“Average is Over” and The Future of Lawyers

I’ve just finished reading, and rather enjoyed, Tyler Cowen’s latest book: Average is Over. At a macro level, it is a claim about the dramatic changes we can expect in the economy and our society over the next century. But it has a lot of strange side discussions I wasn’t really expecting. I still can’t figure out if it is utopian or dystopian.

In any event, much of the book is sort of about “how to get a good job” and “what kids today should be doing” and I thought readers would be interested in what Cowen had to say about legal education and the legal job market.

First there was this:

So a young person gets a good education and is deciding what to do with it. