Should I become a lawyer? Or are lawyers themselves becoming extinct?

The first question is one that I have been struggling with.  The second question is one that George Bellas asked me when I began working for him this past summer.

I first met George a few years ago at a “business” lunch with my father and my grandfather. I usually work with my family during the summers and these one to two hour lunches were common.  There was business discussed but not for that entire time.  At the end of this  particular meal, George paid.  I was astounded.  Usually during these types of lunches, we would pay.  When I brought this up, my father laughed.  He explained to me that our lunch would show up on an invoice down the line anyhow.[1]  And that’s how I was introduced to the beauty of billable hours.

During this lunch, the conversation drifted to my plans after I finished school.  For background, I am an Economics and Drama major at a small liberal arts school in Ohio.  I have a passion for my Drama major but an even higher passion for living comfortably.  I didn’t love Economics but it was nice having some background in useful skills.  However, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going into banking.  My father, a lawyer who has no clients, suggested law school to me so I told George that maybe law School was the next step.

Without missing a beat, George told me, “No – don’t go to law school no matter what you do.  Don’t become a lawyer whatever you do.  Run the other way!”  George explained to me that he believes lawyers are an endangered species.  According to George, in 25 years 99% of Lawyers would be irrelevant.  What will happen is that two people would submit documents to a computer, the computer will run the data and spit out an answer on the ruling.  I brushed this off because obviously this man with over 40 years of legal experience couldn’t possibly know what he’s talking about.

And so this summer came, and instead of working with my dad, I decided that if I was serious about law school then I need to work in a law office.  George graciously offered me a position filling in for his legal assistant during the month that she was gone.  On my first day, George gave me the same spiel.

“I’m going to convince you to not become a lawyer this summer” George explained. He also asked me why I wanted to become a lawyer, a question to which I didn’t have a good answer.

He then reminded me that the world of law is becoming extinct, computers will take over etc. This time I didn’t brush him off. Instead, I put both of my majors to use this summer in tackling George’s question to me and his claims about the profession of law.

Now, with less than two weeks before I return to school and about month until I take the LSAT, I have answers to both George’s claims and his question.

So, is the profession of Lawyer extinct?  Short answer: no.  Long answer: well, as it currently exists, yes.  Putting on my economist cap, I looked at the effect that technology has had on certain professions.  Take, for example, people who work in transportation.  Before the invention of the engine, those who worked in transportation rode horses.  Then the car was invented. What happened to those in transportation? They still worked in transportation but they drove cars instead of riding horses. I believe the same will prove to for the legal profession.

I had to learn a hard lesson about lawyers my first week, one that I knew deep down but never wanted to admit: Law is boring. For every “Objection!” yelled in court, there are hours and hours of reading, filing, re-filing and re-reading. I learned this because George had me do all that boring stuff.  And this is where I got to thinking about how the profession will change, and if it will go away.  While writing and re-writing briefs and motions and then filing and re-filing those same motions, I thought about how hard it must have been before electronic filing. You must have had to go to the court to file something, wait to hear if it was rejected, and once it was, re-write and go back to the court. That sounds awful and inefficient.

The same holds true for the research phase of a case. Before there were computers and legal search engines, you had to go to a library and spend hours looking for one document that could help. Now, from the comfort of your desk, you can type in the keywords you’re looking for and the computer will give you a whole bunch of documents that could be relevant. This system is not perfected, I’m not sure it’s really that available in the first place, but I can foresee it happening in the future. The car in function was the horse, just more efficient. And the people driving it remained the same.

So do I think the profession is going extinct? No. I think it is going to become better, honestly. You can accomplish so much more in such shorter periods of time. There will be less lawyers required, but, a person still has to tell the computers what to do. The computers won’t do all the work of lawyering themselves.  Down the line, there will be self-driving cars but for many years people won’t trust a self-driving car to drive them just as people won’t trust a computer to handle their private and legal matters.

This brings me to the next question: why do I want to become a lawyer?  People may start trusting self-driving cars but there is something human about being a lawyer. It requires one on one time taken to understand how and why someone did something. A computer can do the what but not the why. And it never will.

It is the same reason why I didn’t want to become a banker, why I approached law in the first place. I didn’t want to be a faceless cog making someone somewhere else richer. I want to do something that I can feel like I did. If that means a small claims case over $200 (in which the filing fees ended up being more than the claim being sued for itself), then so be it. I can rest easier knowing that I helped someone I know make $200 than someone I don’t know make $10,000.

This summer, the thing that I loved most was talking to potential clients. It is a classic paralegal task, but I reveled in receiving an email about calling a new potential client. Most of the time, they wanted someone to talk to, and I was that someone. I remember one specific incident, a person was concerned about losing their job. I assured them that I couldn’t do anything for them, just pass along their situation to one of the attorneys, but this person still thanked me for helping them.  They explained that just having me listen, hearing their side of the story, was help alone. And after that phone call, I felt like I actually did something that morning. Even when a motion I filed got approved, I felt good knowing I was the one who got it approved.

I have friends with very impressive internships this summer with brand names you would recognize, and yet their work will never see the light of day.  Even though these internships look great on paper, I couldn’t help but think that they really didn’t accomplish anything this summer.  And I feel like I did.

Granted, years down the line I will probably advise a bright eyed kid like myself to run away, but for now I’m going to give this lawyering thing a try.

~ Jacob Skolnik, Future Lawyer

[1] BTW – George did not bill for that meal.