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Richard Susskind & The End of Lawyers: What It Means for Solos

by Carolyn Elefant on March 24, 2009 · 20 comments

in Legal Profession Trends, Solo Practice Trends

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By now, you’ve probably read some of the press or blog reviews about Richard Susskind’s recent book, The End of Lawyers.  So you’re probably familiar with Susskind’s main premise that disruptive technologies which routinize or automate certain legal tasks will erode the need for traditional legal services or displace them entirely.  Susskind anticipates that clients will always have a need for “bespoke” (isn’t that a great word?) legal services that provide trusted expert advice.  But Susskind argues that gone are the days when clients will hire expensive lawyers for tasks just as effectively performed through automation or highly steam-lined processes.

Much of Susskind’s book focuses on how large corporate firms can re-position themselves to retain clients and stay competitive.  But what’s a solo or small firm to do to survive in these transitional times?  Susskind offers a couple of good suggestions, such as adding an unbundled virtual law office component to a practice (Susskind uses Richard Granat and his Directlaw product as an example) or setting up a for fee subscription service to provide informatio to clients (here, Susskind cites UK soliciter and solo, Tessa Shepardson on Landlordlaw.co.uk).  Susskind also believes that firms can generate revenue through compliance or preventitive services – somewhat along the lines of the toll bridge agreements which I discussed several months ago. Finally, Susskind emphasizes that a demand will always exist for highly specialized, niche expert legal services and trusted legal advice, counseling or strategizing that technology can never replace.

Still, while opportunities for solos abound, nonetheless Susskind fears for their future.  He writes:

I fear for the future of very small firms whose work is not highly specialized — those with a handful of partners or even sole practitoners who are general practitioners.  Unless their clients want to retain them for a highly personalized service, I cannot see how they will be able to compete with alternative methods of sourcing, whether by much larger firms or by alternative providers….

The current model at the Bar — the self-employed, sole practioner who shares various services with fellow barristers – assumes no gearing,little capacity to multi-source and few mechanisms for hedging against the risks of being a one person band.

On one level, I disagree with Susskind’s predictions.  Just as technology enables us to cut down the cost of legal services while boosting efficiency, it also provides us with the tools to leverage ourselves.  Through use of virtual assistance and outsourcing, we can multi-task and create the precisely the type of  diversification – such as alternative fee structures or ancillary businesses – that provide a hedge against an economic downturn.  Indeed, that’s why many of the solos who I know are thriving or at least hanging even as large firms crumble all around us.  Likewise, those solos who provide the kinds of irreplaceable expert niche services are also thriving in the downturn, by providing services in high demand, but at lower costs than their big firm competitors can provide.

Yet as I thought about Susskind’s prediction some more, I had to agree to some extent.  Because the solos and small firms whose futures are, in Susskind’s view, at risk aren’t the ones who are reading this blog or many of the others that have been addressing these trends for several years now (for example, more than four years ago, I identified the pent up demand for low cost consumer legal services and urged lawyers to find ways to deliver them while I anticipated the India outsourcing trend back in 2003).  Some of these firms are so far behind the times, so removed from the 21st century that they can’t even comprehend what’s happening now, let alone anticipate what’s coming.  But that’s an inherent problem of trying to effect change through the Internet and blogging and Web 2.0 technologies: at the end of the day, we’re really just preaching to the choir.  Perhaps because Susskind’s book delivers his revolutionary message in a book the most traditional medium, our potentially endangered solo and small firm colleagues will take notice and listen before it’s too late.

