Personal Plight Legal Practice and Tomorrow’s Lawyers

“Will I find a job as a lawyer, and will it be the kind of job I really want?” Most law teachers have heard these or similar questions from their students. Anxiety about career prospects is neither surprising nor entirely new. However recent media reports and buzz within the profession have given tomorrow’s lawyers two additional things to worry about: offshoring and computerization.

Offshoring means clients and firms replacing high-wage lawyers in wealthy countries (such as Canada) with lower-cost labour in the developing countries (such as India). Computerization means replacing lawyers with information technology. According to commentators such as Richard Susskind and Benjamin Barton, these two phenomena will steadily erode demand for lawyers in wealthy countries like Canada. Declining Bay Street recruitment and the rise of highly automated legal service providers such as LegalZoom and RocketLawyer may seem like the thin edge of a wedge, which will eventually capsize the market for Canadian lawyers.

Offshoring and computerization are undeniable phenomena. However in a forthcoming article, I seek to add some nuance to the grim prognostications that they have inspired. Specifically, I argue that personal plight legal practice will enjoy some shelter from these developments in the medium-term future, and will therefore be a durable source of good career prospects for new lawyers in countries like Canada. Personal plight lawyers help individuals who are involved in legal disputes with other individuals, with corporations, or with the state. Family law, plaintiff-side personal injury law, and criminal defense are the largest practice areas in a category which includes many other niches as well.

Personal plight is distinguished from both (i) legal work for corporate clients, and (ii) “personal business” work involving uncontested transactional or planning work undertaken for individuals (e.g. will drafting or residential property transfers). I describe personal plight legal practice as “sheltered” because, compared to othe legal work, it involves a relatively high proportion of tasks that offshore lawyers and computers will have great difficulty performing in the foreseeable future.

The Local Human Touch

Compared to corporate sector work and uncontested “personal business” work, personal plight legal practice typically involves a relatively low proportion of document review, drafting, and legal research. Conversely it involves a relatively high proportion of client counseling, advocacy, and negotiating. This is good news for the lawyers who do this work because the latter set of tasks tends to require a local human touch.

Personal plight clients are usually legally inexperienced “one-shotters,” who have only occasional recourse to the law. Lawyers with inexperienced clients must translate between the law and the lived reality of their clients. This, again, is something that is likely to require a local human professional for the foreseeable future.

Resistance to Decomposition

Secondly, offshoring and computerization usually depend on the decomposition of legal matters. Computers and developing-country lawyers are not yet capable of entirely replicating the work of a firm or in-house legal department in North America or Europe; rather, they succeed by cost-effectively performing certain tasks within a file, overseen by a senior lawyer or team in the wealthy jurisdiction.

However it is much more difficult to economically decompose personal plight legal files into their constituent tasks. The clients cannot usually perform this subdivision themselves due to their legal inexperience. Also, personal plight files are usually relatively small compared to corporate hemisphere files. Fixed costs are involved in the process of decomposing and outsourcing the components of a file. These fixed costs are harder to absorb if the file is (for example) a criminal case with 20 documents as opposed to a corporate merger with 2000 documents.

Opening Doors to Personal Plight Practice

Based on these and other arguments, my article concludes that personal plight legal work will be relatively sheltered from the off-shoring and computerization threats to Canadian lawyers. It concludes by showing how law schools and the profession generally can open doors between tomorrow’s lawyers and personal plight legal practice.

Responding to law student career anxieties is not simple. However it may be worthwhile to mention to students that personal plight legal practice – including but not limited to family law, personal injury law and criminal law – is a field to consider seriously for durable career prospects.

Noel Semple is Assistant Professor at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law and 2014-15 OBA Chief Justice of Ontario Fellow in Legal Ethics and Professionalism Research.

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