What Technology Means for Legal Employment

An excellent article in the Financial Times is a must-read for law school students to better understand the future legal market. Though focused on the UK, the same considerations apply in the US. Instead of emphasizing online legal services, like LegalZoom, the FT rightly emphasizes the impact on junior lawyers of new legal search technology.

A brief summary: the work that junior lawyers used to do—due diligence, sifting through hundreds of thousands of e-mails in discovery, and corporate data rooms—is increasingly no longer human work but algorithmic work. Lawyers are still necessary to interpret results but legal search technology is both infinitely faster and probably more accurate in developing basic search results and data. Search technology doesn’t get tired or sloppy.

There is good news and bad news here. First, the bad news. The kind of work that search technology can do better used to comprise an astonishing proportion of junior lawyer work. It still comprises a lot but the digital handwriting is on the wall. Those jobs simply will not exist in a few years—law firms and their clients would rather not pay people when they can license software for a lot less.

So, a lot of legal sector jobs simply won’t be there in 5 or 10 years. Now, there’s an assumption here, which is that the rest of the legal market won’t change in such a way as to produce a countervailing supply of jobs. After all, 25 years ago, there was really no such thing as internet-related law because there was no internet.   There is now and that sector has created a lot of jobs in the legal market and elsewhere.

Technology’s negative effect on legal employment also won’t be distributed evenly geographically. It will likely have a more serious impact on lawyers in large urban areas—the smaller markets of smaller cities and rural areas will be less affected. Still, it’s hard to see how the legal market 15 years from now looks much like the market now, and it’s likely that, net, there will be fewer jobs for lawyers. The bad news might not be so bad but it’s still bad.

There is a lot of good news behind the curtain, however. It’s this: precisely the grinding, late night, soul-crushing work that technology will do is why a lot of lawyers were very unhappy at being lawyers. No one enters the legal profession to be a master of discovery or due diligence. Many lawyers never got the chance to do the higher level work that stimulated their desire to practice law in the first place—they simply left the profession. Or they got sucked into trying to make a living from being diligence kings and queens; when they didn’t develop higher-tier skills, eventually found their colleagues passing them by, and couldn’t stay at the very firms that asked them to do brain-crushing work in the first place. Some left the profession voluntarily, others involuntarily. They had JDs but were never lawyers. That’s also more an urban phenomenon than a rural or small town one.

What legal technology allows lawyers to do, then, is to be, well, lawyers. Counselors. Because the lower level work will be largely off their plates. There may be fewer legal jobs, but there is reason to hope that those that remain will be much better jobs, lawyerly jobs counseling clients and solving problems. That’s why people want to be lawyers. Technology may allow a much higher proportion of those with law degrees to be lawyers.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on May 23, 2017.

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