Thursday, February 7, 2013

New report says technology will replace paralegals and then lawyers

The Associated Press recently ran an article compiling the views of several experts who believe that as computer software becomes more sophisticated, it will replace middle class, white collar workers who always believed that a college education was a bulwark against unemployment.  No more; software has developed to the point where it can do many of these jobs better and much more inexpensively than the human counterpart.  Software has already replaced travel agents, accountants, office managers and even law firm associates. Once these jobs are replaced, the AP story says, they are never coming back. 

Most vulnerable are jobs that involve "routine and repetitive tasks" which, according to the AP story, includes paralegals (others have been saying the same thing about lawyers for years).  A blog called The Estrin Report which is aimed at paralegals notes this phenomenon has already changed that profession and concedes there's not much displaced paralegals can do about it except to roll with the punches by finding a new career. Though the blog does offer advice about what skills to develop to best weather the storm and suggests lessons we might draw about how to prepare our students to compete in a world inhabited by lawyer-bots. 

Become a technology wiz in your specialty.  Software programs come and go and are updated frequently.  Being a wiz also means you are on the prowl every day for the latest trends and new programs.

Cross training is one way to make yourself more valuable in a firm. You may be the best paralegal the real estate department has but if that entire department is being shutdown, it won’t matter. But if you are also good at litigation, you may find yourself being moved into that department.  If not, you know why you may have been out of work for a long time.

Be prepared to move into a different position all together.  For example, the Litigation Support field has a shortage of professionals schooled both in law and in technology.  Who better than a paralegal to move into a Litigation Support position?  The pay is excellent, the opportunities for the future very good.  The field will eventually evolve into something that we probably have not even envisioned, particularly since the legal field was one of the last to get on the band wagon.

The AP story paints a pretty bleak picture.  It says we can expect a sustained period of high middle class unemployment as white collar service industry jobs are replaced by computers and that the lost jobs and careers will not return.  As the AP story recognizes, technological upheavals that displace large numbers of workers is nothing new.  The difference is that, in the past, the "next big thing" always came along putting those displaced employees back to work. This time, however, the experts are not so sure that's going to happen.

Technological innovations have been throwing people out of jobs for centuries. But they eventually created more work, and greater wealth, than they destroyed. Ford, the author and software engineer, thinks there is reason to believe that this time will be different. He sees virtually no end to the inroads of computers into the workplace. Eventually, he says, software will threaten the livelihoods of doctors, lawyers and other highly skilled professionals.

Many economists are encouraged by history and think the gains eventually will outweigh the losses. But even they have doubts.

"What's different this time is that digital technologies show up in every corner of the economy," says McAfee, a self-described "digital optimist." `'Your tablet (computer) is just two or three years old, and it's already taken over our lives."

Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California, Davis, says the computer is more destructive than innovations in the Industrial Revolution because the pace at which it is upending industries makes it hard for people to adapt.

Occupations that provided middle-class lifestyles for generations can disappear in a few years. Utility meter readers are just one example. As power companies began installing so-called smart readers outside homes, the number of meter readers in the U.S. plunged from 56,000 in 2001 to 36,000 in 2010, according to the Labor Department.

In 10 years? That number is expected to be zero.

Check out the full AP story here.  Read about the impact of computer technology on the paralegal industry here and then draw your own conclusions about whether the present trend toward replacing discovery lawyers with software is likely to spread throughout the profession taking many more jobs with it.

Hat tip to Legal Blog Watch.

(jbl).

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_skills/2013/02/new-report-says-technology-will-replace-paralegals-and-then-lawyers.html

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