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Top Blackstone Chambers QC rejects Oxford prof’s claim that technology will destroy legal profession

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Lawyers survived email and Twitter — and they’ll survive everything else, predicts David Pannick QC

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A leading QC has publicly rejected claims from a top Oxford professor that the legal profession will be wiped out by robots.

Richard Susskind (pictured below), an academic, author, speaker and ‘futurologist’, has continually predicted the demise of the legal profession, most famously in his 2008 prophesy ‘The End of Lawyers?’. Then the legal guru foresaw:

[A] future in which conventional legal advisers will be much less prominent in society than today, and, in some walks of life, will have no visibility at all.

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Now Susskind, writing with his son Daniel, has penned a new book, ‘The Future of the Professions’ — and claims that the threat is worse than previously thought. The father-son duo argue that we are:

[O]n the brink of a period of fundamental and irreversible change.

Technological advances will enable the jobs of professionals to be done more quickly and cost-effectively. Lawyers will become as redundant as the medieval ‘tallow chandlers’ and ‘cordwainers’, and the lawyerless client will become a staple feature of society.

But fear not — according to Blackstone Chambers public law barrister David Pannick QC, the end is not nigh.

Writing in The Times (£) today, Pannick praises the Susskinds for their wit and persuasiveness, but ultimately slams their theory. He says:

[M]y guess is that in the short and medium term… the legal profession will, despite the Susskinds’ efforts, continue to resist and defy change, as it always has.

And why is this?

He goes on to explore previous technological advances, none of which have taken down the profession in the way foreseen by the Susskinds, stating:

Google, email and Twitter have been incorporated, as were telephones, typewriters and fax machines, without fundamentally altering legal practice.

The legal profession, Pannick argues, prides itself on its traditional roots, and will resist technology to protect itself. He says:

Just go to the Royal Courts of Justice or the Old Bailey and see barristers dressed up for the 18th century surrounded by files of documents. Not much has changed since…. 1910.

Pannick — who was recognised as one of 2015’s “stars at the bar” by Chambers UK — goes on to play his trump card, when he argues:

The Susskinds underestimate, I think, the eagerness of a sufficient number of clients to pay for a human adviser and representative… Computers are, I suspect, unlikely in any of our lifetimes to take over many of the important functions of the lawyer: giving advice on how best to resolve a difficult dilemma, cross-examining a witness in the Crown Court, making submissions in the Court of Appeal, or writing a judgement in the Supreme Court.

Pannick ends his piece by describing the Susskinds’ new book as “a paradox”, adding:

[T]he inevitable death of the professions is presented in an expert, original and witty work by two professionals whose skills (in thinking, writing and consultancy) are unlikely any time soon to be replicated by a machine.

There’s nothing controversial about this. Of course a machine would not replace Richard Susskind: he is at the very top of his game and has a loyal fan base of senior lawyers and judges behind him.

It is very unlikely that a machine would replace a leading barrister like Pannick either — not least because he would be retired or (more probably) dead by the time technology was sufficiently advanced to take his job.

And here lies his weakness. Pannick’s focus on top lawyers means that he does not consider Susskinds’ thesis from the viewpoint of the junior legal profession, or the upcoming legal profession. Robots are threatening these people — not people like him.

Many associate-level tasks, like document review, have been delegated to machines — big commercial firms such as Freshfields and Allen & Overy have opened up support centres away from the City, training contracts are down by around 20% since 2008 among the leading City firms, and Oxford University research demonstrates that more junior legal positions, such as paralegals, have a scarily high chance of being dominated by machines.

The QC’s ace up his sleeve is that clients are willing to pay for human interaction. But will this be true in years to come? Many people would rather use a self-service checkout than wait for a sales assistant, ask Siri for help instead of speaking to an expert, or help themselves to a drink rather than flag down a waiter.

Appeals to — as Pannick puts it — “moral reasons” for having human lawyers only work in a society where people want human lawyers. And who knows whether that will be the case in the future?