500 to 1

I contemplated the effects of technological changes on law jobs several weeks ago when I posted a link to news reports about IBM’s Watson winning Jeopardy.  The New York Times has written what essentially amounts to a follow-up article, and it’s eye opening:

Quantifying the employment impact of these new technologies [that help automate the legal discovery process] is difficult. Mike Lynch, the founder of Autonomy, is convinced that “legal is a sector that will likely employ fewer, not more, people in the U.S. in the future.” He estimated that the shift from manual document discovery to e-discovery would lead to a manpower reduction in which one lawyer would suffice for work that once required 500 and that the newest generation of software, which can detect duplicates and find clusters of important documents on a particular topic, could cut the head count by another 50 percent. [emphasis added]

To be sure, 500:1 may just be the talking point of a businessman who is trying to sell his particular solution. Nonetheless, it seems clear that technology like Mr. Lynch’s is already fundamentally altering the economics of the legal profession.  We probably are headed towards a future with fewer lawyers (at least, ones performing discovery-related tasks).

What are some of the broader economic implications?  The NYTimes piece also quotes from  David H. Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

“There is no reason to think that technology creates unemployment,” Professor Autor said. “Over the long run we find things for people to do. The harder question is, does changing technology always lead to better jobs? The answer is no.”