November 18, 2019

Futurist sees profound changes in legal practice

When British legal futurist Richard Susskind spoke at the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services Innovation Summit at Stanford University in 2015, there were “a few hundred” legal tech startups worldwide, he says. Just four years later, there are “a few thousand.” This, Susskind says, is just one of many indications of the exponential rate of change the legal profession must take advantage of for the benefit of those it serves.

ABA president Judy Perry Martinez invited Susskind to speak at a November 14, 2019, meeting of the ABA Board of Governors, which, appropriately, was a videoconference.

“We will see more change in the next two decades than in the last two centuries,” said Susskind, author of numerous books including The Future of Law and Online Courts and the Future of Justice, which was published this month.

Susskind encouraged the ABA leaders to consider “vision-based thinking.” He illustrated the concept with a story about Black & Decker executives who were asked to state what the company does. The obvious answer: “We sell power drills.” The visionary answer: “We sell holes.”

Susskind likewise argued that lawyers must focus on delivering the outcomes their clients want and avoid the tendency to emphasize process, especially when it’s cumbersome, confusing, and serves primarily to benefit lawyers and judges.

He observed that the rapid acceleration of technology over the years—especially in what Susskind called “brute force” computing power—means that machines have the potential to surpass human analytical activity. By 2020, he said, it is expected that the average desktop computer will have the processing power of the human brain. By 2050, that processing power will surpass all of humanity combined.

The ramifications for legal work are enormous, Susskind said. Already, computer programs like Lex Machina can process historical case data and predict the outcome of current patent disputes more quickly and accurately than lawyers, he said. Developers, he added, are even creating technology that can assess emotions, such as whether a smile is genuine or fake. Ideally, Susskind said, what’s at stake for lawyers “is not about unemployment, but redeployment.”

Vision-based thinking is critical for all industries and professions, Susskind said, especially those like law that are rooted in tradition and that fall short in addressing the full market’s needs.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” he said. “What kind of future will you create?”