Walking into obsolescence

I have been slow to hop on the baby boomer bandwagon. It has, of course, become common place for the younger generation (only now entering the professional job market in any meaningful way) to criticise those who birthed us, and perhaps quick to question our work ethic, as taking all of the good for themselves and leaving us with the shit. I’ve never really felt it necessary to join in, probably out of apathy – it doesn’t really do anybody much good to hold some sort of inter-generational vendetta. Yet, recently, the apathy has been waining, and more intriguing is what has appeared in its place: not anger, or critical, but simply tired.

I should really provide you with the sufficient context. Recently, I read Tomorrow’s Lawyers by Richard Susskind, a rather nifty little work on how the legal industry is going to change dramatically within the next couple of decades. The underlying theme, however, is not to dwell, or mourn, this loss of the conventional legal paradigm, but to be excited at the potential to mould this new legal industry, comprised of more I.T automation, and providing new job opportunities, such as project management, moulding advice towards companies’ in-house teams themselves, and performing either ODR (online dispute resolution) or much more menial tasks with much lower margins. This reminds me of an interview I had for a work placement: is it more important for a firm to offer excellent work or value-for-money in dealing with work for cheap. The answer? These days, probably to offer the bespoke work: the cheap is better off being sent somewhere else, probably in Birmingham or Manchester, for cheaper labour.

Of course, this idea of ‘cheap labour’ doesn’t just stop at regional UK offices, but rather it extends to another continent, as countries such as India and Malaysia can offer extraordinary manpower for extraordinarily cheap costs. I’m not an expert, and I can’t tell you whether this is sustainable over long periods, but it is pretty clear that India’s huge population suggests that this is only the beginning. One of Susskind’s more brutal approaches to the topic is that every lawyer considers his own work to be ‘bespoke’ or too important to be automated, and there will always be one person at the end of a lecture or event who considers him to be correct everywhere ‘except his area’. I am under no such naivety; I have little doubt that most of his predictions will come true, insofar as the IT revolution is almighty and regardless of how firms wish to approach the issue, it will eventually become more appropriate for automatons to perform the majority of the grunt work, grunt work which is so infamously the basis of a trainee solicitor’s workload.

To bring it back to my initial point, I think this book is so intriguing because it needs to be read more than once. I only just read it, and I read it with a sense of dread and foreboding, considering that my legal education has nearly expired, and I won’t be trained and qualified for at least 3 years (all being well, which it rarely is). My tiredness, I think, arises both as a compliment to Susskind and as a natural reaction to the situation. A compliment, because I seem to have skipped the first three stages of grief: I am not in denial, but as a paid-up member of generation tech, I am comfortable in the knowledge that this will likely happen. I am not angry, as I am a beneficiary of the very thing which may revoke my job’s meaning in absolutely every other industry, and I cannot be angry when a ‘bespoke’ legal service is purged, considering what this suggests for more menial industries. I need not bargain, because what good will it do? To sit and suggest that I will ‘just miss’ this period of uncertainty is both naive and completely irrational; in all likelihood, I will qualify, but I will not be experienced enough to have earned an immediate spot in the legal elite, in any event.

Instead, I’ve moved straight to depression. Not a real depression, of course; regardless of my future, I’ve had an enjoyable and stimulating education, and can only move positively regardless of the job title, whether changing tracks to academia or becoming a less specialised manager. But rather, a solemn washing. I can’t do anything about this – it is almost inevitable, and now I am to sit and wait for it to happen. Of course, I cannot say that I won’t reach acceptance – I’ve earmarked the book to be read in the summer, when my education is over and when I have hopefully had the chance to mull over what this really means for mine, and the industry’s, future. But, for now, I can only end with two things. Firstly, it is a compliment because Susskind’s representation of the future was positive enough to show a rebuild, not a tear-down, and yet it cannot be a natural reaction of anyone to be excitable about relevant uncertainty. And secondly, I think that Susskind had it wrong in a few areas, and one in particular: the layman’s ability to utilise online legal advice. Whilst I agree that free legal advice may become of particular importance, I am a legal scholar and when I’ve tried to use the internet as a legal aid, it has failed. Not because the content is lacking, but rather because the legal industry is deliberately opaque. If nothing else can be said, at least let it be known that the industry will go down swinging, whether to the detriment of itself or access to wider justice; nobody ever said it would be easy.

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