The Richard Susskind Experience: Bespoke Suits, Power Drills, and the Power of Decomposing

Doug Jasinski

Legal Futurist Richard Susskind speaks to the BCCA Centenary Conference in Vancouver, April 23, 2010

“Dressed smart like a London bloke, before he speak his suit bespoke.”

– Kanye West, from the song American Boy.

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend the academic and judicial conference held as part of the British Columbia Court of Appeal’s centenary celebrations.  Of the many excellent presentations that day, I was most intrigued by the opportunity to hear first hand Professor Richard Susskind, and he did not disappoint.

Professor Susskind began with an anecdote involving power drills.  As the story goes, Black & Decker routinely takes their new hires for a period of training, shows them a picture of a power drill and asks them to confirm that this is what the company sells, which the new recruits blithely do.  The company then shows them a picture of a hole in a piece of wood (as illustrated above) and advises that this is what their customers are in fact buying – not a product the company offers but rather a solution to their problem.  The message is a stark one – do not become so focused on your current product or service offering that you become myopic and lose sight of the client’s perspective – and their willingness to move their business elsewhere if a simpler, cheaper or otherwise better solution is presented.

Susskind feels that law firms are currently geared towards providing what he calls “bespoke” legal service, by which he means individualized, custom legal advice created for and tailored to the specific client and situation and provided almost exclusively directly by the lawyer(s).  Almost by definition, this sort of personalized attention is a very expensive offering.

He sees the types of legal service or legal staffing possibilities along a spectrum and predicts a transition along this path:

Bespoke>standardized>systemized>packaged>commoditized

Susskind posits that most corporate and government in-house counsel face “a dilemma in 3 parts”:

  1. They are being instructed to reduce their in-house legal staffing;
  2. They are being instructed to reduce their external legal spend; and
  3. They are being asked to assume more legal risk and manage more compliance related activities.

The result is that there is an inevitable and increasing market pull to the right of the bespoke > commoditized continuum.

Susskind asks the critical question:  “What parts of lawyers and judges work could be undertaken differently – more quickly, cheaply, efficiently or to a higher quality – using alternative methods of working?”  He believes that most lawyers spend too much time doing routine work others can do.

Many lawyers, he says, insist that what they do is not capable of being reduced to a fixed fee or otherwise re-imagined in a way that leads to significantly lower costs, a position he flatly rejects. He points to the fact this commoditization trend is already taking place or has taken place in other complex professions (tax accounting, healthcare) and believes that legal services are not immune to the same pressures.  He insists that we will see more “decomposing” of legal work  – by which he means deconstructing or unbundling complex processes into their task-based components, with many of these unbundled components then being provided by lower-cost, more efficient alternatives such as outsourcing, off-shoring, automated drafting, closed client communities,de-lawyering, etc.

Despite what some may see as Susskind’s negative prognosis for the legal industry, my impression was that he is merely describing the forces he sees at work, and that he in fact imagines a bright future for those lawyers and law firms that recognize the tectonic shifts underway and position themselves for prosperity by aligning their offering with market demands.

Professor Susskind closed with a quote from a local: Vancouver-based science-fiction writer William Gibson, who has famously said: “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” I am left with the impression that Professor Susskind has received a greater distribution than most of us.

Personal Anecdote Postscript:

While reading his book, two phrases that Susskind uses extensively – “bespoke legal services” and “decomposing legal services” – rang noticeably off-tune to my staunchly North-Americanized ear.   “Bespoke” exclusively conjures up custom-tailored suits to my minds’ eye, while “decomposing” immediately brings to mind any number of corpse/autopsy scenes from the endless cycle of CSI: Everywhere episodes that proliferate on cable television.  Professor Susskind actually referenced this very point during his lecture with respect to the word bespoke, and confirmed that he had only belatedly learned of the term’s unfamiliarity in this part of the world.

Legal technology fanboy that I am, I availed myself of the opportunity to speak briefly with him in the conference hall after the session and mentioned that the word decomposing also sounded unorthodox to me.  Susskind laughingly informed me that he had similar commentary on a late draft of the book from a close North American friend who is a senior executive at a major American corporation (my memory fails me as to exactly who it was) who also made the decomposing – bodies linkage.  Consider this then my public standing offer to the good professor to “Canadianize” any draft treatises he may choose to publish in the future – a place he seems to already inhabit.

Or:

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