Frank Pasquale –
About a decade ago, when legal employment dipped sharply, there was a raging debate on the future of the legal profession. Some said the drop reflected a permanent decrease in legal work. The logic here was simple: computers were increasingly capable of completing more sophisticated projects. Having eclipsed paralegals in some document review tasks, they would, we were assured, soon supplant attorneys at writing briefs. These techno-utopians also evoked (what they called) a market logic: the more competition pressed firms to become more efficient, the more software they would deploy.*
Others saw the dip in employment as cyclical. It wasn’t just lawyers who suffered in the wake of the global financial crisis; employment in many fields fell. A drop in effective demand was shrinking the economy as a whole. The cyclical school predicted that when the economy rebounded, jobs for attorneys would also recover.
I will not attempt to adjudicate the dispute here. The most vehement techno-utopians, who predicted mass closures of law schools, the “end of BigLaw,” and obsolescence for attorneys, have ended up looking silly. The legal profession did not become the modern-day equivalent of buggy-whip manufacture. Even paralegal employment has been on the rise. In the broader economy, the techno-utopian story has fared even worse. One of its prime policy ideas—the notion of a “skills gap” crippling the economy thanks to workers’ lack of education—has been widely debunked. On the other hand, fewer persons are becoming lawyers today—an indication that the field is shrinking in some areas, to the chagrin of cyclical-ists.
Each approach is performative, in the sense that it not merely describes the world, but also prescribes future action. From a techno-utopian perspective, it is good to see fewer Americans becoming attorneys, because so many are performing roles that can be automated. From a cyclical perspective, growth in the number of lawyers is a positive trend, since it both reflects and manifests more economic growth generally. But it is possible that each of these economics-driven schools of thought is missing a bigger picture issue: namely, the political and social valence of legal work and its fair compensation. That is where discussions of the legal profession need a political economy perspective, rather than a merely economic one.
This political economy perspective should encompass many concerns. This post focuses on two: the beneficiaries of legal work, and its nature. My main point is that then trends which both techno-utopians and cyclical-ists celebrate as vindicating their own points of view, are ambiguous as to their effects on society generally.