What if Susskind’s wrong?

In 2008 Richard Susskind published The End of Lawyers?. It called for a radicalisation of the law, using technology to undertake tasks previously carried out by lawyers. We were presented with a scary new word – commoditisation.

In 2010 I sat in a law firm board meeting. The board members rubbed their hands with glee imagining Susskind’s future. They pictured clients stripping work away from big international firms and passing it to smaller firms; firms just as technically capable but better versed in using case management systems to do work more quickly and cheaply.

In 2016 Susskind spoke at the PM Forum conference following the publication of his latest book The Future of the Professions. In it he furthered the case for fundamental change in the professions, making them more transparent, more efficient and more accessible to the many.

Taken in isolation, these three scenes tell a convincing story. But what if the story’s wrong? In reality, how different is today’s landscape vs. that of 2006?

Yes, some firms have invested in technology. Unfortunately clients say they see little benefit either in terms of efficiency or cost. Instead of replacing lawyers and partners with AI, firms are getting rid of business services staff as a way of boosting partner profits.

And it’s not new providers blazing a trail. In accountancy it’s the Big Four starting to take a bite out of the mid-market. The law firm with the highest proportion of technology experts per partner? That most venerable of institutions, Slaughter & May.

While we have seen consolidation, how many merged firms are really doing anything that differently compared to when they were separate? Hardly any, if they’re honest about it. It’s the same old same old.

Last year the Big Four accountancy firms grew their UK revenues by £930m, to a combined total of £10.7bn. They command 77% of the top 50 accountancy firm market. In 2013 they commanded 78%. Firms ranked 41 to 50 command 1% of the market. And in 2013? You guessed it – 1%.

The top 200 law firms’ combined revenue reached a record £23.5bn last year. Only three new firms entered the top 100. Bigger firms are growing more rapidly than smaller firms.

Everywhere, the partnership model’s proving remarkably resilient. In law, the hourly rate’s still dominant. If the rumours are true, Linklaters’ notional partner rate for litigation just broke £1,000 per hour.

Perhaps we’re just seeing the typical course of disruption, where change takes longer to come than predicted but has a much bigger impact than predicted. I hope we are.

But let’s not hold our breath. Those partners from my 2010 board meeting must be mightily disappointed by the change they’ve seen – or not seen.

Lee Grunnell, Regional Director, PM Forum London