Towards the intelligent use of human beings

Last week, Richard Susskind gave a very interesting talk in the Arcadia Seminar series. He’s the only lawyer I know who has a D.Phil in Artificial Intelligence and he has become very well known for his analysis of the impact that IT is having — and will continue to have — on the practice of law. In a way, his seminar title –“The End of Lawyers?” — sums it up. It sounds like a crude version of technological determinism, but it isn’t. The core of Susskind’s argument is the insight that while some of the things that lawyers — and legal firms — do requires great expertise, experience, creativity and judgement, much of what’s involved in the practice of law involves very routine processes which can be radically improved by the intelligent use of computing.

His approach involves analyzing legal work along a spectrum from “bespoke” (the crafting of unique legal solutions to new situations) to “commoditized” legal products and services (for example, conveyances in house sales). Everything to the right of ‘bespoke’ on his spectrum can be significantly assisted by the intelligent use of IT.

Susskind is a compelling and very polished speaker who kept his large audience enthralled. As Nancy Banks-Smith (the Guardian’s wonderful TV critic) might have put it, nobody slept at the back. He believes that legal practice can and must change for one simple reason: its intrinsic inefficiency makes it unsustainably expensive, which means that citizens cannot afford to access legal services even when they badly need them (which imposes losses on society: think of all the disputes that go unresolved, or the number of petty injustices that go unremedied every year), and because the cost of lawyering imposes ridiculous costs on business. The idea that legal firms can go on charging £600 an hour for routine stuff that is actually done by junior lawyers, or by computer-assisted paralegal staff, should be exposed for what it is: a professional racket.

One test of a good seminar paper is that it reverberates in ones mind long after the event has ended, and so it was with Richard Susskind’s talk. Although he was focussing only on legal firms, it seemed to me that the general thrust of his analysis applies to every organisation. Yesterday, I had a long conversation with my OU colleague, Tony Hirst, about the way our organisation goes about its business. As in any large institution, we spend a lot of time circulating drafts and commenting on them. But we do this by circulating the documents as email attachments. So our network and our email inboxes are clogged by thousands of identical documents whizzing around. This is daft because there is an obviously superior way of doing it — namely to have a single shared copy held in something like Google Docs where everyone involved can edit and comment.

Why don’t we do this? Mainly because we’re still operating with a hard-copy, print mindset. Once upon a time we sent one another typed drafts, so the university’s internal mail system resembled a freight-transportation network designed for shipping atoms (as Nicholas Negroponte would put it). The fact that we are now shipping bits ought to have caused us to rethink what we were doing, but it hasn’t. Instead we are just repeating in electronic form what we did with physical typescripts. And it’s daft.

Another process that happens in any large outfits (and especially in universities) is the organisation of meetings. Getting busy people together can be nightmarishly difficult. Or, rather, it is if you do it the way many organisations do it — by email. I’ve lost count of the number of interminable email exchanges I’ve been involved in where ten people try and agree on a date and time for a meeting, when the obvious way to do it is via an online polling system like that provided by Doodle.

But — as Tony pointed out yesterday — fixing meeting dates and times is only the tip of the iceberg. Committee meetings often involve the production and distribution of numerous documents — agendas, minutes, reports, discussion papers. There’s absolutely no reason why an organisation that operates with shared documents can’t use software to assemble the documentation needed for a meeting without putting the burden on an already-overloaded secretary who should really be doing only those things for which human judgement, tact and resourcefulness are required.

All of which suggests that legal firms are not the only ones that can use IT more intelligently.