The legal world's soothsayer

Richard Susskind sees himself more as a legal traditionalist than an IT evangelist.

Listening to Richard Susskind talk about the future of the British legal system, makes one wonder if the 19th century Luddities who roamed the countryside smashing spinning looms had a point.

Indeed, his vision of the future could be enough to make any embattled solicitor put their foot through their PC monitor.

In Susskind's future, conveyancing transactions, divorce proceedings and other simple legal affairs may no longer be the preserve of solicitors, but will instead be carried out by standardised transaction forms on the Internet. Legal questions will be fed into a computer that advises users on the best course of action to take.

And discussion will take place about replacing judges with judicial decision-making computers.

Yet, far from casting Susskind out into the wilderness, legal luminaries from Lord Woolf and Lord Saville to Cherie Booth QC and Law Society president Phillip Sycamore – have embraced his ideas and his printed manifesto of the legal path ahead – The Future of Law.

The book caused a minor sensation in the legal community when it was published in 1996 and now an updated paperback edition will be released this March.

Apart from the book, Susskind the IT visionary has a high profile in the profession.

He advises senior judges and law lords about the use of technology. Occasionally lecturing as a visiting professor at Strathclyde University, he has been invited to speak on IT matters in 25 countries.

Susskind is listed as a marketing manager at law firm Masons and, in addition to being there once or twice a week, he has written four books and presented more than 100 papers. He also advises law firms on IT issues, with Clifford Chance being his biggest client.

An impressive resume. But what does he actually do? In his own words, he helps top law firm managers think clearly and make decisions confidently about information technology.

He "thinks" about the long-term changes in technology. He sits between top IT specialists and managers who are having communication problems and works as a facilitator. And he helps to "create a culture" in which technology will flourish.

"It's partly consultative, partly advisory, partly hand holding," says Susskind.

However, if you need advice on the best PC to buy, Susskind is not your man.

Unfailingly polite with a sharp sense of humour, the father of three also possesses a strong sense of loyalty to those he has worked with. In turn unearthing any criticism about him or his ideas is difficult. The closest anyone gets is saying how his obvious enthusiasm can border on obsession.

At 36, Susskind retains the boyish looks that belies a razor-sharp intellect. When speaking on his pet IT subjects he communicates in a torrent of words and ideas in his Glaswegian burr, with all the fervour of a gospel preacher.

"Complex, socially significant, high-value work will continue to be done one on one, on a consultative advisory basis. I don't think that will change," says Susskind.

"However there's quite a lot of work, both in the High Street and the City which could actually become systematised and routinised and could become crank-handle stuff."

This would essentially mean clients would use standard documents or computer systems to carry out tasks that their solicitors now do.

"There are innumerable situations in our personal and business lives where people need access to law, but to get it is too consuming, too costly and too confrontational," he says.

Some solicitors, argues Susskind, will become legal engineers modelling the in-formation system that consumers will use.

Taking the idea further and suggesting some lawyers themselves could be replaced by computers may seem far fetched. However a decade ago, Susskind and a colleague developed a system that allowed a consumer to enter a series of questions that could offer in 15 minutes what traditional legal research takes 10 hours to do.

A further development, although less imminent, is that of judicial decisions being made by a computer. Would Susskind feel comfortable having his legal fate being decided by a bunch of wires and software?

"I currently prefer a human being," he replies.

Somewhat surprisingly, Susskind describes himself more as a legal traditionalist than an IT evangelist, although he admits to being "tremendously driven" in wanting to shake-up the British legal system by applying IT to improve access to justice.

Apart from a belief in justice for all, Susskind's motivation for sparking change and taking on centuries-old legal traditions is unclear.

He has little interest in increasing his earnings.

Senior figures within the legal system say much of his public sector work in assisting the judiciary is carried out on what could only be called a pro bono basis.

But then his private sector work is "lucrative".

"This is not an arrogant comment, it's just a fact – there are not many other people doing this, so I can actually charge what I want on an hourly rate for the work I do."

Susskind's father, a Jewish doctor, fled Germany in 1939 and made it to Glasgow. His grandfather was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. He grew up with an older brother in a middle-class home that was intellectually charged with heated debates.

He saw his first computer in the late 1970s but it was not until, as a Glasgow University law graduate, he was searching around for a topic for his thesis at Oxford that he became interested in how computers impact on the legal system.

Susskind notes the immense contribution the Jewish people have made to the law and legal development and muses that when people are oppressed, they automatically turn to the justice system to find their rights.

Yet aside from wanting to improve access to justice Susskind seemingly has no grand plan or ruthless agenda he wants to implement other than shaking up the dusty briefs of the British legal system in favour of a bright PC future.

"I'm not really sure where this is all going but I'm tremendously ambitious," he admits.

Unlike others, this cocktail of ideas, a desire to change the status quo and ambition has not made Susskind an unpopular figure.

"Richard has had an enormous impact on the judiciary. His reputation couldn't be higher," says law lord, Lord Saville.

In contact with Susskind four times a week by e-mail, Lord Saville also meets with him once a week to discuss IT issues.

Saville is openly pushing for a formalising of Susskind's role in helping to shape the future of the legal system.

Clifford Chance managing partner Tony Willis says Susskind "is very much a key part of our IT strategy".

Willis has read The Future of Law and broadly shares the author's view of the future.

While not all Clifford Chance partners are enthusiastic about IT, Willis says the advantage of having Susskind on board is that he forces everyone to think about the issues.

But what if Susskind is wrong? What if his ideas, no matter how logical, appear simply fanciful when examined 20 years from now? After all, IBM once thought the PC would never catch on.

"There is no one who has yet come out and said in writing 'I think this is a load of cobblers'," says Susskind.

However he is not over-protective of his ideas, arguing that the future is like clay – there to be shaped, rather than waiting for something to develop.

"I think the future is something lawyers can make happen rather have happen to them."

And it is perfectly clear that rather than simply predicting the future Richard Susskind desperately wants to shape it.