John O. McGinnis, a Con law professor at Northwestern, put out a spectacular article in City Journal called "Machines v. Lawyers" laying out some of the disruptive technologies bearing down on the legal practice. To quote at length:
Law is, in effect, an information technology—a code that regulates social life. And as the machinery of information technology grows exponentially in power, the legal profession faces a great disruption not unlike that already experienced by journalism, which has seen employment drop by about a third and the market value of newspapers devastated. The effects on law will take longer to play themselves out, but they will likely be even greater because of the central role that lawyers play in public life.
The five categories ripe for change and automation are, according to McGinnis:
1) E-Discovery, where programs will be able to comb through huge numbers of documents and pluck out the relevant data automatically, rather than relying on associates by the bullpens-full;
2) Smart searching, which will eliminate user error, slash extensive research times , and automatically find the applicable precedent for any question of law;
3) Improved templates, which will make everything (pleadings, motions, applications, wills, contracts-- seriously, everything) cheaper and easier;
4) Automated brief and memorandum drafting, though likely with final drafts still done by flesh and blood for the time being. News articles like this one are already being written by computers, so I'd argue that this technology, which McGinnis calls "a distant prospect," is closer than he think. Earlier this month, in fact, IBM debuted a new feature of its Watson technology, which can now review millions of existing positions instantly and argue for and against them;
5) Litigation analytics, or as McGinnis puts it: " 'moneyball' is coming to law." This is the use of big data to predict the outcome of litigation rather than relying on the gut and experience of seasoned (see: expensive) attorneys.
Are these five technologies ready for wide-spread use? Is it really disruptive technology if we can accurately dissect its impact years before it arrives? Isn't disruptive technology just that-- disruptive? Or maybe the slow nature of law makes the field an exception. Time will tell!
In the past, I've written about the automation of the existing workforce to come, and about the guaranteed minimum income, a potential solution to the widespread disappearance of things once known as "jobs."
Anyway, thanks for the assist, CNN! CNN Money put out an article yesterday declaring that "Robots will replace fast-food workers," and they're right: robots will replace fast food workers. The most surprising thing is that they haven't already.
As we speak, fast food workers are protesting around the country demanding a standard $15/hr wage, and have been for months, though its been mostly uncovered by major media outlets. A $15/hr wage would be great, if it meant fast food work stayed substantively the same except for a doubled wage. But it won't, because giving a $15/hr minimum wage to fast food workers will result in them being replaced by robots.
What sort of robots? Probably voice recognition and touchscreen ordering systems and automated food production, with a small group of managers on site to address issues and oversee operations. This eliminates the cashiers, any drive-through operators, and several people on the production line-- which seems to be about half the staff. The technology to do so is out there already, awaiting a push to implementation.
Darren Tristano, a food industry expert who is having trouble with the trees and can't quite see the forest, says that "If you look at the thousands of years that consumers have been served alcohol and food by people, it's hard to imagine that things will change that quickly." To understand how wrong this statement is, let's look at farming. In 1870, an estimated 4 of every 5 Americans were farmers. Prior to this, farming had been the very way of life for the vast majority of humans for millennia. In 1870, it probably was hard to imagine things changing that quickly. Today, 1 in 50 Americans is a farmer.
So bid thee farewell to fast food employees, the imminent victims of human ingenuity and simplification. Until we learn the lesson that automation should reduce workload across the board, we'll probably continue to see fields of newly-unemployed workers left out in the cold.
The single largest debt the average American holds is a mortgage, by a long shot. Student loans have recently taken second place. Behind that, however, is that trusty American stalwart of debt obligations: consumer credit. After the 2008 Crisis, the country de-leveraged a lot of its household consumer debt (see the $200b dip in the graph). But that deleveraging craze seems to be over, and the amount of consumer credit per household is back on the rise. But does this bounce-back signal the end of the effects of the Great Recession on consumer credit, or is there a more permanent effect that has yet to play out on a measurable scale?
AdBusters ran an article called "The Satori Generation" that lays out the following trend, happening most measurably in Japan (and South Korea): a generation of young adults, faced with exploding education costs, depressed job prospects, and weariness about the future and effects of consumer culture on their lives, their society, the environment, etc., are making a conscious decision to reject all of the above. They are rejecting norms of courtship, marriage and family; buying less expensive, and less (fewer cars, houses, clothes, consumer goods, etc.); living with their parents longer; and subsisting on part-time work.
The most revealing exchange from the AdBusters article is this: on a Coming of Age Day celebration (a Japanese holiday celebrating everyone who turns 20 that year), a 50-something guest on a talk show asked a 20-something sitting across from him: "Don't you want to get a nice German car one day? Don't you want a pretty young woman to take on a Sunday drive?" to which the young man replied "I'm not really interested, no."
While the attention has fallen on Japan's "Satori Generation" for this trend, there are similar movements across Europe and the United States (and probably elsewhere that I am ignorant of) of young adults moving in the same direction. Speaking as a 20-something young adult in America, I will testify anecdotally to a huge number of my peers who have the "I'm not really interested, no" attitude, especially when compared to older generations. At the end of the day, this means that a lot of people just aren't interested in credit cards. What will this mean for the future of consumer debt?
I will leave you with an inscription I found on a bench in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden that I think tidily sums up this trend:
"Affluent college-bound students face the real prospect of downward mobility. Feelings of entitlement clash with the awareness of imminent scarcity. There is resentment at growing up at the end of an era of plenty coupled with reassessment of conventional measures of success."
