I knew this day was coming. I’d just hoped it wouldn’t be so soon…or so undignified.
I’m a contract attorney, an untouchable in the caste system of the legal profession. In the modern arena of big law, partners own the firms, associates are over-achieving youngsters who hope to be partners, staff attorneys are employees of the law firm not on a partnership track and contract attorneys are the peons at the bottom of this inglorious heap. We are usually brought in as just-in-time inventory, when there’s a major looming deadline in large-scale litigation, and we are unceremoniously dumped just as rapidly, when the client wants to cut the bill or the case settles or in my latest example, someone approves an algorithm that can do a better job than 250 of us could do, and do it in a nanosecond. Literally.
Here’s why this matters and I aim to prove it to you. So what if a few lowlife attorneys lose their jobs, you say. Well…follow my argument below and you will see why this means the very destruction of the America we know and love.
Decades ago, congress or somebody created the system known as “discovery”. When big companies sue each other, they are required to turn over large volumes of documents to each other. The idea is that if everyone knows everything, the case will settle more quickly and more fairly, freeing up the judicial system for more important matters, like settling Brooke Astor’s estate or deciding whether Leona Helmsley’s dog gets millions of dollars. In law school, we joked that these discovery rules were a “full-employment act” for attorneys. What stupid putzes we were.
Discovery rules meant that law firms had to hire large numbers of young attorneys to sift through mountains of paper; first, so the partners would know what secrets lurked in their clients’ records and then so they would know what was in their adversary’s records. As technology increased, paper yielded to emails, spreadsheets, power point presentations and other documents. As the number of documents increased, so did the number of attorneys required for review. Law firms charged clients astronomical amounts per hour for this work. When I was a first-year associate over a decade ago, my rate was $190 / hour. Believe me, I was not making $190 / hour. Most of that went for firm overhead costs or into the partners’ quarterly payouts.
In recent years, however, computer programs have been developed that can search through the texts of electronic documents. The programs have gotten smarter, even venturing into areas of artificial intelligence. Sophisticated search algorithms can tell if a document is responsive to a request more thoroughly and much more quickly than a person reading the document. And an algorithm’s eyes don’t get blurry. So…this really sucks for me. When I gave up my lucrative job on the partnership track, in exchange for a stress-free day job to support my writing habit, I never expected to be put out of work by mathematics.
But here’s the rub. As the work decreases for contract attorneys, it decreases uphill as well. Fewer documents being reviewed means fewer staff attorneys supervising the document reviewers and fewer associates nagging the staff attorneys. With the number of billable hours greatly diminished, that means law firms are bringing in much less revenue.
HA HA! That’s a GOOD thing, so you say.
Hmmmm. When you think of America’s cities, what comes to mind? Usually it’s buildings, the skylines. On television or in the movies, when the director wants to convey “San Francisco” you’ll see a shot of the skyline featuring the Trans-America tower. Chicago, it’s the Sears Tower or John Hancock building. New York…nowadays it’s the Empire State Building but soon it will be One World Trade Center. LA is usually that bland library tower or whatever it’s called these days. Who do you think pays the rent in these buildings? It’s not the drycleaners or the Bodega owner at the street level. It’s the law firms. I noticed that when I was interviewing at law firms in downtown LA. By the end of the callback season I had visited almost every floor in every building over 15 stories. I noticed the same was true for Atlanta and San Diego.
PS – I’d thought about researching all of these facts and showing you how it’s true, but screw it, in order to do that I’d have to use an algorithmic search program known as “Google” and I refuse to aid and abet the enemy in a blog post about how the enemy is beating me. So I’ll just have to hope the enemy leads you to this blog post. HA!