of note:

“Technology has absolutely transformed my way of working and made it infinitely easier. I have no doubt in a couple of generations and ask why on earth did they take so long? Why did they generate so much paper? I’m speaking with the zeal of a convert. I hope that this conference will encourage those to exploit technology to its full potential.”

Belfast Barristers Peter Girvan and Keith Gibson then gave two presentations which reflected on the challenges posed by social media, blogs and other online communications. Read about those here.

Mark Mulholland QC, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Bar Council then took to the podium and explained the opportunities offered by technology and new media. He said of note here:

“We need to tell the world we are open for business. That message remains true today. The bar is open nationally, internationally and through technology, globally… We recognise that we have to reach out and communicate with an outside legal market. Technology has a key role to play to ensure we deliver the highest quality of legal advice. The technological age has an integral role to play.”

David Nolan, Chair of Bar Council of Ireland was a notable quest and he was cited by Mark Mulholland on the need for business development acumen among barristers. David Nolan said: “Need to be Business like about being professional.”

Mark Mulholland QC, Orlagh McGahan and Richard Susskind at Titanic Belfast

Then Richard Susskind (@RichardSusskind), “a man in demand who has gone around the world preaching a message of change,” took to the podium to deliver a talk, billed by Mark Simpson as a moment for some “Tough Love.”

Susskind’s first thought for the conference was on the need to skate to where the puck will be, not to where to it currently is. He said that’s what one has to do in relation to one’s career.  

Susskind gave a second thought. “We exist to turn our knowledge into value for the benefits of our clients. The challenge I put to legal professionals is: What if we could find new ways letting clients access our knowledge? Of resolving disputes? Would they be interested in cheaper, more efficient?”

Susskind gave a third thought. He said that lawyers need to distinguish between automation and innovation. Innovation is when you use IT to do things that previously weren’t possible. “Don’t think about how we can use technology to do what we do now better, but how we do what we haven’t done. Lawyers need to break the automation mind-set.”

Richard Susskind then made addressed two salient issues. Firstly, the more for less challenge; and secondly, the market liberalisation question.

The more for less challenge has to do with the path to commoditisation. Sukssind explained that the challenge for all lawyers in the decade ahead is about reducing costs and being more cost effective to lawyers. We have the fixed idea that law is a bespoke, unalterable craft. One of the big Questions for barristers is the extent to which bespoke work is delivered. Advocacy is by its nature bespoke. But can lawyers find other ways of resolving disputes that don’t require advocacy? Yes, we’re moving more and more from bespoke to packaged products.

Richard Susskind then explained that for any dispute you can decompose or disaggregate it into constituent components. And so lawyers need to decompose litigation. The legal futurist explained that how it can ve divided into 9 key tasks:

1. Document review
2. Legal research
3. Project management
4. Litigation support
5. Electronic disclosure
6. Strategy
7. Tactics
8. Negotiation
9. Advocacy

If much of what went on in law office can be done by other suppliers – i.e. document review can be done by India for a tenth of the price – Where do lawyers fit into a world that is decomposing? Clients are under pressure to reduce their spend, therefore there is a latent need and demand to break down litigation into different legal components. With this demand is emerging a whole bundle of specialist providers. He then said: 

“Technology underpins what I see for lawyers. I made the prediction in 1996 that email would be used. They said he didn’t understand confidentiality and security. There were 30,000 internet users in 1996, now there are two and a half billion users.”

Read my blog post on the email hysteria of the 1990s here. Richard Susskind then said, “I simply say to all lawyers: “All I ask for is an open mind.” He further said:

“Every two days we produce more information than we did from the dawn of time to 2003. It’s unbelievable the times we live in.”

Richard Susskind then spoke of his feeling on the social network, Twitter. He said explained that half a billion users out there but lawyers don’t think it applied to it. Lawyers are not exceptional or immune from change.

“I want everyone of you to believe me when I say that Twitter has transformed my way of working. This is not a passing fad. It’s not going anywhere. Marry traditions with emerging technologies.”

