The End of (Our) Profession?

ProfessionYou may disagree with predictions that the current legal profession is dying a slow but immutable death. You may have ignored Richard Susskind’s prior warnings about the changes affecting the legal profession. But it is perilous for anyone who cares about the future of society to not consider the possibility he is right.

Richard Susskind has written several books about how technology is changing the legal profession. Some of his predictions in The End of Lawyers? and Tomorrow’s Lawyers proved prescient. Some have not come to pass—at least yet.

For those who might be skeptical about the dramatic changes described in Susskind’s previous books, this latest book, written with his son Daniel, sets a broader table. It takes aim not just at law but at the profession generally. The theme of The Future of the Professions, How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts is that all professions are being transformed by technology such to render them of decreasing importance and relevance.

Professions Exist to Analyze and Distribute Information

According to the authors, the whole reason that professions exist is to help citizens and organizations handle problems that require knowledge that they don’t have. This puts professionals at the interface between uninitiated lay people and great bodies of expertise. All other aspects of professional service such as trust, reassurance, quality, status, training, regulation, etc. are secondary. Without a need for knowledge, says Susskind, none of that would be necessary.

And these functions are no longer needed because of the readily available Internet. Information is available. Professions are not needed.

Considering law in the context of other professions in society makes the Susskinds’ predictions and conclusions more plausible—and provocative. The book takes a deep dive into several professions: health, education, divinity, law, journalism, management consulting, tax and audit, and architecture.

Characteristics of the Professions

The authors explain that all professions have overlapping similarities: they have specialized knowledge; their admission depends on credentials; they are bound by a common set of values; and their activities are regulated.

  1. Specialized Knowledge. In terms of specialized knowledge that lay people don’t have, the authors explain that this includes both book and practical knowledge, or know-how. It is expected that a professional’s knowledge is current, i.e., that they have the latest insights and techniques at their disposal. Further, professionals bear the responsibility for extending the boundaries of their disciplines—generating new ideas and methods. This is a role often assumed by the academic branches of the professions.
  2. Credentials. Professions require additional credentials beyond education, training and experience. Sometimes this is called mentorship, sometimes apprenticeship. Aspiring professionals also tend to be asked for evidence of their character—of their fitness to serve others, their moral fiber. In the law, attorneys need to pass a character and fitness review before they obtain a law license.
  3. Common values. All professionals confirm honesty, trustworthiness, and commitment to others, assuring that others are at the heart of their work. Others maintain that serving the public good, fulfilling social responsibilities, ensuring access to their services, and even altruism are indispensable components of the professional ethic. The Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct set forth these values for lawyers.
  4. Regulation. Professions are regulated; licensed to undertake certain categories of work. Susskind describes the “grand bargain” or social contract: The professions are granted a monopoly by law justified by the protections they afford members of the public.

In …return for their expertise, experience and judgment, which they are expected to apply in delivering affordable, accessible, up to date, reassuring and reliable services, and on the understanding they will curate and update their knowledge and methods, train their members, set and enforce standards for the quality of their work…and that they will always act honestly, in good faith, putting the interests of clients ahead of their own, we (society) place our trust in the professions, in granting them exclusivity over a wide range of socially significant services and activities, by paying them a fair wage, by conferring upon them independence, autonomy, rights of self-determination, and by according them respect and status.”

Susskind asks whether the professions, acting as gatekeepers, do so as benevolent custodians of the knowledge over which they have mastery, or whether they are, in effect, jealous guards of that knowledge. In other words, are professionals the fox watching the proverbial henhouse here? The answers are jealous guards, and yes.

Why are we committed to this grand bargain? The authors posit that 1) professionals do not want to change; and 2) until now, there has been no credible alternative to what they offer, i.e., there has been no alternative to the status quo.

The book goes on to detail the failings of the status quo and explains that there are credible alternatives made available by technology. The professions and professionals are not the only way of making expertise available in society. The authors explain,

In an era of increasingly capable systems, the professions, or elements of them, should survive and prosper because they bring value and benefits that no system or tool can; not because we can regulate competitors out of the marketplace nor because we cannot imagine a world without the professions nor out of a nostalgic impulse for a fading way of life.”

A New Perspective

Susskind posits that there are new ways of organizing work—through people other than licensed experts and through machines. Both work differently than our current professionals. The end game—which the authors put on a several decades long time line—is that the professions as currently constituted will die out “because there will not be sufficient growth in the types of professional tasks in which people, not machines, have the advantage to keep most professionals in full employment.”

Susskind says we need to look at work in a different way. He uses an analogy that he has also put forth in his other books:

A leading manufacturer of power tools put new executives through a leadership course. In the opening session, a power point slide showing a gleaming power drill is presented and the assembled group is asked: “Is this what we sell?” Surprised, the executives look around, thinking it is a trick question. Finally, one after another they mumble, “Yes, of course.” The next slide is projected, depicting a hole neatly drilled into a wall. The presenters say, “Folks, this in fact is what we sell. Our customers want us to come up with even better ways to make holes in walls.”

Susskind challenges us: What is the legal profession’s hole in the wall?

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

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