What Will The Lawyers Do Now?

What Will The Lawyers Do Now?

Dancing With Robots, The Second Machine Age, and The Hammer Songs

Fifty years ago, long before Google taught cars to drive themselves and started buying up robotics companies, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution warned President Lyndon Johnson:

“A new era of production has begun. Its principles of organization are as different from those of the industrial era as those of the industrial era were different from the agricultural. The cybernation revolution has been brought about by the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine. This results in a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor. Cybernation is already reorganizing the economic and social system to meet its own needs.”

Happily, the Committee’s grim forecast of mass unemployment proved wrong. However, as Frank Levy (MIT) and Richard Murnane (Harvard) write in their 2013 paper Dancing With Robots, “computers have changed the jobs that are available, the skills those jobs require, and the wages the jobs pay.”

Two of Professor Levy’s colleagues at MIT, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have also been thinking about the impact of technology on employment. As they wrote in Race Against the Machine (2011):

“The root of our problems is not that we’re in a Great Recession, or a Great Stagnation,but rather that we are in the early throes of a Great Restructuring. Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind.”

In The Second Machine Age (2013), they extended the argument and drew three conclusions:

“(1) We’re living in a time of astonishing progress with digital technologies.

“(2) The transformations brought about by digital technology will be profoundly beneficial.

“(3) Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead. … there’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”

Behind those abstractions is a solid network of fact, analysis, and stories. One of the stories caught the eye of Thomas Friedman, at The New York Times, who wrote in If I Had a Hammer:

“My favorite story … when the Dutch chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner was asked how he’d prepare for a chess match against a computer, like I.B.M.’s Deep Blue. Donner replied: ‘I would bring a hammer.’

“Donner isn’t alone in fantasizing that he’d like to smash some recent advances in software and automation—think self-driving cars, robotic factories and artificially intelligent reservationists—which are not only replacing blue-collar jobs at a faster rate, but now also white-collar skills, even grandmasters!”

We doubt that a movement of chess masters called Donnerites will rise up to match the c. 1800 Luddites who smashed lacemaking machines in Ned Ludd’s name.

We also doubt, though with regret, that there’s an anthem being composed somewhere to join the great hammer songs of the 20th and 19th centuries: If I Had a Hammer, swinging the hammer of justice; and the Ballad of John Henry, celebrating the steel-driving hammer of man against steam-drill.

So, what of legal services in the second machine age?

The first machine age was powered almost uniquely by Mr. Watt’s invention, the steam engine, elemental but powerful:

Watt's Steam Engine

The second age, Brynjolfsson and McAfee posit, is powered by a more diffuse collection of technologies—the continued climb of Moore’s law in hardware, ubiquitous (and, yes, Big) digital data, and the inter(net)-connectedness of software and things.

Is there a steam engine for law, a machine that truly replaces, or at least radically leverages, human labor? (Steam engines in fact also replaced a lot of horse and ox labor, but those haven’t figured much in the work of the bar.) What in the dusty cabinets of the law may be “exponential, digital and combinatorial” for the second age? Is there at least one of Mr. Babbage’s Difference Engines that we can crank?


Some years ago, one of us asked a very senior retired partner of a very fine law firm in New York City what technology had made the most difference to law practice in his career, which began before television and ended after PC’s. His answer was instant and succinct: “air conditioning.”

True, and on an August afternoon in Washington, D.C, very true. But surely there’s more. We nominate these steam engines of legal services:

  1. Online legal research, the law’s first foray into big and digital data.
  2. Electronic mail and networks, the harbinger of infinite interconnectedness.
  3. Document automation, drafting contracts with software rather than pencils.
  4. Search, from Recommind for lawyers’ own stuff to Google for everything else.
  5. Predictive coding (a/k/a technology-assisted review), replacing armies of junior lawyers.
  6. Expert systems, context-specific guidance at scale and speed.

Setting aside email and networks, there are three technologies based on machine learning (research, search, TAR) and two based on rules (drafting and guidance). (Neota Logic is mostly in the rules business, for expert systems and document automation, though machine learning techniques can be used for rule induction.)

Note that we do not include process improvement as a technology. Although the impact on the cost of legal services for business clients (particularly big companies) is likely greater, at least in the near-term, than any of the technologies listed, process mapping, project management, and value-based fees do not depend on technology at all. Whiteboards, Post-It notes, and sharp pencils are sufficient.

Can the impact of the listed technologies (or others that others would nominate) be seen in industry statistics? Is there evidence of Tyler Cowen’s thesis in Average Is Over? Evidence that computers are taking some of the average jobs in the profession?

