Book Review

AuthorCHOO Han Teck LLB (Hons) (National University of Singapore), LLM (Cambridge); Judge of the Republic of Singapore.
Citation(2014) 26 SAcLJ 325
Published date01 December 2014
Date01 December 2014


An Introduction to Your Future *

by Richard Susskind

1 There is a generation of lawyers in practice today who started practising law before the word-processor (now obsolete), the telefax (becoming obsolete) and the e-mail. They remember the slow, expensive and fading thermal paper copying machines; the carbon paper; and the “Local Urgent Mail”. They now meet and deal with lawyers born in the digital age, whom Marc Prensky described as “Digital Natives”.1 The rest are “Digital Immigrants”. The old ways of doing things have changed and the old ways of learning, Prensky contends, are gone. Digital Natives are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, are networked most of their lives, are used to receiving information really quickly and love “multi-tasking”.

2 Technology, thus, has been the single factor that has vastly altered the shape of commerce in modern times, and that in turn has altered legal practice. However, in the case of the latter, many other aspects are also changing in common law jurisdictions around the world. Taking stock today with the view of planning for the future is not just a matter of solving complications that might have been caused by technology, for if that were the case, solutions would eventually be found. The changing shape of legal practice is not merely a complicated matter. It is a complex one. Richard Susskind's book was written “to provide tomorrow's lawyers and legal educators with an accessible account of the pressing issues that currently face the legal profession and the justice system”. It was written in the context of legal practice in the UK but similar issues arise also in America.2

3 The broad areas in which Susskind discusses the legal profession may be best considered in the light of the situation in America where the financial crisis in 2008 had a severe impact on the legal profession. The general picture since, up to 2013, has been one of downsizing,

the laying off of non-partners and general staff, although partner profitability remained largely stable. This has led to serious examinations of the way law is practised there, especially in the large firms.3 Steven Harper, a Digital Immigrant, recalls his ideals that attracted him to the practice of law: “I saw it as a prestigious profession whose practitioners enjoyed personally satisfying careers in which they provided others with counsel, advice, judgment, and a unique set of skills.”4 Harper believes that due to the corporatisation of legal practice and the rise of the billable hour (that followed Goldfarb v Virginia StateBar),5 law firms, especially the large ones, began to see the allure of leveraging on billable hours by employing more non-partners. Harper cites the example of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP. It was ranked 54th in total revenues in 1995 when it had 75 equity partners out of 268 lawyers, with the partners earning an average of US$500,000. In 2005 the total number of lawyers increased to 500 but that of the equity partners remained at 75 and the average partner profits rose to US$2.5m. After the financial crisis, partner profitability remained high only because leveraging was reduced. The non-partners became the casualties. Harper says that “[w]ith every recession, the billable hour takes another public relations hit … yet it survives”. The resulting income inequality among American lawyers may be attributable to the billable hour in a second way. If the multiplier cannot be increased further, the only way is to stretch the hour. That means longer work hours and fewer leisure ones. These contribute to the complex reasons many lawyers find their job unfulfilling.6

4 Like evolution, the present is not the end. Legal practice has changed tremendously in the past 30 years mainly because of the billable hour and technology. In Tomorrow's Lawyers, Susskind believes that the changes to come will reshape practice even more. He believes that three factors will lead the charge of change. The first is concerned with the challenge facing general counsel, namely, how can they deliver more legal services to their businesses at lower cost? Secondly, the liberalisation of legal services away from the traditional sources and methods; and thirdly, the new generation of information technology (“IT”) will alter the way law is taught and practised.

5 In the first, Susskind identifies the management of risk as the primary responsibility of a general counsel. This is a broad area of responsibility and includes increasing awareness of the law and legal matters, introducing protocols, audit reviews and risk assessments, and

generally, making sure that the members of the company do not inadvertently expose the organisation to legal liability. He sees the reluctance to engage knowledge managers as inconsistent with the general counsel's discharge of his responsibility. This is because the use of standard documents is an established form of reducing legal risks and standard documents belong in the realm of knowledge management. Having discussed this with many general counsel, Susskind concludes that it is not that they are averse to the idea of knowledge management — they just prefer the law firms to pay for it.

6 In a previous book, Susskind wrote that senior...

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