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Enter Algorithms, Exit Lawyers

More bad news for law school grads: increasingly sophisticated computing technology is eliminating entry-level jobs at law firms.

Judges are beginning to allow the use of “predictive coding” in cases involving millions of (often extraneous) legal documents. As the Wall Street Journal explains, predictive coding is the use of algorithms to determine which documents are relevant to a case:

The programs essentially work like this: After documents are loaded into the program, a lawyer manually reviews a batch to train the program how to recognize what is relevant to a case. The manual review is repeated until the program has developed a model that can accurately predict relevance in the rest of the documents.

One widely cited study of predictive coding estimated that it identified 77 percent of relevant documents, compared to human reviewers’ 60 percent. It’s cheaper, too, requiring many fewer lawyers for large discovery cases.

Is predictive coding the meteor that will wipe out the entire lawyer species? Of course not. Lawyers will still be required to analyze the documents flagged as relevant by the algorithms. Typically this figure is around 10 percent of the total documents.

The good news is that predictive coding and other technological innovations allow law firms to charge one tenth of what they might have billed five or ten years ago. The bad news—bad for aspiring law students, that is—is that those same law firms will only require one tenth of the number of lawyers they used to need for large discovery cases.

Paradoxically, at the same time technology is creating more demand for legal work, it is also winnowing the opportunities for humans to undertake it. In the case cited by the Journal, the company being sued had preserved some 8,000 gigabytes of emails, documents and other information they felt might be relevant to their defense.

Legal jobs aren’t going away. But the security blanket of a law degree is becoming increasingly tattered. To be sure, there will always be clever superstars with an entreprenueurial bent who will find their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow by harnessing new technologies to leaner, more effective methods. But for the rest, as with journalism and even pornography, what used to be a guaranteed ticket into the upper middle class now promises nothing more than a chance to compete vigorously for comparatively well-paid grunt work.

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  • Walter Sobchak

    The real problem is that we have created so many fact intensive litigation situations in the first place. The law a hundred years ago was not so focused on factual minutia. The “Progressives” got a hold of the legal system and mucked it up like they mucked everything else up.

  • James C Brown

    egads, considering the recent shenanigans at some law schools trying to fudge their numbers (incoming class test scores, employment stats of grads), this does not portend well for law schools and the legal profession recruitment pipeline.

  • Kris

    “as with journalism and even pornography”

    How dare you smear Ron Jeremy by mentioning him in the same breath as the likes of Adam Nossiter?!

  • Jim.

    This is going to get upended when some bright spark discovers that modern search strings won’t find relevant precedents written in 18th and 19th century English.

    The worst of it is — lawyers will no longer have any self-interest in keeping the amount of paperwork they generate low.

    We could probably burn half of the law books in this country and three-quarters of the regulations, without any significant damage to the public interest.

  • Kris

    Jim@4: “We could probably burn half of the law books in this country and three-quarters of the regulations, without any significant damage to the public interest.”

    Whoa! If we eliminate too much of this make-work, then even more unemployed lawyers might turn to politics!

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