This chart combines degrees granted data from the American Bar Association with employment data from the National Association for Law Placement.

Year Degrees Granted Employed Bar Admission Required JD Preferred Other Professional Unemployed In Law Firms
2001 38,157 90.0% 75.9% 6.0% 5.5% 7.6% 57.8%
2002 37,909 89.0% 75.3% 5.2% 5.8% 8.5% 58.1%
2003 38,605 88.9% 73.7% 6.5% 5.7% 8.4% 57.8%
2004 38,874 88.9% 73.2% 7.5% 5.3% 8.6% 56.2%
2005 40,023 89.6% 74.4% 7.5% 5.1% 8.2% 55.8%
2006 42,673 90.7% 75.3% 7.9% 5.1% 7.0% 55.8%
2007 43,920 91.9% 76.9% 7.7% 5.1% 5.8% 55.5%
2008 43,518 89.9% 74.7% 8.1% 4.9% 7.7% 56.2%
2009 43,588 88.3% 70.8% 9.2% 5.4% 8.7% 55.9%
2010 44,004 87.6% 68.4% 10.7% 5.6% 9.4% 50.9%
2011 44,258 85.6% 65.4% 12.5% 5.3% 12.1% 49.5%
2012 44,495 84.7% 64.4% 13.3% 6.7% 12.8% 50.7%

Since the Great Recession began in 2008, the employment rate has declined and the unemployment rate increased, as one would expect in the face of diminished demand.

Some of the decline in jobs for which bar admission is required is counter-balanced by a significant increase in jobs for which a JD is “preferred” and a modest increase in “other professional” jobs. We speculate that many of these are in e-discovery and other legal process tasks, which is consistent with the decline in law firm jobs. That is, some work is being shifted from law firms to alternative legal services providers, and not all of that work requires bar admission, e.g., litigation document review.

Changes are too small and time periods are too short to conclude that technology has affected employment rates. Overall demand decline driven by the recession, cost pressures driven by The New Normal, and law school over-production are more than determinative.

Not finding a technology impact is not a surprise. We are indebted to Bill Henderson forbringing the Rogers diffusion curve to the legal industry. The Curve teaches that the path from invention to visible adoption is long and strewn with obstacles—social, economic, and organizational. Hybrid corn, the benefit of which can easily be seen across the neighbor’s fence in harvest season, reached ubiquity only after 24 years, as knowledge spread, profitability shifted, and localized varieties were developed:

Griliches diffusion of hybrid corn

Machine learning in e-discovery has been faster, better, cheaper than one-email-at-a-time review by humans (lawyers or not) for at least five years, and proven to be so. Yet the machine learning techniques are used in a small fraction of cases, for all the reasons that Rogers (and Henderson) identify. Enterprise search across all a firm’s documents, matter and time records, and people profiles was shown almost a decade ago to increase significantly a firm’s efficiency in re-use of work-product. Yet most firms still don’t have such search systems.

Nonetheless, these technologies continue to spread, and yield big positive returns when applied astutely.

Here at Neota Logic we agree with what Erik Brynjolfsson said at TED, “Racing with the machine beats racing the machine.”


Have the robots come for the middle class, Jim Tankersley, Washington Post, July 12, 2013.

Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work, Frank Levy & Richard Murnane.

Race Against The Machine, Erik Brynjolsson and Andrew McAfee, 2011.

The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolsson and Andrew McAfee, 2013.

The second machine age is upon us: time to reconsider the Luddites?, Robert Skidelsky, The Guardian, February 24, 2014.

If I Had a Hammer, Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, January 11, 2014.

The key to growth? Race with the machines, Erik Brynjolfsson, TED, February 2013.

Why Lawyers Are Still Waiting for the Future, Aric Press, American Lawyer, February 24, 2014.

Will Robots Steal Your Job?, Farhad Manjoo, Slate, September 29. 2011.

The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, University of Oxford, September 17, 2013.

I Am Now An App, Jason Wilson, Slaw, September 28, 2011.

More Blog Articles
Harnessing AI for Practical Business Automation Solutions

Legal operations leaders face complex challenges in steering their teams towards efficiency and integration, while navigating a sea of technological possibilities including the emerging possibilities of Generative AI (GenAI). GenAI introduces new opportunities for innovation and automation but also brings unique challenges in assessing its implications and integrating its capabilities responsibly. Grasping the opportunity presented…

Client-Centric Innovation in Law

How Harneys Elevates Value with Digital Service Delivery   As debates around the billable hour and outside counsel spend stay ever-present on legal conference agendas, the essential question for law firms remains the same: how do you add value for clients and enhance their experience working with you?  The purpose law firms serve – in…