Construction and lawyers face same wave of change

The Financial Times held its first Future of Construction Summit in May, a well-attended event at ICE headquarters in Great George Street. The sub-heading was ‘Driving productivity through disruptive innovation and collaboration’, areas where the industry is widely agreed to be lagging.

The good news conclusion from the event is that yes, there is a future for construction; the bad news is that there is unlikely to be a future for all currently employed in it, and we might not like it even if there is.

The impact of disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, automation and robotisation looks to be almost upon us and predictions of the elimination of vast swathes of the managerial and professional classes can be found in almost any newspaper these days. Construction will not be immune.

The industry’s lawyers will not be immune either, as a just published updated version of a book called ‘Tomorrow’s Lawyers’ by respected legal market analyst Richard Susskind argues cogently. Similar pressures that Susskind analyses are being felt across the construction professions.

Three main drivers are forcing the pace of change, says Susskind. First is the unceasing pressure of getting ‘more for less’ from price conscious clients which is destroying the old practice of billable hours. In-house counsel at construction companies are under pressure to employ fewer lawyers in their own teams and cut spending on external legal suppliers at the same time. Budget cuts of up to 50 per cent are being sought, yet legal and compliance work is increasing. This sort of pressure from all sides will sound familiar to everyone in construction.

Liberalisation is bringing new suppliers of legal services onto the market, so-called ‘alternative business structures’. New ways of providing legal services are expected as a new entrepreneurial spirit takes hold, attempting to meet the challenges of the ‘more for less’ pressures. Market forces may end the days of expensive lawyers working from expensive city centre buildings, Susskind predicts.

Lawyers – and construction professionals – won’t be able to avoid the third driver of change, the technology tidal wave that is roaring in, despite it being ignored to a large extent by many. Moore’s Law – that the processing power of computers will double every two years – means that the average desktop computer will have the same processing power as the human brain by 2020, which is 10 to the power 16 calculations per second. By 2050 it will have more processing power than the entire world’s population. The implications of having this amount of processing power on technologies like artificial intelligence can probably not be calculated yet – our lives may be dominated in a few years by technological systems we have not yet even imagined.

Scepticism abounds about the iconoclastic implications of this, but if even half of what is feared might happen does so in our working lifetimes the implications are unsettling. Speakers at the FT conference bemoaned the fact that the uptake of Level 2 BIM has been slower than they would have liked; when the ‘avalanche’ of technological change analysed by Susskind hits construction the BIM laggards will surely be the first to go under. They won’t be the last.

Nick Barrett

Tomorrow’s Lawyers
Richard Susskind
Oxford University Press
ISBN 978-0-19-879663-3