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The future of information technologies in the legal world

By Richard Susskind


The uncharitable might say that I write the same book every four years or so. Some critics certainly accuse me of having said the same thing for many years. I don’t disagree. Since the early 80s, my enduring interest has been in the ways in which technology can modernize and improve the work of the legal profession and the courts. My main underpinning conviction has indeed not changed: that legal work is document and information intensive, and that a whole host of information technologies can and should streamline and sometimes even overhaul traditional methods of practicing law and administering justice.

What have changed, of course, are the enabling technologies. When I started out on what has become a career devoted largely to legal technology, the web had not been invented, nor had tablets, handheld devices, mobile phones, and much else. As new technologies emerge, therefore, I always have a new story to tell and more evidence that suggests the legal world is shifting from being a cottage industry to an IT-enabled information sector.

The evolution of my thinking reflects my own technical interests and career activities over the years. My first work in the field, in the 1980s, focused on artificial intelligence and its potential and limitations in the law. This began in earnest with my doctoral research at Oxford University. I was interested in the possibility of developing computer systems that could solve legal problems and offer legal advice. Many specialists at the time wanted to define expert systems in law in architectural terms (by reference to what underlying technologies were being used, from rule-based systems to neural networks). I took a more pragmatic view and described these systems functionally as computer applications that sought to make scarce legal knowledge and expertise more widely available and easily accessible.

This remains my fundamental aspiration today. I believe there is enormous scope for using technology, especially Internet technology, as a way of providing affordable, practical legal guidance to non-lawyers, especially those who are not able to pay for conventional legal service. These systems may not be expert systems, architecturally-defined. Instead, they are web-based resources (such as online advisory and document drafting systems) and are delivering legal help, on-screen, as envisaged back in the 1980s.

During the first half of the 90s, while I was working in a law firm (Masons, now Pinsent Masons), my work became less academic. I was bowled over by the web and began to form a view of the way it would revolutionize the communication habits of practicing lawyers and transform the information seeking practices of the legal fraternity. I also had some rudimentary ideas about online communities of lawyers and clients; we now call these social networks. My thinking came together in the mid-1990s. I became clear, in my own mind at least, that information technology would definitely challenge and change the world of law. Most people thought I was nuts.

A few years later, to help put my ideas into practice, I developed what I called ‘the grid’ – a simple model that explained the inter-relationships of legal data, legal information, legal knowledge, as found within law firms and shared with clients. I had used this model quite a bit with my clients (by this time, I was working independently) and it seemed to help lawyers think through what they should be doing about IT.

In the years that followed, however, I became even more confident that the Internet was destined to change the legal sector not incrementally and peripherally but radically, pervasively, and irreversibly. But I felt that, in the early 2000s, most lawyers were complacent. Times were good, business was brisk, and the majority of practitioners could not really imagine that legal practice and the court system would be thrown into upheaval by disruptive technologies.

Then came the global recession and, in turn, lawyers became more receptive than they had been in boom times when there had been no obvious reason why they might change course. Dreadful economic conditions convinced lawyers that tomorrow would look little like yesterday.

With many senior lawyers now recognizing that we are on the brink of major change, my current preoccupation is that most law schools around the world are ignoring this future. They continue to teach law much as I was taught in the late 1970s. They are equipping tomorrow’s lawyers to be twentieth century not twenty-first century lawyers. My mission now is to help law teachers to prepare the next generation of lawyers for the new legal world.

Richard Susskind OBE is an author, speaker, and independent adviser to international professional firms and national governments. He is president of the Society for Computers and law IT adviser to the lord chief justice. Tomorrow’s Lawyers is his eighth book.

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Image Credit: ‘The Grid’ courtesy of Richard Susskind. Used with permission. Do not reproduce without explicit permission of Richard Susskind.

Recent Comments

  1. Jeff

    Is it not possible to program a variable for each word in the human language, define how those words interact with each other, then program instructional or interactive software to “think”? Just an idea.

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