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.