The disappearing middle
A recent article in The Economist (see link) discussed the phenomenon that in rich countries since the 1990s employment in middle-income jobs has begun to decline as a share of the total whilst the share of both low and high-skilled jobs has risen.
The article speculates that the reason for this change is the development in information technology.
“Computers do not directly compete with the abstract, analytical tasks that many high-skilled workers do, but aid their productivity by speeding up the more routine bits of their jobs. But they do directly affect the need for people like assembly-line workers or those doing certain clerical tasks, whose jobs can be reduced to a set of instructions which a machine can easily follow (and which can consequently be mechanised). At the other end of the employment spectrum … low-skilled jobs may not require much education but they are very hard to mechanise.”
Secretaries, bank tellers and payroll clerk numbers decline as a result. Demand for the most highly educated has risen, as has (generally) the demand for low-skilled workers. The article does not explain the latter but this is presumably because a growing wealthy professional class will always require someone to make their caffe lattes and do the cleaning.
This ties in with news on Legal Futures (see link) that the number of solicitors on the roll has risen to 150,000. This represents nearly a 50% increase in the past decade.
Not long ago it was announced that the number of paralegals in England has increased from 24,509 in 2001 to 51,250 – a rise of 109% (see link).
What does the growth in computerisation mean for the legal profession? On the one hand it might suggest that there will be a relentless increase in the number of skilled lawyers as society continues to polarise between high skilled and low skilled jobs.
I suspect the truth will be something rather different.
Much legal work already consists of little more than “cut and paste” tasks. Many RTA firms are already sausage factories with large numbers of unqualified or semi-qualified staff working under the supervision of a handful of qualified solicitors. The new “portal” led RTA claims process already begins to suggest future developments. The Jackson Report (that we must all learn to live with) recommends the development of software that will calculate the value of personal injury claims.
Now we have the news that AA and Saga have entered into agreements with law firm Cogent Law and technology developers Epoq to provide a near-complete suite of consumer services (see link). “The agreements are also the first time a full range of legal services will be delivered directly by solicitors through the brand portal. Customers will be able to go to either of the organisations’ websites, select the service required, go through an online interview and answer a set of questions. The system will generate the relevant document which will be reviewed by the Cogent team”.
The Law Society Gazette’s Business Blog has also been exploring this issue (see link).
The legal profession may continue to expand but it is likely to do so with growing polarisation within it. There will always be the need for “City lawyers” with specialist skills and a small number of those supervising the others. At the other end there is likely to be an ever growing number of junior, poorly paid legal staff. The traditional “middle class” of the legal profession will largely disappear.