Significant parts of Richard Susskind's The End of Lawyers? focus on the role of technology and automation in the production of legal documents. In particular he looks at the use of software that enables the client, with the use of what is basically a decision tree, to generate employment contracts or wills.Looking at what has happened in other areas of business life, the direction of travel seems on-way on this. True, there are obstacles on this road, but there is not much traffic coming the other way.
Automation may never become total in many areas, but its dominant role may produce something that is good enough for many clients. To say that argument challenges the business model for many, many legal practices is to state the obvious. The implications are also obvious – as technologies and processes improve, margins on the work they support will go down.
Is it time, then, for many practices to get out of this sort of work, as many have done with legal aid work as margins have become seriously challenging?
Those who say 'no' present a compelling argument – to be clear, they number many more than Susskind. They acknowledge that the competition to offer these services will only increase, and that profitability will fall for straightforward offerings. They also acknowledge that the development costs of creating or refining some more complex products have thus far proved prohibitive.
But shouldn't firms, the case goes, buy in these automated products as they become available and affordable, to add to their offering for clients? Firms would do that knowing that if the client buys this product through them then there is a chance to sell the client higher-value services.
Some of those services may relate to wills or employment – the technology passing up difficult issues for associates or partners to handle. More significantly, the argument runs, lower-margin instructions may get lawyers closer to clients – especially attractive if they are one of the UK's four million-plus owner-managed businesses.
Going down this route is not, its proponents acknowledge, trouble free. There may be firms who fail more quickly than they otherwise would for trying this and getting it wrong.
The reason to look at this model is that it has a key encouraging feature: it is a model that could work for smaller firms – a possible solution in areas where, for those sticking to the current model, business is likely to get tougher.