New media guru predicts trouble for non-believers

Richard Susskind is the nearest the profession has to a new media guru. Claire Smith meets the man who says no lawyer should believe that they are immune to developments around them

Richard Susskind is at the heart of some of the most crucial discussions going on at the likes of Allen & Overy Clifford Chance and Linklaters & Alliance. As IT consultant to the biggest law firms, accountants and the upper echelons of the judiciary, he is shaping the future of the practice of law. Yet while he exudes the sort of enthusiasm common to someone preaching about the information age, Susskind says that lawyers are not always the easiest people to convince.

"As a law undergraduate this [IT] just sparked my interest. It was about the time the PC was coming out. I felt we were on the brink of something amazing," he says. "I was never in any doubt about how pervasive this was going to be, but the lawyers were. As recently as four or five years ago when I gave talks, most questions challenged whether this was going to happen at all."

But Susskind feels he is finally getting somewhere with lawyers. The magic circle players have realised they can no longer afford to ignore the internet revolution, and lawyers are gradually getting involved at every level. "More has happened in the last two years than happened in the last 15. It's tremendously exciting, but we have done it with the commitment of a few people. The feeling that the big firms have lots of people doing this is not true," he says.

Susskind began his legal IT career at City firm Masons, but was tempted away in 1995 by the lure of a job with the judiciary. Appointed as IT adviser to Lord Woolf in his review of the Civil Justice System, Susskind was glad to have the opportunity to start making a difference. "At Masons I was very much involved with one firm, but I wanted to advise lots of firms. Now I advise law firms and accountancy firms through my consultancy business, and a whole bundle of different government departments.

Apart from writing and speaking about the subject, Susskind has been appointed IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice and become a member of the civil justice IT strategy development group, led by David Lock MP, parliamentary secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department.

To some Susskind has assumed the role of IT guru to the profession – receiving an OBE in the Millennium New Year's honours list for services to IT in the law and the administration of justice. "If you split my career into two parts, the first decade was a lot of struggle and gradually more and more people have become interested and got more into it. Getting the OBE is an extreme version of that new recognition," he says.

You get the feeling that Susskind is beginning to feel his job is done. He admits he is tempted by the potential millions on offer if he takes his expertise to a dotcom company. "I have been getting involved with a lot of start-ups," he says. "That would be exciting – it's something I'm giving a lot of thought to."

But while he realises his contemporaries in the IT world are raking in fortunes from the new economy, Susskind says he is not yet ready to turn his back on the reluctant law firms. "The legal work that's done today in the normal way will soon be moving online," he says. "A lot of what the big firms do, in finance for example, can be systemised. We might even get to a diagnostic system where clients punch in questions and it comes out with an answer. At the moment a very common complaint is: 'There are hundreds of thousands of legal websites out there but that isn't helping me solve my problem, it's making it worse.' Until the technology is helping solve the problem it's no use."

Susskind is convinced that mid-sized firms are most at risk from so-called disintermediation – the removal of legal intermediaries from the supply chain. "Unless you are actually adding value, clients will go online and get that service. Professional service providers are by and large intermediaries," says Susskind. "Reintermediation is the core way to tackle that. Firms need to provide services online that add value, and deliver services that could not otherwise be provided at all. It is the medium-sized firms that are not niche that are really at risk. They won't be able to compete unless they provide their own service. The big firms will find it easier to develop, and the smaller firms will continue to focus on personal service."

The lack of regulation on the internet means that the multidisciplinary practice moves closer and threatens the traditional law firm even more. "If you get online and you are involved in a big deal, you can get advice online from all different directions. Different professionals can get together and invest in the same business – the delivery of a multidisciplinary service from one team. An accountant, a lawyer and a consultant can all be on hand. That raises interesting regulatory questions."

According to Susskind, the other big issue for the legal establishment is education. "We are preparing lawyers for practice as we have been for decades, but the world is changing beyond recognition. Legal education is just not keeping up."

But even Susskind must concede that things are moving faster than even he could have ever imagined. His successor as Masons' project manager, Andrew Terrett, says: "Susskind has been tremendously committed to the use of technology in law since long before other people had really picked up on it. He prophesied the changes would take 10, maybe 15 years. But it looks like it's going to take about four."

Yet, while the challenges may be running out for Susskind, his enthusiasm is far from ebbing. "This is transforming, not just streamlining or improving, but completely transforming the way things are done. Last night my kids were asking me: 'Are we in the middle of a revolution like the industrial revolution?'

"It is as fundamental a revolution as the industrial revolution, but that took a lot longer. We can see the internet changing everything – and there is no obvious reason why lawyers should be immune to that."