  • http://pittsburghlegalbacktalk.com/ Cliff Tuttle

    There is a question mark in that title. The answer to the question is that some lawyers will be forced out of certain specialties by non-lawyer service organizations, but that the legal profession will continue to grow and flourish elsewhere.
    Residential real estate is an excellent example of the trend toward segmental de-lawyerization. It doesn’t turn former real estate lawyers into the equivalent of steelworkers displaced by overseas competition. And it doesn’t replace more than a few areas of law practices — areas suitable for such activity and fostered by unique conditions. The lawyer’s skill set is so diverse and that it is capable of being applied in some way to every human endeavor, including emerging technologies. Diversify, learn, become efficient, poach on other people’s territory when appropriate. There will always be a need, you just have to find it.
    Cliff Tuttle
    Pittsburgh Legal Back Talk

  • http://pittsburghlegalbacktalk.com/ Cliff Tuttle

    There is a question mark in that title. The answer to the question is that some lawyers will be forced out of certain specialties by non-lawyer service organizations, but that the legal profession will continue to grow and flourish elsewhere.
    Residential real estate is an excellent example of the trend toward segmental de-lawyerization. It doesn’t turn former real estate lawyers into the equivalent of steelworkers displaced by overseas competition. And it doesn’t replace more than a few areas of law practices — areas suitable for such activity and fostered by unique conditions. The lawyer’s skill set is so diverse and that it is capable of being applied in some way to every human endeavor, including emerging technologies. Diversify, learn, become efficient, poach on other people’s territory when appropriate. There will always be a need, you just have to find it.
    Cliff Tuttle
    Pittsburgh Legal Back Talk

  • http://lawinthecloud.com John Halton

    I think the distinction between web-savvy “niche” sole practitioners and traditional “general practice” small/solo firms is crucial.
    A colleague of mine is currently working on a transaction in which the lawyer on the other side (a sole practitioner of the “old school”) doesn’t even have email. That sort of legal practice is probably doomed.
    There’s a lesson to be drawn from other sectors, e.g. retail (esp. food retail). A great many small shops have closed as supermarkets have grown; those that have survived are usually those which offer excellent quality or a distinctive niche.

  • http://lawinthecloud.com John Halton

    I think the distinction between web-savvy “niche” sole practitioners and traditional “general practice” small/solo firms is crucial.
    A colleague of mine is currently working on a transaction in which the lawyer on the other side (a sole practitioner of the “old school”) doesn’t even have email. That sort of legal practice is probably doomed.
    There’s a lesson to be drawn from other sectors, e.g. retail (esp. food retail). A great many small shops have closed as supermarkets have grown; those that have survived are usually those which offer excellent quality or a distinctive niche.

  • http://solopracticeuniversity.com Susan Cartier Liebel

    Anything antiquated gets replaced. Lawyers who function as if its 1980 will be replaced by those who lead into the 21st century.
    The human element, however, is the human element. While some legal processes can and do lend themselves to automation and outsourcing, it doesn’t take away the need to put a face to the person who provides the services, including that of the lawyer.
    The method of delivery and the costs must change. The human element must remain for most clients.
    So, I do believe solos will not perish. They have the ability and desire to interact with the client while streamlining for efficiency.
    They just have to be willing to do so. And I think the new generation of solo not only is willing to do so but wants to do so because of their own personal needs while practicing law.

  • http://solopracticeuniversity.com Susan Cartier Liebel

    Anything antiquated gets replaced. Lawyers who function as if its 1980 will be replaced by those who lead into the 21st century.
    The human element, however, is the human element. While some legal processes can and do lend themselves to automation and outsourcing, it doesn’t take away the need to put a face to the person who provides the services, including that of the lawyer.
    The method of delivery and the costs must change. The human element must remain for most clients.
    So, I do believe solos will not perish. They have the ability and desire to interact with the client while streamlining for efficiency.
    They just have to be willing to do so. And I think the new generation of solo not only is willing to do so but wants to do so because of their own personal needs while practicing law.

