Sunday, March 6, 2011
It was less than two months ago that WilmerHale announced a new career track attorney position (here too) for lawyers to do discovery work full time at about 1/3 the salary of regular-hire associates. The announcement was not significant in the sense that for years law firms have been hiring contract attorneys to do document review or outsourcing that kind of work to offshore legal service providers. The announcement was significant, however, in that it tends to validate Richard Susskind's prophecy that the legal services market will become bifurcated into those lawyers who provide "customized" service to (mostly wealthy) clients and those who will be paid a lot less to handle the routine, repetitive work that can be farmed out to any number of subcontractors. (Despite what Susskind says there will always be a need for "customized," high quality legal work at every client price-point. I think his argument is that a lot of legal work that has traditionally been the bread and butter existence of many lawyers can be commoditized and handled a lot more cheaply by subcontractors who will threaten the livelihood of lawyers who can't adapt).
After IBM's Watson debuted on Jeopardy a few weeks ago, there was lots of talk in the blogosphere about how long it would be until computers started replacing lawyers (here, here and here). A few of those articles noted that computers are now, or will be shortly, doing some of the work that has traditionally been done by accountants and doctors. When The End of Lawyers was published last year, Susskind predicted that by 2020 we would all have desktops in our offices with the computing power of the human brain. That's only 9 years away and given the rapidity of technological advances, it's probably more likely than not that we'll have that kind of computer power on our desks in a cost effective package even sooner than predicted.
Apropos to that, on Saturday the New York Times ran a story called "Smarter than you think: Armies of expensive lawyers, replaced by cheaper software" which suggests that the WilmerHale model may be already obsolete. Of course lawyers will never be completely replaced by software. There will always be a need for flesh and blood lawyers to run to court, meet with clients, negotiate contracts, conduct depositions, etc. The more likely threat, I think, is incremental. Instead of a 5 person law firm adding another associate to do the routine tasks that a new lawyer typically does, the firm will instead buy software that will do legal research, draft contracts, predict case outcomes for clients and even write briefs perhaps better than a wet-behind-the-ears associate. Plus the firm won't have to pay benefits to the computer or worry about whether it will leave one day taking valued clients with it.
This is only going to intensify the pressure already on the legal job market and on law schools to justify the cost of a J.D. If we can put aside for the moment the anxiety that comes from such rapid and profound change, it's an incredibly exciting moment in history as we watch the transformation now taking place in the legal services industry. Who would have thought these changes possible just 10 years ago! Where will we be in the next 10 years?