Friday, February 18, 2011

Are Lawyers Sponges?

Andy Kessler writes in today's Wall Street Journal that lawyers are "sponges," members of a profession that "earned their jobs by passing a test meant to limit supply," i.e., the bar exam. Other "sponges" are "cosmetologists, real estate brokers, [and] doctors," all of whom "need government certification. All this does is legally bar others from doing the same job, so existing workers can charge more and sponge off the rest of us." Ouch. Kessler's analysis appears in his article, "Is Your Job an Endangered Species?", and if he's correct, today's anemic job market for lawyers is not an aberration, but the wave of the future.

Kessler is a former hedge-fund manager and the author of a new book, Eat People and Other Unapologetic Rules for Game-Changing Entrepreneurs. He looks at the terrible employment situation--"26,000,000 Americans are unemployed or underemployed"--and says that technology is to blame. It is "eating jobs." Kessler points to toll takers, bank tellers, phone operators, travel agents, postal workers, stock brokers, and stock traders and says these jobs are "nearly extinct." They have been "displaced by technology and the Web. Librarians can't find 36,000 results in 0.14 seconds, as Google can." Never mind whether anyone really needs or wants us to find 36,000 results!

What other jobs will disappear in the near future? Kessler divides the workforce into two types of workers in order to answer this question.

Forget blue-collar and white-collar. There are two types of workers in our economy: creators and servers. Creators are the ones driving productivity--writing code, designing chips, creating drugs, running search engines. Servers, on the other hand, service these creators (and other servers) by building homes, providing food, offering legal advice, and working at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Many servers will be replaced by machines, by computers and by changes in how business operates. ...

But even the label "servers" is too vague. So I've broken down the service economy further, as a guide to figure out the next set of unproductive jobs that will disappear.

Within the server category, Kessler lists the following subtypes: "sloppers" (people who move things, e.g., government workers who push paper or information around); "sponges" (see above); "supersloppers" (people who mark up prices based on gimmicks, not true market value); "slimers" who work in finance--some will always be needed, but nowhere near the number employed today; and "thieves" who have a government franchise to make money, e.g., phone and cable companies and regulatory inspectors.

Kessler believes that eDiscovery is going to decimate the legal profession because it "scans documents and looks for important keywords and phrases, displacing lawyers and paralegals ... Lawyers, understandably, hate eDiscovery." Far fewer lawyers will be needed, which will eventually result in dwindling enrollment in law school. Kessler is probably correct that the discovery process can be facilitated through the use of technology, and certainly legal research can be as well, but I do not believe that legal reasoning and writing lend themselves particularly well to a technology "fix." I agree, however, with his conclusion that fewer attorneys will be needed in the future.

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