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3 Legal Tech Takeaways from Richard Susskind's 'Future of the Professions'

Dean Gonsowski

If you’re like me, the quantity of business books you actually read is a small fraction of all business books you’d like to read. But, when I ran across Richard Susskind's latest book entitled The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts, I knew I needed to make an exception and definitely read his tome. I ordered it from Amazon straight away and started digging in. 

Let’s take a look at the key takeaways from this provocative author and his latest endeavor.

Transforming Traditional Professions

"The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.” - John Maynard Keynes

This opening quote establishes a theme of transformation, which infuses every page of the book as Susskind—and his co-author son—look at many traditional professions, including, of course, the practice of law. 

He begins by noting that many traditional professions have four overlapping similarities:

  • They have specialist knowledge
  • Their admission depends on credentials
  • Their activities are regulated
  • They are bound by a common set of values

The book starts on the question of whether there might be entirely new ways of organizing professional work to be more affordable, more accessible, and more conducive to an increase in quality. His idea of decomposition is the one that’s resonates the most with me as I think about the evolution of law.

Key Takeaway #1

As we break down professional work into basic tasks, it becomes apparent that much of what goes on today under the umbrella of professional services is in fact routine and repetitive—and therefore ripe for innovation. Susskind’s work provides a constant exhortation to think about decomposing our daily tasks so we can lean into—and expand—the types of work that aren’t vulnerable to automation. In e-discovery, for example, linear document review is one such area referenced by Susskind pejoratively. It’s easy to see, particularly in hindsight, that technology has been able to erode the advantage enjoyed by attorney reviewers even a decade ago.

Why We Need Tech

Next, Susskind looks critically at traditional professions and claims that they are failing in six ways: “economically, technologically, psychologically, morally, qualitatively, and in terms of their inscrutability.” A common roadblock that interferes with resolving these issues is incrementalism, or the attempt to “address each of those concerns by making small modifications, when in fact much more radical alternatives are required.” To further compound the problem Susskind notes that, despite their failures, the professions are often not incentivized to change.

On the practice of law specifically, Susskind echoes a theme from his previous work where he predicts that the legal world will change “more radically over the next two decades than over the last two centuries.” He observes that lawyers are already transforming the practice by responding to cost pressures and establishing new divisions of labor and decomposition:

“Lawyers are breaking down legal work into more basic tasks and finding alternative ways of sourcing the more routine and repetitive work, such as document review in litigation, due diligence work, routine contract drafting, and rudimentary legal research.”

Technology is playing a central role in the transformation of the legal profession, and here he cites Grossman and Cormack as he references the fact that “in preparing for litigation, intelligent search systems can now outperform junior lawyers and paralegals interviewing large sets of documents and selecting the most relevant, while big data techniques are underpinning systems that are better than expert litigators in predicting the results of court decisions.”

Focusing again on data expertise, he charts out an interesting new area of expertise: accessing very large data sets. He feels that, for many of the professions, being on top of growing data is no longer optional. This is where the newer fields of big data, predictive analytics, and machine learning all come into play as professionals attempt to master these tools to understand their data and glean insights.

Key Takeway #2

As professions begin to adapt technology, “working together, humans and machines will outperform unassisted human experts.” This is something we’ve seen supported time and again with technology-assisted review and text analytics, and it’s already having a significant influence on how e-discovery teams tackle everyday workflows. In fact, the TREC study seemed to bear out the result as well (see any of Ralph Losey’s articles on the topic for more detail).

Why Humans Are Still Required

Susskind is wise to address the challenge that many of us have seen around the fear of technology: “the idea that, in some sense, the technology is ‘smarter’ than us is unnerving.” Fortunately, he continues to recognize the importance of human expertise in the legal process and states “where real talent, productivity, creativity, strategic insight, or deep expertise is generally required, this will be apparent, because this work will have been consciously and expressly identified as requiring craftsmanship and traditional bespoke handling.”

Clearly this type of work will be less common as the legal profession is transformed by technology. Susskind’s work remains a clarion call for practitioners to craft the future of the profession instead of being caught off guard by the trends that are clearly and quickly coming to fruition.

Key Takeaway #3

Emerging technologies don’t negate the need for educated, specialized professionals. There’s no replacing the minds of human experts—but their work can and will be made more effective and efficient with technology.

A former litigator/GC/AGC, Dean Gonsowski is an industry-recognized evangelist, thought leader, and speaker. Dean has a JD from the University of San Diego School of Law and a BS from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has worked with companies around the e-discovery industry, including Relativity, and now serves as chief revenue officer of Active Navigation.