Where Legal Jobs are Going to Be

The New York City Bar Association has convened a task force to study the current tight legal job market. The Wall Street Journal writes:

The New York City Bar Association has conscripted law-school deans, legal aid directors, in-house counsel and law-firm partners into a search for a solution to a job market in which only 55% of the class of 2011 had found full-time positions requiring a law degree nine months after graduating.

The task force includes representatives from the New York County District Attorney’s Office, Harvard Law School, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, Pfizer Inc. and the Legal Aid Society, to name a few.

Carey R. Dunne, the new president of the bar association, said the group will convene for the first time in September. He has charged the group with isolating the causes of the job shortage and making recommendations, which he expects in about a year.

“This isn’t just a hand-wringing exercise,” said Mr. Dunne, chairman of Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP’s litigation practice.

The WSJ Law Blog has a list of the task force members. They include “Law School Deans and Leaders” (such as the deans of Columbia, Georgetown, Cardozo and CUNY); government attorneys (including two NYC DAs); Biglaw leaders (including the heads of Simpson; Skadden; and Paul, Weiss); representatives from “Solo, Small and Medium Sized Law Firms”; “Legal Services Organizations” (including senior representatives of The Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC); “Chief In-House Counsel” (Eric Grossman of Morgan Stanley, Don H. Liu of Xerox, Elizabeth D. Moore of Consolidated Edison, Amy W. Schulman of Pfizer, Jane C. Sherburne of The Bank of New York Mellon, and Wanji J. Walcott of American Express); and Career Services and Recruiting Professionals. They are a very impressive group. 

This is a good cause and a strong team. That said, the group’s composition reflects a lack of understanding where law jobs are going. Law practice is becoming standardized, automated. LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer are standardizing simple consumer and business legal agreements. Koncision is taking a higher-end approach to standardizing commercial agreements (encoding the knowledge of leading contract drafter Ken Adams). Practical Law Company provides high-quality, “up-to-date, practical resources created and maintained by an expert team of attorney editors” (for example, a 50-state “all or substantially all” analysis, so lawyers don’t need to do the work every time this analysis is needed across law firms). At DiligenceEngine, we are automating contract review, using legal knowledge in building software that accurately searches documents for key contract provisions like assignment or change of control. And much more legal automation should be coming—a significant portion of Biglaw junior associate work is ripe for it.

Legal thinker Richard Susskind argues that there will be five types of lawyers in the future:

  1. expert trusted advisers (who will “fashion new solutions for clients who have novel, complex or high value challenges (the expert element) and to communicate guidance in a highly personalized way (the trusted component)”);
  2. enhanced practitioners (“individual whose legal skills and knowledge are required not to deliver a bespoke service but, enhanced by modern techniques, to support the delivery of standardized, systematized and (when in-house) packaged legal service”); 
  3. legal knowledge engineers (“organize the large quantities of complex legal content and processes that will need to be analyzed, distilled and then embodied in standard working practices and computer systems”); 
  4. legal risk managers (“develop methods, tools, techniques or systems to help their clients review, identify, quantify and control the legal risks that they face”); and
  5. legal hybrids (interdisciplinary experts (e.g., law/project management)).

Susskind persuasively reasons that, as law becomes standardized and automated, there will be less expert trusted advisers (today’s Biglaw) and enhanced practitioners (also, arguably, Biglaw) and many more legal knowledge engineers. The NYC Bar Law Jobs Task Force has members who should recognize this reality, especially the Biglaw leaders and general counsel whose organizations use automation services. None of them, however are involved in standardizing or automating law; it could be wise to supplement the Task Force with members with first-hand expertise in this.

The change in legal employment trails but parallels what is happening in the broader economy. Automatable white and blue collar jobs are disappearing, software companies are in a talent war. Software is eating the world, as Marc Andreessen says, and it is coming to eat law too. The NYC Bar Law Jobs Task Force will have a hard time finding a solution to the legal jobs problem if it does not recognize this changing reality.

 

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