Our Nostradamus

Review of Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013) and Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts (New York: Oxford, 2015).

Windsor Review of Legal and Social Issues, Volume 37, p. 126-131.


Richard Susskind is not in the business of telling lawyers what they want to hear. This was clear from the title alone of his book The End of Lawyers?[1] In that volume, and in Tomorrow’s Lawyers,[2] the UK scholar sketched a challenging future for legal professionals. He predicted that the practice of law would change “more radically over the next two decades than over the last two centuries.”[3] This is troubling enough to a traditionalist profession. Worse, however, was Susskind’s prophecy that there will be less work for lawyers than there is today, and therefore fewer lawyer jobs.[4]

Now, joined by his son Daniel Susskind as co-author, Susskind has published The Future of the Professions.[5] The argument about lawyers developed in the earlier books is now extended to professionals generally, including accountants, architects, educators, and even clergy. In short, this new book is “about the professions and the systems and people that will replace them.”[6]

The Susskinds see three principal forces pushing professionals into this very different future. The first force is the “more-for-less” challenge, which means that clients of all kinds are demanding better services while being less prepared to pay for them.[7] The second main driver for change is liberalization, which means that regulators are opening doors to lower-cost workers (e.g. paralegals) and outside investors (e.g. alternative business structure law firms).[8]

The third and most powerful impetus for change is information technology. Impressed by exponential advances in machine intelligence, the Susskinds expect computers to increasingly automate the tasks involved in providing professional service.[9] Online databases, for example, reduce the number of billable hours involved in legal research because they automate a previously laborious process.[10]

The Susskinds distinguish automation from innovation, another more powerful effect of information technology in the professional services sphere.[11] The difference between automation and innovation is that while automation simply increases efficiency in traditional professional service delivery, true innovation allows practical expertise to be made available in ways which were previously completely impossible.[12] For example online legal communities, if appropriately designed and moderated, might allow individuals and corporations to solve their own legal problems with the assistance of experienced laypeople allied with machine intelligence.[13]

The Susskinds foretell that legal and other professional work will be decomposed into constituent tasks.[14] Litigation, for instance, will be decomposed into nine tasks, beginning with document review and ending with advocacy.[15] Some of these tasks will be assigned to machines, others to lower-paid (perhaps offshore) human hands.  Each of the constituent tasks will tend to move from the traditional “craft” approach towards template-based standardization and then technological systematization.[16]  The ultimate leap into the future is externalization, where expertise is made openly available to the world via the internet without professional gatekeepers.[17]


Where does this leave tomorrow’s lawyers?  There seem to be two silver linings in the Susskinds’ prophecy. First, progress will create a (relatively small) number of new careers, such as for process analysts who will decompose professional work and determine how it can best be parcelled out to different machines and workers.[18] Second, the most boring parts of practicing law, such as reviewing documents and filling out forms, seem likely to be the first ones taken over by machines.

The dark cloud, of course, is technological unemployment. The Susskinds say that professionals will, to varying extents and at varying rates, be “replaced by advanced systems, or by less costly workers supported by technology or standard processes, or by laypeople armed with online self-help tools.”[19] If a computer does not put the lawyer out of work by itself, it will do so by empowering the client to the point where the lawyer is unnecessary.

Tomorrow’s Lawyers is predictive and practical, offering survival tips to law students, firms, and legal educators seeking to navigate this world. The Future of Professions adds a compelling normative argument. The Susskinds argue that practical expertise should be liberated instead of being enclosed by professions and other monopolies.[20] They remind us that traditional professional practice is unaffordable and inaccessible to most people, perhaps most apparently in law.

Because “the use and reuse of knowledge to solve problems often makes it more valuable, not less,” professional expertise is economically well-suited to “liberation.”[21] Free online databases such as CanLII[22] are a first step towards this liberation. However, a rollback of professional monopolies and licensing would presumably also be necessary to reach this promised land.


Only time can tell whether the Susskinds’ predictions are correct. It is plausible that the end of professionals will come to pass at some point in the future. Like all prudent soothsayers, the Susskinds do not offer a firm timeline. It would be foolish to claim that any particular task will be beyond the reach of future machines.

On the other hand, predictions of technological employment have been with us at least since the early 18th century, when Luddite textile workers smashed the wool looms that they feared would replace them.[23] Over the past twenty years in Canada, legal technology has leapt forward. However, over the same period, the number of licensed lawyers per capita has increased significantly[24] and lawyer unemployment was only 3.7% in 2012.[25] Technological unemployment may be our future, but it does not seem to be our present.