  • http://www.ernietheattorney.net Ernie Svenson

    I agree with John Halton that ‘web-savvy’ solos will have a future, one that is powerful but only just starting to become manifest. In support of that thesis I offer this anecdote from my own solo practice.
    I had a big firm in New Orleans refer me a business case a few months ago because it was ‘too small’ for them. I worked with the contact for the client (an attorney from Chicago was the contact for the Louisiana based client). I gathered facts and input the information into a database program called Casemap. I said I would take the case on an hourly basis and outlined the strategy to move the case toward a leverage point that might induce a quick settlement.
    The Chicago attorney told me she’d get back, but then months passed and no word. The other day she called and said that several other businesses had similar problems and wanted to join in one large suit against the key defendants. She wanted me to help her, but also wanted me to agree to work with the large firm that had originally referred the case (when it was ‘too small’). She said that she felt that the large firm would be better because they would be more imposing to the opposing side.
    I told her that I respected her decision, but that I would not work with a large firm because of the inefficiencies that large firms generate. I encouraged her to contact the large firm, and told her that I would be happy to give them all of the information that I had gathered and organized digitally (I said this knowing that they would not know how to use it, or even want to use it)
    She immediately changed gears and said that she only wanted the large firm if I would agree to work with them. I told her that I would work with another lawyer I usually work with who is younger and charges a lower hourly fee. I explained that he and I work together often and he would be able to use the information I had gathered without my needing to explain it to him. The other lawyer uses Casemap regularly.
    She agreed. The young lawyer drafted a complaint in one day, using the informaiton that I had put into Casemap. He went to the Secretary of State’s online database and verified corporate information for the defendants, and did other online investigation to ensure that all of the information in the complaint was as up to date and as accurate as possible. He then arranged to fax-file the complaint. So, the turn-around time for him from first engagement to completion of the filing of a fairly sophisticated business lawsuit was exactly 24 hours. Of course, this was because he had my database, and also the benefit of my comments (given in a few phone calls and emails).
    The large firm would have taken many hours to complete the same task, and I’m not sure it would be as good. At this point, even the contact in Chicago thinks so. She was flabbergasted that we were able to act so quickly and produce such a high quality product. We are two solo lawyers that practice out of our houses, but we know how to use powerful tools to give us leverage. And we know how to collaborate and divide labor to maximize our effectiveness.
    We are not in peril of being marginalized by technology. We are being empowered by it, even though we are ‘just solo lawyers.’ One or more solo lawyers can combine to form alliances that allow them to work on projects that one or two lawyers could not effectively work on. But the opposite is not true. Large law firms cannot easily adopt the tools or practices that tech-savvy solos are capable of adopting.
    I’d say that general practice medium size firms are in more danger than solo or small firms. Technology and creativity are the dividing lines. Are you going to resist technology? Are you going to resist seeking new ways to gain leverage in advocating for your clients? If so, then you are on the side of the line that is moving toward extinction.