Jargon busting – the A-Z of New Media

Acrobat

Acrobat A programme from Adobe that allows the creation or reading of PDF files. PDF is a format that enables a reader to see the exact layout, graphics and typestyle of the document that the producer intended, without having to have the correct fonts installed on their machine. Users only need to have an Acrobat reader which is freely available from Adobe's website. The format is useful for creating brochures to download.

ActiveX

Microsoft's answer to the Java technology from Sun Microsystems. It allows the creation of a self-sufficient program that can be run anywhere in an ActiveX network (whether Windows or Macintosh).

Address

The must-have accessory for the digital age. An "address" can mean the unique location of either an internet server, a specific file or an email user. The server or IP address is the unique string of numbers of a particular server linked to the internet (eg. 194.72.83.225). This equates to a domain name such as thelawyer.co.uk. Individual files such as web pages have an address based on the domain name (eg. www.thelawyer. co.uk/index.htm). This is known as the uniform resource locator, or URL. And finally, individuals can have a mailbox linked to that domain name, providing them with their own virtual address.

ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line)

A problem many home users of the internet encounter has been the low bandwidth (effectively the slowness of access and download). ADSL, a technology for transmitting digital information at high bandwidths on existing phone lines, could change that. BT is upgrading its exchanges to allow ADSL access, and service providers including AOL, Freeserve and Telewest are trialling high-speed "always on" services.

Agent or bot

A programme that collects information or performs some service in the background. Can be used to create personalised search or news services for instance.

AI (artificial intelligence)

The simulation of the human intelligence processes by computers. A philosophical minefield but also an important business area as firms look to develop AI or expert systems to provide initial legal advice, build first drafts, etc.

Ananova

A virtual newsreader. An interesting attempt to create a "person" who interacts with the visitor to the website. As bandwidth increases it becomes possible to create more user-friendly ways of people accessing information or services, getting away from text boxes, search fields and eventually keyboards and mice. Ananova is described by her designers as 28 years old, 5ft 8 in, with a "pleasant, quietly intelligent manner".

Architecture

The increasingly complex art (or science) of thinking out and specifying the inter-relationships of computers, operating systems and networks.

ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange)

The most common format for text files in computers and on the internet. Documents in ASCII (or plain) text can be guaranteed to be readable by anyone, on almost any device.

Avatar

A computer generated character or persona adopted by a user of an online environment. Another example of the attempt to create a more human feel to the online experience. In Hinduism, an avatar is an incarnation of a deity, hence an embodiment or manifestation of an idea or greater reality.

AVI file (Audio Visual Interleaved file)

Microsoft's standard for sound and motion picture file. Apple has developed the Quicktime format that also plays on PCs. Users need a special player that may be included with a web browser to play the video and must download the complete file before playing, unlike streaming media formats that begin to play almost immediately.

Faster by James Gleick, published by Little Brown (1999) ISBN 0316883352

The Anorak

When your briefcase is full of documents demanding attention like toddlers and your personal digital assistant interrupts your day with less diplomacy but more regularity than your real PA, a 320-page book would perhaps be filed under "luxury" and its consumption under "leisure".

But you should read James Gleick's book. It's only in short chapters. You can squeeze them into those moments you haven't yet timetabled.

The book describes our current obsession with speed and time and the changes in our culture and society that it is ushering in.

Gleick starts with two air travellers sitting side by side, one who allowed plenty of time to catch the flight, thus minimising the chance of missing it, and the other whose dash through the terminal minimised the wasted time he most feared.

Gleick continues with a discussion of "internet time" where waiting for a response to an email causes more anxiety than the old wait for a fax or a phone call. On and on the chapters rush – 'Sex and Paperwork', 'Eat and Run', 'MTV Zooms By'.

In a chapter likely to catch the speed-reading eye of any City professional, he addresses how many hours people work, a "time-use category subject to the most diligent and official measurements". I could go into his discussion of "billable hours", but I haven't got time.

To some this will appear a very depressing book. "As nature abhors a vacuum, so we abhor the blackness, the lack of stimulation, that comes with doing nothing," Gleick writes at one point. If you're staring out of your office window and considering downshifting rather than counting (or letting someone else count) your billable hours, Gleick will provide you with more than enough anomie to send you over the edge, fast.

But faster can also be read as a plea for humans to take back control. "Neither technology nor efficiency can acquire more time for you, because time is not a thing you have lost. It is not a thing you ever had. It is what you live in. You can drift in its currents, or you can swim," Gleick writes.

Aggressively squander the time you save, he suggests. It's yours and one way to do it could be to read something – just because you can.

e-manager is the first in a new rotating Lawyer 2 series covering IT and new media, marketing, in-house and human resources.Next week, marketing manager asks how far legal marketing is lagging behind.