Posted by: Ray Brescia | December 22, 2016

Are Robots Coming for Lawyers’ Jobs? (and How to Prepare If They Are)

Today’s NY Times has a terrific piece on the reasons for the loss of many blue collar jobs over the last few decades, identifying automation as one of the main culprits.  It is argued that this phenomenon has exceeded outsourcing to countries like China as a cause for the decline in the prospects of many working-class workers.  It contains a passage about white-collar work as well, but predicts that “[w]ork that requires creativity, management of people or caregiving is least at risk.”  Can we include lawyers in this group of job categories that might be immune from automation and other forces diminishing job prospects and reshaping the economy?  The forces that are shaping the blue-collar economy are starting to infringe on the professional class as well, lawyers included.

In his prescient 2006 book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future,  Dan Pink identifies three forces that are shaping the new economy: automation, outsourcing (which he calls “Asia”), and abundance. Furthermore, thought processes that are dominated by the left-hemisphere of the brain (i.e., thinking that is “sequential, literal, functional, textual, and analytic”) are giving way to those that are dominated by the right hemisphere of the brain (i.e., thinking that is “simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, and synthetic”).  He calls these types of thinking L-Directed and R-Directed respectively.  The future, as Pink argues, belongs to R-Directed thinkers:

Three forces are tilting the scales in favor of R-Directed Thinking.  Abundance has satisfied, and even oversatisfied, the material needs of millions—boosting the significance of beauty and emotional and accelerating individuals’ search for meaning.  Asia is now performing large amounts of routine, white-collar, L-Directed work at significantly lower costs, thereby forcing knowledge workers in the advanced world to master abilities that can’t be shipped overseas.  And automation has begun to affect this generation’s white-collar workers in much the same way it did last generation’s blue-collar workers, requiring L-Directed professionals to develop aptitudes that computers can’t do better, faster, or cheaper.

Furthermore, for Pink:

Mere survival today depends on being able to do something that overseas knowledge workers can’t do cheaper, that powerful computers can’t do faster, and that satisfies one of the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age.

Is the legal profession facing these sorts of challenges?  The rise of tech savvy startup companies offering a range of services that look a lot like legal services at a fraction of the cost and an increase in outsourcing of many legal functions and processes to lower-priced alternative service providers, both abroad and at home, are eating away at lawyer incomes. Is the legal profession ready for this shift?  Are law schools?  Are there ways the legal profession can embrace some of the themes of Pink’s R-Directed thinking to not just stem the tide of lawyer jobs but expand opportunities for lawyers while providing a superior product that meets client and community needs?  I am optimistic that through creativity and new thinking around service delivery, lawyers can not just survive, but thrive, in the 21st Century at the same time that we make progress in closing the justice gap: the millions of Americans who face their legal problems without a lawyer.  I explore some of these issues here.

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