  • http://www.ernietheattorney.net Ernie Svenson

    I agree with John Halton that ‘web-savvy’ solos will have a future, one that is powerful but only just starting to become manifest. In support of that thesis I offer this anecdote from my own solo practice.
    I had a big firm in New Orleans refer me a business case a few months ago because it was ‘too small’ for them. I worked with the contact for the client (an attorney from Chicago was the contact for the Louisiana based client). I gathered facts and input the information into a database program called Casemap. I said I would take the case on an hourly basis and outlined the strategy to move the case toward a leverage point that might induce a quick settlement.
    The Chicago attorney told me she’d get back, but then months passed and no word. The other day she called and said that several other businesses had similar problems and wanted to join in one large suit against the key defendants. She wanted me to help her, but also wanted me to agree to work with the large firm that had originally referred the case (when it was ‘too small’). She said that she felt that the large firm would be better because they would be more imposing to the opposing side.
    I told her that I respected her decision, but that I would not work with a large firm because of the inefficiencies that large firms generate. I encouraged her to contact the large firm, and told her that I would be happy to give them all of the information that I had gathered and organized digitally (I said this knowing that they would not know how to use it, or even want to use it)
    She immediately changed gears and said that she only wanted the large firm if I would agree to work with them. I told her that I would work with another lawyer I usually work with who is younger and charges a lower hourly fee. I explained that he and I work together often and he would be able to use the information I had gathered without my needing to explain it to him. The other lawyer uses Casemap regularly.
    She agreed. The young lawyer drafted a complaint in one day, using the informaiton that I had put into Casemap. He went to the Secretary of State’s online database and verified corporate information for the defendants, and did other online investigation to ensure that all of the information in the complaint was as up to date and as accurate as possible. He then arranged to fax-file the complaint. So, the turn-around time for him from first engagement to completion of the filing of a fairly sophisticated business lawsuit was exactly 24 hours. Of course, this was because he had my database, and also the benefit of my comments (given in a few phone calls and emails).
    The large firm would have taken many hours to complete the same task, and I’m not sure it would be as good. At this point, even the contact in Chicago thinks so. She was flabbergasted that we were able to act so quickly and produce such a high quality product. We are two solo lawyers that practice out of our houses, but we know how to use powerful tools to give us leverage. And we know how to collaborate and divide labor to maximize our effectiveness.
    We are not in peril of being marginalized by technology. We are being empowered by it, even though we are ‘just solo lawyers.’ One or more solo lawyers can combine to form alliances that allow them to work on projects that one or two lawyers could not effectively work on. But the opposite is not true. Large law firms cannot easily adopt the tools or practices that tech-savvy solos are capable of adopting.
    I’d say that general practice medium size firms are in more danger than solo or small firms. Technology and creativity are the dividing lines. Are you going to resist technology? Are you going to resist seeking new ways to gain leverage in advocating for your clients? If so, then you are on the side of the line that is moving toward extinction.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    I hope that my post was clear – it is the dinosaur solos whom Susskind predicts will become extinct. Like the commenters, I believe that for solos using technology, this will be our finest hour.
    Ernie’s comment made me laugh because I think that all of us solos who practice in biglaw space could share a similar tale.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    I hope that my post was clear – it is the dinosaur solos whom Susskind predicts will become extinct. Like the commenters, I believe that for solos using technology, this will be our finest hour.
    Ernie’s comment made me laugh because I think that all of us solos who practice in biglaw space could share a similar tale.

  • http://www.legaleaseconsulting.com Allison Shields

    I think what many people miss when they read this is Susskind’s characterization of the solos or very small firms that he believes will be in trouble. He calls them, “very small firms whose work is not highly specialized — those with a handful of partners or even sole practitoners who are general practitioners.”
    Carolyn, you hit on that when you said, ” Likewise, those solos who provide the kinds of irreplaceable expert niche services are also thriving in the downturn, by providing services in high demand, but at lower costs than their big firm competitors can provide.”
    I wrote about Susskind’s book in the Lawyer Meltdown newsletter earlier this year at: http://tinyurl.com/bxojxc.
    It behooves us as a profession to look critically at the services we provide and the value that we provide for our clients. How much of what we do on a given day must actually be performed by lawyers and how much could be systematized or outsourced? How much of your day is spent on actual legal analysis that requires law school training? How can we, as Carolyn says, diversify, find innovative ways to provide services to clients in a way that makes sense to them, with a fee structure that clients can understand and afford?
    Part of the consideration is that whatever we as lawyers think isn’t necessarily important – if clients don’t see your legal training and legal services as uniquely valuable, they are going to see legal services as a commodity, and I think we’ve all seen that increase over the past number of years. It’s up to lawyers to articulate their value in a convincing way, and to demonstrate that value with their clients.
    The lawyers that can be flexible, use technology and continue to innovate and stay ahead of the curve are the ones that will survive. Fortunately for solos and small firm lawyers, these changes are easier to achieve than they are in larger firms with more entrenched bureaucracies.
    Kudos to Ernie, Carolyn and other solos who have embraced technology in order to provide better, faster, more efficient and more effective service to their clients.

