Susskind talks: who listens?

Richard Susskind gave the annual lecture of the Society for Computers and Law (SCL)  in London this evening. It was a typically bravura performance delivering a comprehensive review of the impact of technology on the law. This is a topic which Professor Susskind has made  his own. He first lectured on it to the SCL thirty years ago. It has been the subject of veritable slew of books ever since. Introducing the Professor, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, noted that he was the fifth officeholder in a row to appoint him as an adviser.

In the space of an hour, Professor Susskind took us over the ground – through issues relating to access to justice, ODR, ‘Biglaw’ and artificial intelligence, legal education and the future range of legal employment.

Here is my summary of the four main points that I took away from the event.

First, Professor Susskind is to be commended for emphasising the importance of technology to the potential improving of access to justice. This follows a concern in his later books and was his point of entry into the topic in the lecture. It makes a refreshing change from beginning with the miracles of Watson and AI. The legal system, he argued, was too costly, too slow, too combative and too out of step with the internet society. We needed to devote more resources to dispute avoidance and containment rather than dispute resolution. He made an apt analogy with healthcare. Decoded, I take this to mean more money on legal information, education and advice rather than on courts and lawyers.

Second, the concern with access led to a domestic point of relevance to those in England and Wales. Professor Susskind recited his involvement in proposals for an online small claims court and he welcomed the drift of government policy in developing online. However, he expressed his concern that the government was intent on moving too fast. We should start with small claims and undertake a pilot in order to study the results. We should ‘build incrementally, not go for a Big Bang’. Government proposals, it may be remembered, are to do exactly the opposite.  I could see a number of judges in the audience. Whether anyone was listening from the Ministry of Justice will be known soon enough.

Third, he pointed to the extent to which technology was transforming practice of the big commercial firms and how most of the big City firms, in particular, were developing alliances in relation to artificial intelligence. The ‘Big Four’, the large international accountancy firms, were, in this context, to be regarded as real competitors to the established legal practices.

Finally, he lamented the failure of legal education in England and Wales. It was caught in the last century and not adapting to the shift in employment that will be created by technological change.  He contrasted the number of research centres on law and innovative technology in the US with those in the UK (zero). We are falling behind what was needed both in terms of how we delivered training (failure to use simulated learning techniques to any degree) and the roles for which we trained students.

As ever, Professor Susskind was stimulating. He is also never one to let a marketing opportunity pass by. So, we learnt of the imminent publication of a second edition of The Future of the Professions, written with his son Daniel. It will, no doubt, be worth a read – like his speech when a full transcript becomes available.

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