The latest news about employment opportunities offers a comeuppance to those who enjoyed a bit of “schadenfreude" in the past decade about the plight of lawyers. We all partake in that sentiment, which in its original German means literally to take joy in harm — that ever-so-slightly guilty smile we cannot suppress when someone else is disappointed. For the general public, it was all too easy to laugh at lawyers as headlines proclaimed the demise of prestigious firms and the lack of jobs for new graduates. Members of the bar have never been much liked, even by their own clients who must pay bills for representation they would just as soon not need. Those who make a living through rhetoric typically have been suspected of being too clever for their own good.
Yet now there are warnings about the bursting of another bubble: for coders. Tech-oriented WIRED magazine, for example, recently published a piece predicting that those with the once esoteric knowledge of writing programs for computers likewise will witness a glut around them, followed by an inevitable adjustment to their wages. That would be in the downward direction. Computers are starting to program themselves now. Immigrants, women, and engineers everywhere from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, are entering the field.
These cases of legal argument and computer programming are more similar than they are different. Although lawyers and coders appear to have skill sets that are not at all the same, they offer services subject to the same basic rules of the economy. Each community of experts might have been confident, too much so, that their training gave them immunity from the marketplace trends that anyone could observe affecting less skilled workers. If you are, or were, a riveter on the assembly line in 1980s Detroit, making cars, you might have foreseen what would befall you: automation and what would come to be called “outsourcing.” Your role could be fulfilled by either a robot or a rival in Mexico, China, or a non-unionized Southern state, or, for that matter, a robot in Mexico.
White-collar professionals assumed they were different. The tasks they performed are about brains, not brawn; they are not asked to lift heavy objects at the office, and they do not sweat. The arrogance of lawyers is more than matched by many others who have earned impressive credentials. The problem is that even functions involving creativity and complexity can be commodified and thereby driven down to a price point, maybe not as easily but eventually.
The temptation is to blame lack of leadership, technological advance, or global competition. Those are factors.
The primary cause, however, is more conceptual. It is an innovation in framing. It is the ability of managers, and, more importantly, the consumers of almost all products, to package what is being purchased. If it can be standardized, whether it is a contract template or program subroutine, then metrics allow assessment of quality. An appropriate quantity then can be ordered. For those who are sophisticated, the specifications allow a choice between what is premium or “good enough.” The budget becomes the measure of success. Lawyers, coders, no less than architects before them and even physicians likely to follow, must submit to the mandate of the invoice, whether it is paid by an insurance carrier or the federal government.
None of this should be surprising, much less cause for concern. It points to the importance of ongoing education. Adaptation and self-improvement are not the best means to respond; they are the only means. There are desperate efforts to constrain the flow of knowledge and the migration of human capital, tinkering with raising licensing exam scores and lowering availability of visas, but these moves cannot control the overwhelming forces at work. Supply and demand work inexorably. Lawyers and coders cannot escape their dynamic.
The types of adaptation and self-improvement include blending domains of proficiency. The lawyer capable of writing code and the coder able to analyze law remain rare. When they too become common, an individual who aspires to greatness will be required to reinvent again. If she also is a “people person,” she has the ineffable talent of relating well to others. The day no doubt will come when a computer, or a representative who is halfway around the world and immersed in another culture, suffices for many purposes, but even then the natural person who is a native speaker of the same language probably will be preferred.
For anyone who claims to lead, the challenge is to motivate people and support them. That means ensuring people have hope. They must feel their children will do better than they did. There is a catch. Their children will be compelled to do differently than they did.