Law has a way of bubbling up in unexpected places. Constant economic and social developments drive constant legal change, which often means new work for lawyers. For example, “condominium law” did not even exist a few decades ago, before lifestyle and economic changes made it a necessity. Today, it is a booming specialty and source of jobs. Ontario’s new Protecting Condominium Owners Act is predicted to create significant new demands for lawyers in advisory, litigation, and even occupational licensing practices.[26]

Some of the technological changes that the Susskinds expect will threaten lawyers might also create new opportunities for them. For example, they note that it is possible that machines will eventually become conscious.[27] If so, it is equally possible that machines will take issue with being “slaves” to humans and they may make compelling legal arguments for machine rights. One can readily imagine new realms of law and legal practice being required to mediate human-machine relationships.

IV. Winning the Race against the Machines

It is sometimes said that humans are in a “race against the machines.”[28] The machines continue to become more capable, and as we struggle to keep up, they threaten our jobs. If humans are standing still, or progressing only at the glacial pace of evolution, then this race is probably unwinnable. It would follow that the Susskinds are correct that human professionals are doomed.

But what if the human brain can run faster in this race? What if genetic engineering lets us design each successive generation of children to be more capable than their parents?[29] What if neural implants give similar boosts to those already alive?[30] Perhaps human professionals can compete more effectively against machines by acquiring neural implants and thus becoming part machine.

Such predictions, of course, are pure speculation. However, the machine capabilities which the Susskinds foretell, such as computers comforting distressed clients and arguing in court, are equally speculative. If we are going to assume that technology can eventually do anything, then it seems to follow that technology may help both sides in the human versus machine race. This is good news for human professionals, as well as good news for those who need professional expertise.

On balance, human lawyers probably have at least a few more good decades left to ply their crafts. Nevertheless, the Susskinds’ books are recommended as bracing, compelling visions into an eminently possible future.

* Noel Semple (www.noelsemple.ca) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law.  He teaches and writes in the fields of civil dispute resolution, legal ethics and professionalism, and family law. Noel completed his Ph.D at Osgoode Hall Law School in 2011, after having received an LL.M degree in 2009. In 2007, he received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

[1] Richard Susskind, The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013) [Tomorrow’s Lawyers].

[3] Ibid at xiii.

[4] Ibid at 109.

[5] Richard Susskind & Daniel Susskind, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015) [Future of the Professions].

[6] Ibid at 1.

[7] Tomorrow’s Lawyers, supra note 2 at 4; Future of the Professions, supra note 5 at 108-09.

[8] Tomorrow’s Lawyers, supra note 2 at 5-6; Future of the Professions, supra note 5 at 134-35.

[9] Future of the Professions, supra note 5 at 111.

[10] Ibid at 110-12.

[11] Ibid at 112.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid at 71.

[14] Tomorrow’s Lawyers, supra note 2 at 30.

[15] Ibid at 31.

[16] Future of the Professions, supra note 5 at 200-01.

[17] Ibid at 202-04.

[18] Ibid at 266.

[19] Ibid at 71.

[20] Ibid at 307.

[21] Ibid at 191, 210-11.

[22] Federation of Law Societies of Canada, “CanLII: Canadian Legal Information Institute”, online: <www.canlii.org> [CanLII].

[23] International Wool Textile Organisation, “History of Wool” (2016), online: <www.iwto.org>.

[24] CBA Legal Futures Initiative, “Demographic Trends” (2013) at 5, online: <www.cba.org>.

[25] Employment and Social Development Canada, “Canadian Occupational Projection System: Judges, Lawyers and Quebec Notaries (411)”, online: <occupations.esdc.gc.ca>.l needs  which needs to be donei our future opportunities for them.create significant new t legal needs  which needs to be donei

[26] Cristin Schmitz, “Opportunities Seen in Booming Condo Market as Reforms Emerge”, The Lawyers Weekly (2015), online: <www.lawyersweekly.ca>.

[27] Future of the Professions, supra note 5 at 272.

[28] Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee, Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (Lexington, MA: Digital Frontier Press, 2011).

[29] Antonio Regalado, “Engineering the Perfect Baby”, MIT Technology Review (5 March 2015), online: <www.technologyreview.com>.

[30] Gary Marcus & Christof Koch, “The Future of Brain Implants”, The Wall Street Journal (14 March 2014), online: <www.wsj.com>.