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THE MAGAZINE      May/June 2002
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THE INNOVATION ISSUE

Clicks and Mortals

By Richard Susskind

Assume that a law firm wasn’t constrained by precedent or internal politics and that money was no object. What truly innovative practice management activity would you love to see implemented?

The biggest challenge for law firms in the next two decades will be to create the best possible blend of "mortals and clicks"—the optimum mix, as occasion requires, between conventional, traditional, consultative advisory services on the one hand and Internet-enabled services on the other.

It will not do for firms to carry on treating all new deals and disputes as unique and, thereby, demanding the involvement of the finest legal minds at all times. To be sure, in all major matters, lawyers are likely to happen upon novel terrain. But an enduring theme of clients is that there are heavily routine and repetitive aspects to all pieces of work, and these deserve far greater standardization of process and systematization of knowledge than law firms allow today. More prosaically, clients do not want to pay their lawyers to reinvent the wheel (such as drafting from scratch where precedents should exist). Clients are calling for superior project management (rather than frenetic, ill-structured, last-minute deal making and drafting), and they are entirely open to new, imaginative ways of packaging and delivering legal services (such as online automatic document generation).

With that context in mind, let me make my wish for law firms. It is for top managers in all law firms to look long and hard at the work their practices undertake and then honestly identify those situations in which personalized, human service is genuinely needed and adds relevant value—value that Internet-based service cannot simulate or better. This, in turn, calls for law firms to analyze and understand the business processes underpinning their services, and to pinpoint the knowledge and experience that is repeatedly brought to bear in delivering those services.

Armed with this greater appreciation of what is actually going on, the overriding management rule should be as follows: If any aspect of legal service can be responsibly systematized and Internet-enabled, it should be. If it cannot, then it is properly the province of the human lawyer, working in the time-honored manner. Today, there is a presumption in favor of mortals. Tomorrow, the presumption will shift toward clicks. It may be scary, unpalatable and disconcerting. But that is where we are heading.

Richard Susskind (richard@susskind.com) is a law professor in London, England, and author of Transforming the Law (Oxford University Press, 2000).

"Life is trying things to see if they work."

— RAY BRADBURY