Mimesis Law
4 March 2021

“How many lawyers will be out of work because of you?”

Mar. 28, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — At the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, Jacob Gershman reminds us that the law school Class of 2010 does one thing really well. Suffer.  Riffing off a study by Ohio State University law professor Deborah Jones Merritt, he notes that those students whose applications arrived a few minutes after the economy tanked have been left behind.

The professor focused her study in one state, tracking the job outcomes of new lawyers admitted to the Ohio bar in 2010, a research population of 1,214 people. What she found, she says, raises “troubling questions about career prospects for law graduates, as well as about the cost and structure of legal education.”

Overall, it’s a gloomy picture.

This may be news to you, because you have a career, and why bother to get all morose thinking about the Lost Generation of lawyers. It’s unpleasant, and who wants to dwell on things that like that?  Happy news is so much . . . happier.

Yet, sitting through a panel discussion the other day, pondering whether to enjoy another slice of the delicious white frosted cake calling my name next to the coffee urn, I was forced to endure the most egregious exercise in conscious avoidance ever.  The panel moderator, that mischievous imp, Elie Mystal, opened the questioning with a head-banger:

“How many lawyers will be out of work because of you?”

The panel was made up of people who were hawking their technological solutions to lawyers.  In response to the query, they launched, in seriatim, into their best, jargon-laden elevator pitches, never going anywhere near the actual question.  The closest they came was the retort,

“we’re going to free up lawyers to do the deep-thinking, artisanal work they really want to do instead of the robotic drudgery they hate to do.”

How cool does that sound!  Until you give it a moment’s thought.  If we had enough “deep-thinking, artisanal” work to fill up those 2400 hours per year expected of us, we would surely be more than happy to spend our time doing it.  But that’s not the problem, of course. It’s not that we’re so busy summing up before the jury that we have no time to read the discovery, or that the negotiation of the terms of the merger sucks up the hours needed to read the purchase agreement.  It’s that the alternative is sitting at our desk pondering how anyone could hate Bucky Balls, as we take sideways glances at the telephone to make sure it’s still working.

Worse still, the panelists, one of whom spent almost twelve minutes working at BigLaw before bailing, making him the BigLaw expert on the panel, exhorted how their technology would end the drudgery endured by new associates forced to cut their teeth by learning how to be a lawyer.

The BigLaw refugee on the panel explained how wonderful that would be, because he so hated the work he did.  Yet, if it dawned on him that without that work, that drudgery he so despised, there would have been no reason to hire him, no job for him to do, he didn’t let on.  Was he suggesting that the first week associate would spend his day trying class action cases if he wasn’t tied up in the library writing insipid memos?

Are these technological solutions all they’re cracked up to be?  Beats me. I assume they can do the job of a yeoman lawyer better than half, and worse than half.  After all, there are always shoddy lawyers out there, too bored or distracted by do a decent job.  It wouldn’t take much for a computer to not only replace them, but improve upon their efforts.

But if that happens, and the first year associates meld into the morass of the forgotten lawyers since their singular skillset is no longer required, where will the next generation of Superstars come from?  Firms can’t keep new lawyers on the books to hang out and soak in the atmosphere. They need to do something to pay for their existence.

And new lawyers need to gain experience to become experienced lawyers. It’s kind of a definition thing. Without giving them the low-level work until they develop the chops to do the “deep-thinking, artisanal” work, they will have no work at all.  The economics of law makes it hard to bring them up to partner speed this way.

But as a former ABA guy muttered walking out of the panel, “this is the future.”  The technologists can’t be dismissed as characters in some dystopian fantasy, as some of these products work and are gaining traction.  Yet, the long term impact goes unnoticed as they deny it with their bestest pitch.

Not only does this mean that we’re producing far more new lawyers than we’re going to need, but that a gap in the “bringing up baby” lawyers will be felt when it’s time to name that new class of Superstar partners and your choices will be limited to those forgotten kids sitting on the old couch in their parents’ basement.

Main image via Flickr/Leon Fishman.

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