Law firm Bowman and Brooke LLP [website] is vacating its current location at 600 Congress Ave. and heading to more suburban digs southwest of downtown [about 6 miles away, map here]….“Yes, price was a consideration but we’re not getting a tremendous difference in rent costs. There are other things that entered in like tenant improvement costs, and parking had a significant impact,” [Michelle Bailey, chief of operations] said.
The company had no parking allocation downtown and at its new location it will have 96 complimentary spaces for 44 employees — more than enough.
The article notes that “finding large blocks of office space [in downtown Austin] is somewhat akin to going on a treasure hunt” and suggests that lawyers “are now being challenged for territorial rights by emerging technology and energy firms.” In other words, plenty of businesses still want a downtown presence, and rents are being bid up by new entrants. This sounds more like a story of urban revival than suburban sprawl to me, though the two are clearly linked here.
Perhaps a more fascinating revelation, however, is Bowman and Brooke determination that it “wasn’t necessary for its attorneys to be downtown, close to other law firms and courthouses” because “[w]e tend to be a national firm with our attorneys flying all over the country” and “we don’t have a lot of local interaction.” What does it mean to practice law without significant local interaction, especially when one is “a nationally recognized trial firm that defends corporate clients in widely publicized catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims“? While simply having a downtown (rather than a suburban) office location may do little to humanize a corporate law firm, it seems telling that Bowman and Brooke seems to place such a low priority on engaging its local community.
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.”