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A Law Degree May Not Guarantee Success in America’s Automated Future
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August 29, 2015, 04:19 PM
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It’s easy to visualize the robot aspect of the smart machine revolution, with post-human manufacturing happening more and more. We are accustomed to images of big robot arms constructing automobiles with no people in sight, but there is also plenty of technological unemployment that is being created by computers. Some white collar professions are just as endangered as the last century’s middle-class factory jobs.

One example is fewer clerks doing financial work in big companies, because software has automated many tasks like accounts payable and other bookkeeping behaviors. The Wall Street Journal reported in May that since 2004, the median number of full-time employees in the finance departments of big companies has declined 40 percent.

There’s a decline in law offices as well. While the public picture of the law is attorneys debating the guilt or innocence of accused criminals, much legal work is paper shuffling, case law research, contracts and other tasks that computers can automate.

It’s curious that none of the Presidential candidates mention automation as a growing problem to employment, even as they all promise to increase jobs for Americans. One obvious fact is that the nation won’t need to import millions of immigrants to do jobs that won’t exist because of automation, robots and computers.

Lawyers are just as likely to lose their jobs to robots as truck drivers and factory workers, Tech Insider, August 27, 2015

It’s no surprise that the coming robotic workforce will take over jobs that require manual labor.

But white-collar workers like lawyers are equally at risk of losing their jobs to artificial intelligence (AI) that’s cheaper and better than human workers, according to Jerry Kaplan, author of “Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”

Kaplan said any person that toils through many “repetitive and structured” tasks for a living won’t be safe from the bread lines.

“Even for what you think of as highly-trained, highly-skilled, intuitive personable professions, it is still true that the vast majority of the work is routine,” Kaplan told Tech Insider.

Lawyers, for example, may conjure up images of formidable debators pontificating in front of grand juries, but the reality is much more mundane.

“The vast majority of activities that lawyers are engaged in are straightforward drafting of contracts, putting together things like apartment leases, real estate deals, pre-trial discovery,” Kaplan said. “It’s these very tasks that make the profession susceptible to automation.”

Startups are already springing up to take on these time-consuming and expensive chores. Kaplan lists just a few of them in his book — Judicata uses statistical methods called machine learning and natural language processing to automatically find relevant court cases.

Fair Document allows users to fill out forms to create documents for, say, estate planning for only $995 — a “service that might otherwise typically cost $3,500 to $5,000,” for a lawyer to do.

There’s already a huge gap between the small number of law jobs and increasing law school graduates. The New York Times reports 40% of 2014 law school graduates failed to find jobs “that required them to pass the bar exam.”

Time Magazine reports that the recession, outsourced jobs, and new technology — including “software that can do tedious document review projects that used to require an actual human” — resulted in fewer jobs for law students with massive student loan debts.

Still, a 2013 oft-cited Oxford study estimated that lawyers only have a 3.5% chance of losing their jobs because “most computerization of legal research will compliment the work of lawyers in the medium term.”

But Kaplan said this may only apply to seasoned lawyers who typically don’t do the kind of repetitive tasks entry-level lawyers share with paralegals and legal secretaries. These professions were estimated to have a 94.5% likelihood of automation, according to the Oxford study.

“Starting lawyers used to spend a great deal of time doing what’s called ‘pre-trial discovery,'” Kaplan said. “If you think of lawyers are the people who argue in court, it won’t be automated. But since much of their work is far more routine — drafting boilerplate contracts, lease agreements — those tasks are susceptible to automation.”

And even without lawyers being replaced, those changes will have profound impacts on many sectors.

“Profession by profession, the tasks that people are performing that are routine, that are structured, and are susceptible to computerization — those are the tasks that are going away and as a result many, many fewer people or practitioners are needed in those professions,” Kaplan said.

The 2013 study estimated that AI would be eating up 47% of all employment in the country. David H. Autor, economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New York Times that careers with middle-class incomes were “being lost to automation and outsourcing, and now job growth at the top is slowing because of automation.”