Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Attorneys Obsolete?

In a recent post, Can I get an Uber Lift?, regarding the curiosities that ride-sharing services may bring to workers' compensation, I referenced a Josh Bersin blog post titled Are You Ready to Become Obsolete? Mr. Bersin's piece is about reinventing ourselves on a continual basis.

He begins his piece with statistics regarding what concerns employees today. Forty percent say they are concerned with "position changing or becoming obsolete." Nineteen percent were worried about "technological change" and nineteen percent about "economic uncertainty." Only fifty percent felt like the "skills they have now will be what's needed in 3 years." Fewer still, only thirty-four percent felt that their current employer is "able to give them the training they need."

That would not seem like a comfortable confidence level.

Now Newser reports that "Robots Could Make Most Lawyers Obsolete." The story is about a report regarding "the state of the legal profession in 2030." Before you start to dismiss that date, that is only 15 years away. The graphics on their story show robots in the humanoid version, think of Will Smith's film I, Robot. But the focus of the story is more on artificial intelligence than it is on machines that walk and talk like you and me.

Back in the day, I worked in a document processing facility. We were creating the raw material for discovery requests. Essentially, we would obtain the entire contents of some employee's office, and the high-speed copiers would duplicate every sheet. Each page of the copies then had a sequentially numbered sticker placed on it, and then the numbered pages were duplicated again (the stickers made for increased volume and the papers were difficult to stack, but the copies were not).

Then the document copies were read. The actual content was not important, the reading was to find specific words that were responsive to discovery requests. Those words were highlighted with a marker and the responsive document set-aside for further review by someone higher on the corporate food-chain. The documents without any responsive words were placed in a separate stack, and were read through again by a different staff member. Redundancies and reproduction. When I left the job, they had a warehouse full of boxes of those papers with the stickers.

The Newser report cites a New York Times report that compared two high-volume document cases. One involved lawyers and paralegals "sorting through 6 million documents" at a cost of $2.2 million dollars. That was in 1978; according to the government's inflation calculator, that would be over $8 million today. The second case was in 2011 and involved "1.5 million documents" that were examined by computer software "for less than $100,000.

The story does not explain whether there are economies of scale. One might posit that the cost for examining 6 million would be four times that of 1.5 million, or perhaps $400,000. In 2014 dollars that would be about $425,000 compared to the $8 million. Of course, the time setting up the software may be the critical cost and therefore it might not cost any more to have the program analyze 6 million than 1.5 million.

The New York Times article includes analysis from an MIT economics professor. He "says the United States economy is being 'hollowed out." Professor David Autor contends that "new jobs are coming at the bottom of the economic pyramid, jobs in the middle are being lost to automation and outsourcing, and now job growth at the top is slowing because of automation." He does not contend that automation leads to unemployment, but that it is not leading to "better jobs." We hear periodically about the declining American middle-class, and his analysis may help explain why.

The Times says that one such discovery software is not about "keywords." The software can "recognize the sentiment in an e-mail message - whether a person is positive or negative," and it can "detect subtle changes in the style of an email communication." Another software searches documents for "concepts rather than specific keywords, shortening the time required to locate relevant material in litigation." The point is that the technology seems to be taking multiple approaches to document examination.

Back to the Newser report that "Robots Could Make Most Lawyers Obsolete." Newser projects that law firm "upper echelons would still be populated by actual human laywers, but the need for associates would shrink dramatically." The remaining lawyers "would offer 'real understanding and human insight' to clients," while there would be less work for lower echelon attorneys. The projected effect would be greater on "very large, high-value commercial firms" and not so great on "smaller, specialist firms."

The Florida Bar has already seen technology as an influence on the future of the legal profession. The Vision 2016 Commission is studying a variety of issues expected to impact the practice of law. They selected four, and technology is on the list. Specifically, they are looking at technology in law offices and in the courts. According to their report, they are also examining "technology that performs legal work and employment opportunities for lawyers created by technology."

I recently saw an advertisement on television for an Alabama attorney. He stressed that he is local to his community and pointed out that some firms advertising in his area are from out-of-town. He promised that if you call his firm, he will personally return your call. This sentiment is similar to the Newser conclusion that even firms which leverage technology will need human lawyers to "offer real understanding and human insight." A similar perspective is offered by Thomas Friedman in his 2005 "The World is Flat." Mr. Friedman contends that in the age of globalization, there is value in being the doctor who touches patients or the architect that meets with clients. I recommend reading it. It is not an easy read, but a worthwhile read.

The message in all of this seems similar. Professionals will continue to see technology playing a role in what we do. There will be value in being the person that brings "real understanding" to the situations and problems of others. There may be less opportunity for paralegals and associate attorneys in the reasonably near future as these technologies affect the profession. Concurrently, American law schools are producing an epic volume of new lawyers annually.

Will all of those new lawyers turn to the public interest? Will we hear less of the need for legal service for the poor as more and more pour into the breach of under-served markets?

Are you concerned with your "position changing or becoming obsolete?" or about "technological change" or "economic uncertainty?" Do you feel like the skills you "have now will be what's needed in 3 years?" It sounds like these may be valid questions for everyone. Automation changed the face of manufacturing, will it change the professional practice as well? Will occupations or professions be "hollowed-out."

If they can program a computer to do what attorneys have done, can they likewise decrease the demand for doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, pharmacists, claims adjusters, economists, vocational experts, actuaries, others? Should we be exclaiming "oh, brave new world?"

Frankly, it is a somewhat uncomfortable proposition, confronting obsolescence. I am asking myself if I am prepared for the changes that are coming. I am frankly not confident about my answers. So, the real question, I guess, is not whether there will be change or how I feel about change, but is what am I going to do to survive and thrive through the change?

I welcome your suggestions.

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