Tomorrow’s law firm - today

Science fiction, depicting the seemingly unstoppable advance of technology, has a habit of becoming science fact – and no one is beyond its orbit, not even practitioners of the law, writes James Dean

Theodore Twombley has just met Samantha. “You read a whole book in the second that I asked what your name was?” he asks. “In two one hundredths of a second actually,” she replies.

“Wow,” says Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). How do you work?” “Well,” says Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), “the DNA of who I am is based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote me.”

Theodore: “That’s really weird. You seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.” Samantha: “I can understand how the limited perspective of an un-artificial mind would perceive it that way. You’ll get used to it.”

Her, Spike Jonze’s new film, is an equally fascinating and unsettling glimpse into the very near future. Theodore falls in love with Samantha, an artificially intelligent computer programme who is cleverer than him in every way.

While the concept is nothing new – Hollywood has long been fascinated with the rule of robots – the disturbing thing about Her is that the film is so utterly believable, even though it is set just 11 years hence.

As the capacity of computing grows exponentially, we humans can only struggle to keep up. The changes are affecting every corner of our lives – even the perhaps dusty old profession that is the law.

We will see more change in the legal profession in the coming decade than we have seen in the past century

When he wrote The End of Lawyers? Richard Susskind, a legal academic and market sage, envisaged a future where computers do all of the low-level legal work currently done by humans. Lawyers were overly expensive, he argued, because they had not explored the means by which they could use technology to make legal services cheaper. The book was published in 2008.

If 2008 seems like the recent past, here’s some context. For the whole of that year, Twitter users posted 400 million tweets and Facebook was four years old. Today, Twitter handles more than 400 million tweets in an average day and Facebook is a $150-billion Fortune 500 company.

Professor Susskind’s latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, published last year, carries his ideas further. He sees “a world of virtual courts, internet-based global legal businesses, online document production, commoditised service, legal process outsourcing and web-based simulated practice”.

Given the changes we have seen in the legal services market in the last decade, it is hard to disagree. Each one of the six phenomena listed by Professor Susskind is already part of legal life, albeit at a different stage of experimentation. Nonetheless, law firms are, he believes, embracing change too slowly and many are in denial.

And as for the future: “We will see more change in the legal profession in the coming decade than we have seen in the past century,” he says. “Law firms will take a succession of major steps that will render many of these organisations barely recognisable by the mid-2020s.”

Professor Susskind envisages a breed of elite law firms providing bespoke services to clients with the biggest deals and disputes, but with low-end work outsourced to low-cost “process plants” comprising ranks of paralegals. Online legal services, meanwhile, will provide practical, affordable legal guidance and documents.

Not all of the changes will be born of technology. The foundations for sweeping structural changes to law firms have already been laid by the 2007 Legal Services Act. The Act has opened the door to myriad challengers, including those who have no prior experience in the world of law, to compete on an even footing with the old guard. These challengers, known as alternative business structures, have already shown a card or two in their hands.

EY, the “big four” professional services firm, is rapidly growing its legal services practice across the world and has hinted that it will apply for a licence to operate legal services in the UK. Helphire, a listed company that provides courtesy cars for motor accident victims, recently raised £40 million from its shareholders to buy personal injury law firms.

Slater & Gordon, the Australian personal injury law firm which was the first to list on a stock market, has expanded rapidly since it arrived in the UK a few years ago, buying up dozens of local firms. It has stated quite openly that it wants to be the UK’s biggest firm in its field.

“By 2025, alternative business structures or their successors will be preferred to partnerships,” Professor Susskind says. “And many traditional law firms will have had to transform to survive.”

The law firm that survives in tomorrow’s world is one that embraces the opportunities provided by technology and market liberalisation. Interestingly enough, the game-changer for the legal world, Professor Susskind suggests, will be artificial intelligence integrated with social networking.

We may be a decade or so away from meeting Samantha. But when we do, today’s innovators will already have pushed themselves far out in front of yesterday’s chasing pack.