Law students today are graduating into one of the most difficult economies in recent history. Since the recession began in 2008, the number of available junior associate positions at law firms has shriveled up, resulting in cutthroat competition for those remaining jobs. Each year, there are simply more law graduates than there are available positions. Consequently, when reports suggesting an uptick in legal industry hiring are released, there is cause to rejoice.

However, the advent of technology that performs “doc review”–the review of documents during discovery and/or stock offerings, among others, for which junior associates have traditionally been invaluable–is rendering the existence of these coveted jobs to some degree obsolete. Indeed, e-discovery software like Blackstone Discovery are now able to analyze documents in a fraction of the time and cost. Not only are many of these programs capable of identifying all documents containing specific language, but they are also able to engage in human-like reasoning. For example, the programs can provide lawyers seeking to identify all documents pertaining to dogs with those that mention “man’s best friend,” “walks,” and “playing catch.” Similarly, in white collar crime cases, the programs can identify “call me” moments in which alleged criminals switch to an alternate media form to communicate, thereby hiding their activities. Because the programs–which unlike humans, do not call in sick or get bored–are more efficient and increasingly more accurate, the likelihood that firms will employ them as part of their new austerity measures in this economy is great. Consequently, law students must consider the impact these programs will potentially have on the number of available jobs.

Prospective students are already trending away from attending law school because of the shrinking number of jobs and the insurmountable levels of debt often involved. Indeed, the Law School Admission Council has for the second straight year reported a sharp drop in the number of LSAT examinations administered. Law school is no longer a “safe” way to ride out a subpar economic climate. Should these computer programs increase in popularity, they will help to confirm this sentiment, as the number of available junior associate positions in firms will likely shrink further.

Therefore, law students hoping to break into the private legal sector must begin to invent new ways to become invaluable to firm partnerships. Otherwise, firms will no longer have need for the hundreds of junior associates they once did.

- Swathi Padmanabhan

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3 Responses to E-Discovery Software a Threat to Junior Associate Aspirations

  1. Andrea Verney says:

    This post highlights some relevant and important concerns for young lawyers. However, I’d like to mention two optimistic (or at least opportunistic) points. First, from the clients’ perspective, this new technology may be a much-needed boon. The complexity and sheer volume of discovery, particularly in commercial cases, increase the risk that important information to a client’s case will not be discovered. The enormous quantity and complexity of modern discovery also creates unbelievable cost and time pressure on clients and lawyers alike. Technology that can more efficiently and effectively review the discovery documents is therefore a highly valuable tool to helping law firms meet clients’ needs.

    In addition, young lawyers can find new ways of adding value in today’s climate (and perhaps do less monotonous work!). Paul mentions that young lawyers who can be entrepreneurial can better distinguish themselves. In addition, young lawyers who take time to understand the cutting edge of today’s data-analyzing technology may similarly benefit; if a new associate can use firm technology to review and interpret documents, and then find new and creative ways of demonstrating important facts for trial, advancements in litigation-based technology can actually provide an opportunity for young lawyers to become valuable experts in an increasingly important legal skill set.

    Bottom line — this may end up being a win-win (a result thought unthinkable in the litigation context).

    • Carolina Blanco says:

      I completely agree. This new technology definitely seems like a win-win. Although young lawyers are the ones performing document review, that is not their only function within a law firm and hopefully, not their only source of value (if it is, we have a much larger problem on our hands). Perhaps young lawyers can now spend less time performing mundane doc review and more time actually practicing law. I think this technology will prove to be extremely helpful to clients and young lawyers alike.

  2. Paul says:

    I believe one of your last sentences to be particularly valuable and so true–”Therefore, law students hoping to break into the private legal sector must begin to invent new ways to become invaluable to firm partnerships.”

    However, given the scarcity of firm jobs due to decreased demand and technology like you mention in your post, getting that initial job at the firm is getting harder and harder. Indeed, some highly qualified students will never have the opportunity to “become invaluable to firm partnerships.”

    That’s why, in my opinion, law schools need to do a better job of teaching entrepreneurism to law students. For example, Professor Schoenblum tells the story of several recent graduates that formed a company that contracts out with employers to provide living will for employees [thus, lowering the employer's insurance costs]. Other recent Vandy law graduates formed a “Playoff PAC” to argue for changes to the way college football awards its championship.