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What if ... automation and AI create short-term savings for industries but damage their long-term sustainability?

Shortage of mid-career lawyers hits legal profession hard

In 2017, experts had predicted a “decade of disruption”. For once, they were right, especially about the legal professions. After the 2008 global financial crisis, law firm fees were too high, even for corporate clients. Traditionally, law firms used just-qualified lawyers for routine legal tasks. The juniors would learn their trade, doing repetitive but essential work, and develop the judgement and experience to move up the ladder.

But in the mid 2010s, law firms essentially stopped hiring junior lawyers. Instead, they invested in AI for routine work like checking land registry records or due diligence. Tasks that took humans weeks could now be done in just a few hours. A recent report estimates that up to 500,000 legal jobs were lost around the world from 2015-2022.

With lower costs, law firm partners who made perhaps $1 million USD a year in 2015 now make an average $5 million each. In a “winner takes all” legal economy, the losers never even started their careers, but the winners did extremely well.

But today, the legal profession faces a global shortage of mid-career lawyers. Law graduates who would have taken junior jobs a decade ago would now be moving towards the partnership track. But with few junior legal jobs then available, most legal graduates left the law or took part-time or short-term jobs. Law firms now face a hiring crisis in the middle ranks. They must pay top dollar to an ever-smaller pool of experienced lawyers, sometimes offering larger salaries than the partners pay themselves.

Law firms now scramble to find experienced lawyers for work that needs a human touch: advocacy, litigation, arbitration or just applying hard-earned experience and judgement to making deals. For the first time in history, we need more lawyers than we have.

This story shows us how the Internet might evolve. But the path we take is up to us.

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