Lawyers can learn a lot from the irresistible rise of Starbucks and its rivals.
I am a coffee junkie. At home, my current bean is a medium-roasted, high-altitude, single-estate Ethiopian. And near that home, once an isolated paradise in a caffeine desert, a whole range of cappuccino joints now provide acceptable alternatives.
So, when the Susskind boys, son Daniel and father Richard, pray the coffee market in aid of their argument in The Future of the Professions I perk up.
Let me be precise. I take issue with only one element of their argument. Even the busiest practitioner should digest what this book is saying about future practice. The ‘central thesis’ is pretty much what the older Susskind has been banging on about for decades under combative titles like The End of Lawyers?. The authors must surely be right in saying: ‘In the long run, increasingly capable machines will transform the work of professionals, giving rise to new ways of sharing practical expertise in society.’
Richard Susskind, in particular, deserves considerable personal credit for the fact that few solicitors would as much question this assertion as the statement that, in the long run, they will also be dead. But widespread agreement on the precise nature of the coming transformation may be harder.
We can perhaps agree some parameters. It will undoubtedly reflect, as the Susskinds say: ‘the industrialisation and digitisation of the professions; … the routinisation and commoditisation of professional work; … the disintermediation and demystification of professionals’. But how?
This is where we come to the Susskinds’ ‘Lessons from Coffee’ in a section headed ‘Lost Craft’. It soon becomes apparent that the authors, modernists though they are, probably drink tea. For they quote approvingly a study which alleges that ‘baristas’ have been replaced by Nespresso machines. Gone, they lament, are the ‘talented artisans in a richly human process’ of yesteryear. Apparently, even Michelin-starred restaurants now deliver their coffee through such machines.
Well, you might get away with that at the tacky end of the cafe trade but everywhere else baristas are doing just fine. If capsules were of the same quality as freshly roasted beans and cost were the only criterion for success, then the Susskinds would be right. But the coffee world suggests something more complex is happening. No one is going to pay around £3 for capsule-flavoured water.
On the other hand, millions of people around the world gladly wait in line for an individualised product which they consume in what Starbucks cannily describes as ‘a third place between work and home… a place for conversation and a sense of community’. Nespresso may displace instant coffee but it does not get much beyond that except for those who have dined so well they might not notice.
So, what are the true lessons for lawyers from the world of coffee? Well, for a start, the value of national branding. For lawyers that must mean gradually shifting to the internet as a first introduction to clients. Already, Citizens Advice is upgrading its website to make it more viable as a first contact with the organisation. Its rival national advice provider, Advice Now, is exclusively net-oriented.
And, Co-operative Legal Services, Slater and Gordon and QualitySolicitors are all putting resources into the kind of national websites that are likely to replace local high street location as a way of pulling in clients.
Automated document assembly programs are probably the nearest Nespresso equivalent for the law. Firms and NGOs such as My Living Will are offering low cost, or even free, self-assembly wills or advance statements and directions. The winners will adopt this technology – bring down price and provide a value-added service, bundling up self-assembly and consideration of living wills within one fixed-price package. Electronic communication will put less premium on physical meeting but more on personal availability and client relations. Skype and video can incorporate face-to-face service within an electronic context.
This latest book is noticeably less deterministic about the future than much of the previous Susskind oeuvre. The authors concede there are options. As, indeed, there are. The success of magic circle firms is testimony to the attraction of the solicitor brand where the qualification is largely unnecessary in any strict sense related to the work undertaken.
Solicitors can survive by refocusing their image and role as problem-solvers rather than keepers of once arcane knowledge. That will be much more available from free or low-cost websites and artificial intelligence products such as IBM’s Watson. This already crunches data and law with awe-inspiring speed – and it will only get better.
A lot of solicitors’ routine work will disappear. So will a lot of routine jobs. We will be fewer. But the essence of the lawyer as ethical, informed, practical and successful problem-solver should remain. Even George Clooney’s promotion of Nespresso has not threatened the irresistible rise of real coffee houses. We have to fashion ourselves so that our success can reflect theirs.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice