Was out for drinks last night with a pair of my former Biglaw colleagues. Talk turned to junior lawyer work. One of my companions started as a corporate associate at a large law firm in the early 1990s, the other as a corporate associate at a different large law firm in the early 2000s. And I started as a corporate associate at a large law firm in the mid 2000s. Each of us had memorable low end junior lawyer experiences: for my most senior colleague, these included making sure documents physically got sent out to distribution lists by courier because they could not be emailed, for the less senior colleague, these included putting drafts done in Word Perfect on a disk and bringing them to the floor’s computer with PDFing capabilities so that they could be sent to clients who used Word on their systems. Our more senior colleague had stories about her bosses having done their own manual blacklines when they were more junior, and lawyers not trusting early blacklining software.
The takeaway from all this is that technological change has affected junior lawyer work many times before, and law firms have continued to hire vast numbers of junior lawyers (even if the number hired has fluctuated over time). Maybe this time is different. Today’s more advanced technology can do increasingly valuable and complex work, making many white collar jobs obsolete. But I think worries that junior lawyers will be put out of work by technology that does their work more efficiently are wrong. There will continue to be lots of work for junior lawyers in Biglaw as long as there is work in Biglaw. What could change for junior lawyers is what work they do—ideally new technology (and in- and outsourcing) will have junior lawyers spending a greater proportion of their time on more interesting tasks.