  • http://www.legaleaseconsulting.com Allison Shields

    I think what many people miss when they read this is Susskind’s characterization of the solos or very small firms that he believes will be in trouble. He calls them, “very small firms whose work is not highly specialized — those with a handful of partners or even sole practitoners who are general practitioners.”
    Carolyn, you hit on that when you said, ” Likewise, those solos who provide the kinds of irreplaceable expert niche services are also thriving in the downturn, by providing services in high demand, but at lower costs than their big firm competitors can provide.”
    I wrote about Susskind’s book in the Lawyer Meltdown newsletter earlier this year at: http://tinyurl.com/bxojxc.
    It behooves us as a profession to look critically at the services we provide and the value that we provide for our clients. How much of what we do on a given day must actually be performed by lawyers and how much could be systematized or outsourced? How much of your day is spent on actual legal analysis that requires law school training? How can we, as Carolyn says, diversify, find innovative ways to provide services to clients in a way that makes sense to them, with a fee structure that clients can understand and afford?
    Part of the consideration is that whatever we as lawyers think isn’t necessarily important – if clients don’t see your legal training and legal services as uniquely valuable, they are going to see legal services as a commodity, and I think we’ve all seen that increase over the past number of years. It’s up to lawyers to articulate their value in a convincing way, and to demonstrate that value with their clients.
    The lawyers that can be flexible, use technology and continue to innovate and stay ahead of the curve are the ones that will survive. Fortunately for solos and small firm lawyers, these changes are easier to achieve than they are in larger firms with more entrenched bureaucracies.
    Kudos to Ernie, Carolyn and other solos who have embraced technology in order to provide better, faster, more efficient and more effective service to their clients.

  • http://korotkinlaw.com Alex Korotkin

    Through the use of technology, solos will become even more competitive with big law firms. In some areas, such as family law, bankruptcy, and some others, they will almost always beat larger firms on both service and price. The combination of personal service and up-to-date technology, at a reasonable price, can’t be beat.

  • http://korotkinlaw.com Alex Korotkin

    Through the use of technology, solos will become even more competitive with big law firms. In some areas, such as family law, bankruptcy, and some others, they will almost always beat larger firms on both service and price. The combination of personal service and up-to-date technology, at a reasonable price, can’t be beat.

  • http://www.geeklawblog.com Toby Brown

    Ernie’s story is a great one – illustrating a major client frustration. Beyond talk of billing rates and cost reduction, clients want their lawyers to be efficient. Ernie is. I feel Susskind’s book strikes at the core of this issue. Embracing change both in technology and practice means providing more value for less money (a.k.a. being efficient). Clients even struggle to comprehend this problem, however their needs will drive them to this discussion.
    Thanks for the forum Carolyn. And thanks for the story Ernie.

  • http://www.geeklawblog.com Toby Brown

    Ernie’s story is a great one – illustrating a major client frustration. Beyond talk of billing rates and cost reduction, clients want their lawyers to be efficient. Ernie is. I feel Susskind’s book strikes at the core of this issue. Embracing change both in technology and practice means providing more value for less money (a.k.a. being efficient). Clients even struggle to comprehend this problem, however their needs will drive them to this discussion.
    Thanks for the forum Carolyn. And thanks for the story Ernie.

  • http://www.lisastewartlaw.com L. Stewart

    Thank you too, Allison. Your insights are also thoughtful. Most of us could probably use some training in how to convey the value that we offer to our clients.

  • http://www.lisastewartlaw.com L. Stewart

    Thank you too, Allison. Your insights are also thoughtful. Most of us could probably use some training in how to convey the value that we offer to our clients.

  • http://www.letprotector.co.uk/ David Tenant

    There are a number of sites today that capitalise on specialist services. Justanswer is one of them, for freelancers Guru is another. The latter doesn’t relate to legal services, but the principle is the same.

    Since most people search online nowadays. Any business (legal or otherwise) needs to have some kind of web credibility and it needs to be niche targeted.

    There are many productivity boosting services available today, Google enterpise is a perfect example of progress. Documents can be shared and collaboration is simple and e-mail is hosted with SLA’s. I can remember not too long ago sending several e-mails back and forth, waiting for responses. But now I can edit documents in an instant and quickly move onto the next thing.

    I agree with Susan Cartiers post ‘Anything antiquated gets replaced.’

  • Pingback: Susskind on “The End of Lawyers?” « Legal Informatics Blog()

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