Technology is rapidly changing the practice of law forever. For example, advances in ediscovery tools have made discovery much more efficient, even as the volume of documents to be located, gathered and processed has grown exponentially. Mostly gone are the days of dozens of full price partner track associates manually reviewing hundreds of thousands or even millions of paper documents. Now that work is mostly done by a small cadre of core discovery professionals/attorneys, using specialized software to cull through mostly electronic documents. Where manual review is still necessary (and it mostly still is) on call contract attorneys employed at much lower cost are employed for the job at hand. Eventually, it is likely that many of these lower rate review jobs will be largely eliminated by smarter and smarter machine review capabilities. Changes like these, while significant, will be dwarfed by advancements in many areas inside and outside of law that will likely reduce the need for lawyers and fundamentally change the nature of legal services provided by those that remain.
I recognize that attempting to predict the future is a fool’s errand —as noted futurist and science fiction author Arthur C. Clark (2001- A Space Odyssey) explained prior to making his mostly accurate predictions in 1964 for the future 50 years away—the year 2014:
“Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation because the prophet invariably falls between 2 stools. If his predictions sound at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20 or at most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so farfetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn. This has proved to be true in the past, and it will undoubtedly be true even more so of the century to come. The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic.”
Lacking Arthur C. Clark’s imagination for the fantastic, my primary example will be a conservative one related to a technology that currently exists—the Google Self-Driving Car.
Google has, under special license from California and other state authorities, been running a fleet of self-driving cars (equipped with stand by human driver) for several years now and they have logged well over a million miles of safe driving, with the only two accidents being caused by other drivers (who happen to be human). Contrary to the belief of skeptics, this is not future technology– this is now technology. As observed by popular documentary producer C.G.P. Grey, “driverless cars do not have to be perfect, just better drivers than humans, and they already are.” The major automobile manufacturers are already incorporating sophisticated collision avoidance systems in their new vehicles. The automotive industry press has surveyed industry leaders who generally predict that driverless technology should be commonplace by 2025, and ubiquitous by 2035. Volvo has obtained government approval to operate 100 driverless cars in Gotehenburg, Sweden starting in 2017. The cars will be allowed to operate autonomously in normal traffic conditions, with other vehicles, passengers and pedestrians. Nissan has stated its intention to introduce a driverless car for model year 2020. Not surprisingly, a major impediment to moving forward is the need to pass laws, regulations and to create standards to accommodate this new technology. But in the end, the irrefutable utility of such vehicles will overcome the vested interests in opposition– lawyers will obviously have a big role in this effort- on all sides.
What will the driverless car (and buses, and trucks, and trains, etc.) mean for lawyers? Plenty. It has been estimated that over 90% of all traffic accidents result from human error. Last year these accidents resulted in 32000+ fatalities, over 2 million related injures, and billions of dollars in economic damages. The proliferation of driverless cars (and other vehicles) will dramatically reduce the carnage on our highways. If using driverless cars drastically reduces accidents and the enormous resulting human and economic costs, who could argue this would be a bad thing? But, the reduced number of accidents will also drastically reduce the demand for both plaintiff and defendant personal injury lawyers (and, accident reconstruction experts, ambulance drivers, ER doctors, insurance adjusters and car repair shops, to name a few). Driverless cars will happen and will happen soon. This is just one of the many disruptive technological advances we will see over the next twenty years that will eliminate many jobs of all kinds, including those of a large number of lawyers.
Historically, while new technological advances have often destroyed classes of jobs, over time, the new technology has created comparable numbers of new and often better jobs. There is a school of thought that this time is different, that the technological changes are so significant and the substitution of machine for human labor so complete; that it will permanently displace many workers (the subject for another article). [See “Humans Need Not Apply“]. From current trends in lawyer hiring and the introduction of more lawyer replacing technologies on the horizon (don’t get me started on artificial intelligence and the Singularity), I believe it is a safe assumption that by 2025 there will be significantly fewer lawyers practicing in traditional legal practices as we recognize them today.
To prosper going forward over the next decade, we as a profession and as individual professionals cannot rest on our laurels and traditional ways of doing business. We must not only be technologically astute and incorporate the latest technologies in our practices, but we must also devise fundamentally different and innovative delivery models that utilize technology to offer increased value to our clients, in a manner which at the same time allows us to make a reasonable living. If we fail to do so, then those that will, e.g. Axiom, Legal Zoom and expert systems such as IBM’s Watson, will piece by piece, function by function, supplant our noble and historical role in society. Disrupt ourselves or be disrupted—that is the choice we face.