An FDCPA class action suit in Pennsylvania just survived a crucial attempt to dismiss it, and could spell trouble for debt collectors in the Northeast around the country.
Denise Harlan brought a class-action suit against Transworld Systems, Inc., a debt collector who had sent her a collection letter with disclosure language required by the FDCPA hidden among dense boilerplate on the back. She sued, saying the disclosure was not conspicuous enough. Transworld asked the court to dismiss the claim, and it did not-- because language on the front of the letter conflicted with the disclosure language on the back. It did not entertain the question of whether the placement was improper.
Transworld could be in a heap of trouble for this-- having a faulty boilerplate letter could make the company liable for damages to every person it sent the letter to in the year preceding the lawsuit's filing, not to mention for the court costs and attorney's fees from the case (for both sides). This would be very expensive, and potentially trouble for every other company with a similar letter, who may be exposed to class action liability themselves. I would not be surprised to see an appeal here, or a settlement.
Legal employment, especially for new lawyers, is grim turf. The Class of 2013 has 46,776 graduates, of which:
– 57% have a full-time, long-term job that requires a law degree
– 28% are working but do not meet these criteria
– 4% are in temp jobs paid for by their alma matter to prop up employment numbers
– 11% are unemployed (US unemployed as of today is 6.3%, though I've taken issue with this as being artificially low)
As for debt, even a public school like the University of Minnesota sends its average graduate packing with $98,410 in student loans.
Is law school still a "good deal"? How should a prospective student set on law school pick their school? Weighing the employment numbers and salary spread of a school against its average debt would be a good place to start.
And yet there is not a popular, oft-relied-on ranking system that does this. Most ranking systems employ a wide field of unnecessary criteria, the result of which is an unreliable, meaningless ranking which well-intentioned prospective law students then rely on as an authority on the topic.
The big boy is US News and World Report. You know their list: #1 Yale, #2 Harvard, #3 Stanford, right on down to the "Rank Not Published" Cooley and the Western State College of Law at Argosy University. It's safe to say that every year tens of thousands of people make their law school decision with this list somewhere in mind.
But what's under the hood at US News and World Report? Here are some of the criteria used in their rankings:
– Median LSAT scores of incoming students
– Median undergrad GPA of incoming students
– Acceptance rate
– "Faculty resources"
What? "Faculty resources," which is comprised of the student-faculty ratio, expenditure per student, and the embarrassingly irrelevant "library resources," receives nearly as much a weight as a school's job placement. Job placement in turn receives less weight than the "selectivity" category. How big the library is should not be a factor in whether to attend a school. How many students the school turns down should not be a factor in whether to attend a school. US News rankings in their current form are a huge disservice to the legal community. Says Justice Thomas: "I think the obsession [with rankings] is somewhat perverse. I never look at those rankings. I don’t even know where they are. I thought U.S. News and World Report was out of business." Justice Alito recently called it "an abomination."
Frustrated by this, Above the Law began producing its own rankings a few years ago. Their rankings favor schools with good "Employment Scores," "Quality Jobs Scores," and "Education Costs." They are not innocent of the frivolous criterion, however, as their ranking also factors in (at 15% of the total measurement of a school's worth):
– Percent of graduates clerking for the Supreme Court
– Percentage of graduates who are currently federal judges
Why does a federal magistrate count while a state supreme court justice does not? Why give a massive, outsized advantage to schools that send a graduate or two to DC to clerk for Ginsburg for a year? ATL responds: "they helped differentiate among the top schools . . . As for the elitism charge? Guilty. It's simply the nature of the profession. Our rankings aren't for everyone." In other words, it would be a 5-way tie for first if they didn't come up with a bogus differentiating factor or two, and any charge that such factors unnecessary favor the cultural/economic/social elites is absolutely correct. Next.
I hesitate to even mention this third ranking system, but it's important to see the level of depravity to which some schools will go to ensnare students. Case in point: the Thomas M. Cooley Law School Ranking. You will note that for most rankings, Cooley is not even worth giving a place. US News gives them a sort of "also-ran." And yet, on Cooley's own system, they are #2. #2, nationwide, the second-best law school in the country, only behind Harvard.
Let's look at some of the criteria used by Cooley's ranking system. In the following heavily-weighted categories, Cooley ranks in the top 10 nationally:
– Number of students
– Number of first-year students
– Number of minority students
– Number of first-year minority students
– Number of foreign nationals enrolled
– Percentage of students receiving grants or scholarships (Cooley gives scholarships to 100% of its students, which leads to the question: is it really a scholarship?)
– Number of full-time faculty
– Number of part-time faculty
– Total faculty
– Amount spent on library materials
– Number of librarians
– Library seating capacity
– Number of computers available
– Library square footage
– Law school square footage (excluding library)
– Law school square footage (including library)
– Number of states in which graduates are employed
This is a charade. Cooley is able to game the ranking system, without lying about the numbers, because it has 1) lots of students and 2) a physically large library. Might as well throw in "proximity to the largest river in North America" and give my own alma matter a bit of extra oomph. There are people out there, not many of them, who sees Cooley at #2 on their own ranking and say "I can't believe I haven't heard of this great school!" and then apply and attend the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which is so without value that national rankings do not even give them a rank. This is the dictionary definition of "huckster."
There are a lot of folks out there wondering if law school is a good choice for them. There are a lot of people wondering which law school to go to. These are by no means the only three ranking systems, but the rest are not much better, as far as my knowledge extends. Is this the best we've got?
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