Lawyers who pushback against Twitter and social media form part of what Richard Susskind calls “irrational rejectionism.” You can read my blog post on Susskind’s take on Facebook and Twitter here where he said:

“If my clients are sending out regular messages of about what they’re doing, where they’re going and what they’re doing, I would want to be part of that; even if the mechanism of communication is a daft name.”

Susskind then explained how he studied the role of artificial intelligence in law. The enabling technology now exists for people to sit down at a computer, propose a legal question, have it answered and have draft written up. It has yet to be taken up commercially. Richard Susskind then cited the William Gibson quote: “The future has arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed.” 

He then explained that there are 60 million disputes on eBay. We will look back and ask how we did these small claims in a physical place. See my previous blog post on Richard Susskind’s take on online dispute resolution here. Online dispute resolution. Modria provides online arbitration software here. We could look very closely at high volume, low value services to do litigation differently. Susskind then referred to the article on technology-assisted review in e-discovery in the Richmond Journal of Law and Technology, see here.

Susskind then laid out a question: What is the future? What can be done cheaper, quicker, more efficiently or to higher quality? Susskind answered the question by saying that tomorrow’s lawyer will not be like today’s lawyers. There will be 8 paths for the future lawyer:

1. Legal knowledge engineer

2. Legal technologist

3. Legos hybrid

4. Legal process analyst

5. Legal project manager

6. ODR practitioners

7. Legal management consultants

8. The legal risk manager

Richard Susskind’s next book will go by the title, ‘Beyond the Professions’. In a print-based industrial society, the services were a way of sharing knowledge and specialism. This is and will continue to change. The future of legal services is not Rumpole of the Bailey, Suits, John Grisham.

Richard Susskind also explained that one of the great challenges for the modern law profession, is to change our law schools. Susskind said plainly that “We’re over-producing lawyers.” With the economic pressures, law firms need less lawyers. See my previous blogs on the law school problem here, here, here and here.

Susskind put forward another question on IT assisted courts: Is a court a service or a place? Do we need to congregate together? He answered this other question with the suggestion that we may need to reimagine the way court hearings are held.

Richard Susskind then finished with a couple of observations, saying “it’s not about what you think but what the Internet generation think” and cited Alan Kay who said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Reworking that quote, Richardd Susskind finished the day by laying out a challenge for Northern Ireland barristers, saying: “It’s not what the future looks like; But what future are you going to invent?”

In the panel event that followed Lord Kerr gave a quick response to Susskind who is a friend and adviser.
Lord Kerr called it a mesmerizing talk and said that the value of the talk lay not only in outlining the developments but also in confronting questions of what is the function of the modern barrister? How we should define them?

“It did occur to me that we as lawyers not only owe a duty to clients but to society to develop legal principle that is enlightened and of benefit to society. These are solemn obligations. Technology has transformed the way we work. It is not reason to be downhearted but is to be a source of inspiration for the future.”

Orlagh McGahan of Briefed which I looked at here said in response to the Susskind address: “As barrister for 10 years and in my mid-thirties I fear where opportunities for my generation will come from. Through technology my expertise can be distributed in a different manner. On behalf of the bar NI, I can say We are ready for change. 93% of people said barristers need to embrace new technologies to meet demands of changing environment. Role of bar council and library to help us on our way. It’s an exciting time.

Mark Mulholland QC said in response to Susskind: “Why are we losing work to English counsel? You only need click into their websites. Our website will go live in the new year.”

I had two observations on the day. Both made as a critical friend. One, I found the blowback against new media from young barristers very fixed. By the rules of the profession the Northern Ireland barrister cannot advertise. By this rule young barristers hold fast and regard new media and the online world with a huge degree of suspicion. This sits in line with the observation made by Brian Inkster here, that law students are not using social media in a career minded way. This sits in line with the Susskind observation that law school needs to change.

The second observation is that the hashtag of the day, #nibar2013 was not tweeted once by even one of the 250 barristers who passed through the event. If we compare this with the state of barrister tweeting in England and Wales, this discovery was fascinating. 

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