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Bar News - February 17, 2016

Book Review: Timely Look at Law’s Future Is Dense But Worthwhile


The Future Of The Professions: How Technology Will Transform The Work Of Human Experts
By Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind
Oxford University Press, 2015
346 pages

Futurists have been a hit-or-miss bunch throughout the ages. Malthus thought we’d all go hungry because we couldn’t grow enough food to feed ourselves. Then we figured out ways to grow more wheat and rice and such. Gordon Moore predicted in 1965 that integrated circuit processing power would double every year; then in 1975, he refined his prediction to every two years. As those of us who have to buy a new computer every two years or so can attest, he was pretty close. Folks like I.J. Good and Ray Kurzweil worry that when we invent AI that it will in turn invent an even more intelligent AI and so on. Those of us who fear Skynet await this outcome with some trepidation.

Predicting the future is kind of a good gig. After all, you can predict wild and crazy things and not really be held accountable for what actually happens.

So I started this book with some skepticism. It was not an easy read for me. The father and son team have done some very deep thinking and work in the area and the resulting book reflects it. Each page discusses in depth the components of their investigation, discoveries, and arguments. It’s not a beach read.

What it is though is a book that discusses the future of professions, including ours, in the wake of technological advancement. If your dream is to preserve the exalted status of professionals, then the picture painted here, my friends and colleagues, is not a pretty one. If your dream is, on the other hand, to ensure that the benefits of the services provided by professionals are disseminated as far and wide as possible to all who need them, then things are looking up.

For those of you who read the last page first, let me give you their conclusion: “In short, it will become ever more difficult, as time passes and machines become increasingly capable, to ensure that there is enough reasonably-paid employment for professionals.” Yikes.

The reasoning by which they arrive at this conclusion is well documented in the 289 pages that precede it. It flows more or less as follows:

As a species, humans have evolved a division of labor model. Instead of being a hunter, a farmer, a builder, a butcher, and a weaver all at once, we pick one or two specialties, focus on them and barter or buy those others that we need. The work circle then is where I work (producing a good or service), sell that product to you for a fee (beads, shells, Krugerands), take the fee that you pay me and in turn buy whatever other product that I need. Multiply this concept by millennia and trillions of humans and we get where we are today.

The “professions” require a significantly higher amount of learning to attain mastery (medicine, accounting, teaching, and law, among others). The Grand Bargain that our society has agreed to is that in exchange for us investing our time and money to learn these skills, society will pay us more to practice them. That’s why I went to law school… right?

Along comes technology and automation.

As technology has advanced, it has moved up the value chain. First it was counting on our fingers and toes, then pencil and paper, then slide rules, then calculators, now computers. At each stage technological advancement enabled us to do more.

Automation has worked to increase productivity and drive down costs. First it was the craftsman who produced the whole good from scratch, then the assembly line broke down production to discrete tasks, then robots came along and started performing those tasks.

There was a time in the recent past when assembly line jobs provided good employment for huge numbers of people around the world. Those jobs have largely chased the low-cost provider. As robots get better and better, what will be lower cost than a machine that can run 24/7?

Tax preparers used to be able to charge a few hundred dollars to prepare a tax return. Now you can do it for free online.

A Harvard education used to be available only to those who could get to Cambridge and afford the tuition. Now you can get instruction online by the same professors who lecture in Cambridge, anywhere you can get wireless Internet, for a couple thousand dollars per course.

Self-driving cars are almost here. What will that mean for truck drivers, bus drivers, limo drivers, insurance lawyers?

Technology and automation have brought us to the point where incredibly fast processing power and access to vast quantities of data allow computers to beat chess masters, win at Jeopardy and diagnose illness. Think the law is immune to this? A Jan. 20, 2016, article on The Atlantic website, “Robots Could Make the Supreme Court More Transparent,” describes how computers analyzed unsigned opinions from the US Supreme Court to determine who actually wrote them.

These computers don’t think like humans; they use brute-force analysis of vast quantities of data to arrive at their conclusions. The authors of this book conclude that as the tasks that professionals perform are broken up into discrete bits and computers/robots are programmed to do them, our work will decrease.

Is this a bad thing? It depends on your perspective. I think it’s great that I can do the taxes for my whole family for under $50. That tax preparer that went out of business 10 years ago probably doesn’t agree.

The professions have become bottlenecks in the distribution of their services. If you cannot afford a doctor/lawyer/accountant/architect/teacher, then you are deprived of their services. There are mechanisms that provide low-cost or free services, but huge numbers of people go without the basic services they need.

The utilitarian viewpoint might be that if advancing technology and automation mean that more people will gain access to these professional services at the expense of an elite class of providers, then the world is better off. I only hope I can stay relevant till I can retire. (That assumes that I am in fact relevant, and that I will in fact be able to retire; two subjects up for debate.) Whatever your viewpoint, chances are we should buckle up because the ride will be bumpy.

My guess is that if you have been practicing more than 10 years like me, you will probably be ok. We’ll see significant change, but the practice of law will be largely recognizable to us when we retire. My daughter, though, who graduates law school this year? Thirty years from now, what she will be doing is vastly different from what we are doing today. And my grandson: Well, I’m going to recommend he learn how to fix computers.

Or I could be Malthus.

It’s a good book, a dense book, a scary book, a hopeful book; I recommend it to those who want to look ahead.

Eric Cook

Eric Cook is an attorney who lives in Portsmouth and has practiced in New Hampshire since 1998.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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