Mike Lynch, the founder of Autonomy, is convinced that “legal is a sector that will likely employ fewer, not more, people in the U.S. in the future.” He estimated that the shift from manual document discovery to e-discovery would lead to a manpower reduction in which one lawyer would suffice for work that once required 500 and that the newest generation of software, which can detect duplicates and find clusters of important documents on a particular topic, could cut the head count by another 50 percent.

With the improvement of computer’s ability to understand, the once common practice of hiring armies of attorneys to sift through discovery documents will be rendered obsolete. Advancements in computer’s linguistic and sociological capabilities means smaller firms can handle more complex cases, which in turn means fewer attorneys are needed.

But is this a bad thing? There are fewer job openings and more attorneys than ever before, but is it really necessary to pay a legal professional $400/hour to process data. One would hope this would open up an attorney to do more complex, necessary work than mere document review. When one attorney can do the work of 500, the other 499 can work on more pressing issues like writing motions, researching precedent, and arguing their cases. Hey, maybe they can even spend some more time on the indigent and underrepresented.

Or maybe there will just be more unemployed, over-educated people with stagnating student loans. As Paul Krugman recently opined:

Most of the manual labor still being done in our economy seems to be of the kind that’s hard to automate. Notably, with production workers in manufacturing down to about 6 percent of U.S. employment, there aren’t many assembly-line jobs left to lose. Meanwhile, quite a lot of white-collar work currently carried out by well-educated, relatively well-paid workers may soon be computerized. Roombas are cute, but robot janitors are a long way off; computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis are already here.

Via the NY Times.