Tomorrow has already arrived when it comes to legal training

Academic urges a cradle to the grave approach to ensure lawyers are ready to meet challenges

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 5:13am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 5:13am

I have just finished reading Tomorrow's Lawyers by Richard Susskind, a law professor with a variety of roles advising governments and businesses on planning for the long term.

Although he is writing primarily for an English audience, it contains much of interest to Hong Kong.

Susskind's primary audience is the person who is thinking of a legal career or is in the early stages of such a career. He encourages young people to pursue a legal career while informing them of challenges and opportunities ahead.

He argues that current ways of doing legal business are susceptible to change. There are three reasons, he says. The first is that financial constraints mean lawyers - those working in-house and at law firms - will be forced to do more for less. The second factor is the opening up of legal work to other types of businesses, which will bring new ideas and other types of expertise to the provision of legal services. Information technology is the third disrupting force he identifies.

I left the book with the idea that if any part of the legal process can be usefully automated, commodified or outsourced, it will be. This does not mean all of it will or should be dealt with in this way. One of the challenges facing the law firm of the future will be deciding on the type of arrangement that is suitable for each part of its business.

This may sound like a dystopian vision of the future, but the spirit of the book is extremely positive. Innovative solutions will be developed that meet the needs of potential consumers - people who need legal advice but for whom the current models of dispensing it are not cost-effective.

The disruption that Susskind anticipates will have some impact on existing legal jobs but, on the other side of the balance sheet, new doors will open up. Some of the new legal careers will demand that lawyers embrace some kind of "blended" professionalism. We could see the rise of the lawyer-management consultant or the lawyer-project manager.

This would have implications for legal education, which will have to prepare students for the new opportunities. As a minimum, law students could use their non-law credits to explore the types of disciplines that would be useful to them as a lawyer/IT expert or whatever type of blended professionalism appeals to them.

The legal professions in England have set up a Legal Education and Training Review to look at how English legal education should respond to the changing environment for the provision of legal services. The first stage of the review is completed and a lengthy report has been published.

The report also mentions the sorts of challenges that are the theme of Susskind's book. It is not concerned with proposing changes for the undergraduate law degree. Instead, it makes the case for a unified and ongoing system of legal education and training that would be flexible and embedded in the workplace. It would accompany the lawyer from the cradle to the grave.

Professor Michael Lower of the Faculty of Law at Chinese University teaches and researches land law.