You know that quiz you can take on Facebook about whether or not your job will be done by robots or a computer in the future? I haven’t taken it because I’m pretty sure “lawyer” has to be on that list.
IBM is developing a computer program called Watson, which processes and analyzes data in a much different way than the usual computer program. Watson can take in unstructured information (i.e. information that humans produce for other humans) and analyze patterns, compare results, and learn from mistakes and from its interactions with humans.
It’s not far off that you will be able to ask Watson a legal question and get a response almost instantaneously that would be a better researched and thought out opinion than you might get from a human lawyer. So will that make all lawyers obsolete? Will the average person be able to manage their own legal problems without much help from lawyers?
I doubt that we’ll see the end of lawyers anytime soon, because I think that being a lawyer requires a person hone various skill sets that are more than information processing and opinion giving. There is still a big step between getting your answer and information from Watson, understanding what Watson has told you and being able to make your case in court, or mediation, or through negotiation (essentially implementing the information you have in a practical way).
Even though I doubt we’ll see the end of lawyers, it’s a practical reality for the legal profession that it is changing very quickly. More than ever people are representing themselves in court or turning to lower cost options to obtain products and services previously provided by lawyers.
People who would be clients are frustrated with and intimidated by the high cost of lawyers and lack of flexibility in the provision of services. You can do much of your banking online, why can’t you deal with your lawyer online at your convenience? Your bank has extended hours, why doesn’t my lawyer have extended client hours?
At the same time, people walking into legal careers today have different expectations about their career and what they are prepared to do to have a career in law. It used to be that once you graduated from law school, you got a job at a law firm, and you worked your way up by putting in long hard hours. Eventually you would be made a partner and make a lot of money. This model is shaped like a pyramid, with fewer people at the top than at the bottom. The work from the lawyers at the bottom makes the money for the people at the top.
This model worked when it was typical for a family to be a one-income family or when one life partner had a much less demanding job than the other, allowing (typically) her to be home with the children and take care of the day to-day life matters. Not many families work like this anymore.
Both partners often go into a relationship expecting the other to pull their weight at home and be present and a part of their children’s lives. If there are no children, life partners (not unreasonably) expect to spend time with each other enjoying their lives.
Essentially, in 2015, the lawyers at the bottom by and large do not want the lifestyle that this pyramid scheme requires. They also do not want to take the risk that after making serious life sacrifices, they won’t be made partner. It’s simply just not worth it. The lack of interest in the traditional law firm lifestyle is creating retention issues for many larger law firms that are finding themselves top-heavy, meaning that being a partner at a big law firm may not the guaranteed cash cow it used to be.
So if you’re a potential client, what does the changing legal profession mean for you? I think it means that you can demand flexibility in the provision of your services. If you want to meet with your lawyer over Skype and deal with him or her primarily through electronic means, why can’t you? Not all law firms will offer these services, but there are many that will. It also means that you can expect top-grade professional services without big firm pricing. A lot of top-notch legal talent is forgoing the traditional route and is providing legal services for a more reasonable fee.
If you’re a lawyer, what does the changing legal profession mean for you? From my experience, it means that though job security and large incomes are no longer a given, if you want to practice law in a more humane way, you can. Being a lawyer means you have a marketable skill, but you may need to work to develop your own practice and business a lot earlier in your career than lawyers that came before you, perhaps even right out of law school.
The changing legal profession means that after law school, there is a greater chance you may earn a low income for at least the following three to five years while you develop and invest in your business. Take this into consideration when you’re taking on large amounts of debt to get through law school.
Laurel Dietz practices family law and criminal defence with Dogwood Law Corporationin Victoria, B.C. Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. She can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/UnbundledLawyer. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at firstname.lastname@example.org.