Recently released data confirm the perception that the Class of 2011 fared badly in the employment market. An article in the ABA Journal states, "Only slightly more than half of 2011 law grads were able to snag full-time, long-term legal jobs, according to an analysis of new ABA data by Law School Transparency." Specifically, Law School Transparency found that only 55.2% of graduates had full-time jobs that required a J.D., with 26.2% still underemployed.
In light of these disappointing (but not unexpected) numbers, two recent stories caught my eye. The first appeared in The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2012, p. B1 (subscription required), and was entitled "Why Hire a Lawyer? Computers are Cheaper." The author, Joe Palazzolo, describes the litigation that ensued after the "roofs of three jet hangers [sic] collapsed under heavy snow and crushed 14 private jets in 2010." The defendant, Landow Aviation, preserved approximately 8,000 gigabytes of information relevant to the suit, and eventually narrowed the field to approximately 2,000,000 electronic documents that would need to be reviewed for evidence of possible liability in the collapse of the roof. In the past, an army of lawyers would have read each document. Some of these lawyers may have been temporary hires paid at a low hourly rate specifically for document review, or they may have been new associates assigned to the task. However, in this case, "the company asked a judge to allow a computer program to do much of the initial work" using "'predictive coding,' a term that refers to computer programs that use algorithms to determine whether documents are relevant to a case." The article describes how the coding is done and the advantages--it's cheaper and more accurate--and points out that attorneys will still need to review the documents that the coding has identified as being relevant, perhaps 10% of the total. If the cost savings of predictive coding are significant and the results are more accurate, clients may well be unwilling to pay for traditional document review by attorneys in the future.
The other article, also from the ABA Journal, highlighted a new rule by the Washington Supreme Court that will allow "'licensed legal technicians' to help civil litigants navigate the court system." The range of activities that the legal technicians will be allowed to perform is very narrow. According to the press release,
The type of assistance the legal technician will be able to provide include, but are not limited to:Under the rule, limited license legal technicians will not be able to represent clients in court, or contact and negotiate with opposing parties on a client’s behalf.
· Selecting and completing court forms;
· Informing clients of applicable procedures and timelines;
· Reviewing and explaining pleadings and;
· Identifying additional documents that may be needed in a court proceeding.
The purpose of the rule is to help meet the legal needs of people with lower incomes. The court "acknowledged concerns that the plan poses a threat" to the practicing bar, but feels that there will be no appreciable effect because the legal technicians will not be able to negotiate. The article doesn't mention any possible negative impact on the market for new attorneys, but it's reasonable to assume that there will be one if current practitioners get less business.