The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Attention Young Lawyers: The Grim Reaper Is Here

Every student in America thinking of going to law school on borrowed money needs to read this article in New York magazine. Every dean of every law school in the country, every parent or teacher giving young people career advice needs to read it. Every policy wonk thinking about the future of American society needs to read it, as well.

The legal profession’s John-Henry-meets-steam-drill moment is here: a federal court has approved a computerized document review process that turns huge volumes of legal grunt work over to the machines. The process is said to be cheaper and more accurate than human review of the thousands and even millions of documents that are involved in large, complex legal cases. As Chris Opfer writes in New York,

The task of combing through mountains of emails, spreadsheets, memos and other records in the discovery process currently falls on a legion of “contract attorneys” who jump from one project to another, employed by companies like Epiq Systems. Many are recent grads who are unable to find full-time employment, or lawyers laid off during the recent recession.

Scan. Point. Click. Repeat. That’s the job. Contract attorneys are paid by the hour to sit in front of a computer and review a mind-numbing sequence of uploaded documents. There are cramped, sunless rooms in law firms throughout the city, with rows of computers piled one on top of the other, and constant uncertainty as to how long each particular stretch of employment will last.

According to the piece, more than 15,000 people have taken the New York Bar exam in every year since 2009. Many of those who pass end up as (comparatively) highly paid grunts in the discovery process. That will now start to change and, given the pressure from corporate clients on law firms to cut costs, change could come quickly.

Worse — from the standpoint of lawyers and law schools, if not from that of the general public — is sure to come. Software is getting smarter, and computers continue to grow more powerful. What we see now is only the beginning of a process by which the routine elements of legal work — and frankly speaking, that is where the bulk of the jobs have always been — can and will be automated.

Not all young lawyers will be doomed. There will be some smart, entrepeneurial kids who figure out how all this computing power can allow a small, lightly capitalized firm to deliver high quality services at a breathtakingly low cost to selected clients. Those kids will do well.

Others will benefit from greater demand. Legal services are likely to get cheaper: there is a lawyer glut that is likely to grow, and the increasing capabilities of computers in the legal field mean that the amount of available legal brainpower will explode. Cheaper legal services mean that more people and firms will use the legal system and legal expertise in various ways: the lawyers and firms who figure out how to ride this wave will also do well.

Brilliant and creative lawyers will continue to do well. So will the marketers, the deal makers and the connectors. But law isn’t going to be the kind of safety play ticket to the upper middle class that it used to be.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Peck of the Southern District of New York (who has authorized the use of ‘predictive coding’ in a case before him) has struck a blow against the profession of law as we know it. He has condemned untold numbers of hungry lawyers to marginal economic conditions and killed the business model responsible for keeping many of the country’s law schools afloat.

It was the right thing to do. He has also opened the door to the next stage in the information revolution, a vast and many sided process that will ultimately change the way we work and live as much as the industrial and neolithic revolutions did in their day.

(h/t to alert reader and WRM grand strategy student Evan Seitchik. I see that Tyler Cowen has also linked to this piece at his blog MarginalRevolution. As usual, Cowen’s news judgment is superb. Via Meadia follows him closely and so should you. )

Published on May 5, 2012 2:24 pm
  • dearieme

    Are there going to be any jobs left that are well paid, interesting, and take less than 70 hours a week?

  • R McDonnell

    @1. dearieme

    Maybe we can design the computer hardware and software needed to process economic data, run models, and ultimately create the jobs of the future.

  • Oxyartes

    Love your take on things, including this WRM, but it’s Tyler Cowen, not Taylor.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Oxyartes: WRM thanks you; the interns wish you would keep your comments to yourself. The afternoon shift is now trooping morosely into the House Of Pain.

  • Albert

    Will this lead to an explosion of litigation^ With legions of hungry lawyers using computers to sift through precedents and whatnots.

    And the legal system becoming impossibly clogged up as a result.

  • Dave Griffith

    No, the explosion of litigation will occur when the actual filing of cases and motions and whatnot is actually allowed to be automated. At that point there will be created semi-intelligent spam which can sue you.

  • Petar

    “Maybe we can design the computer hardware and software needed to process economic data, run models, and ultimately create the jobs of the future.”

    Most people are unable to do that as they are only fit for routine jobs. Moreover, why do you assume that this cannot be automated as well?
    The Skynet scenario starts to seem likely…

  • http://thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    I’m with you Dave Griffith. Automated nuisance suits are just over the horizon. Perhaps it is sufficient to remember the old saw: If you have to hire a lawyer, you have already lost.

  • alan

    Possible typo . . . love your blog . . .

    “He has condemned [??] of hungry lawyers to marginal economic conditions and killed the business model responsible for keeping many of the country’s law schools afloat.”

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @alan: checking: interns beware!