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

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  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.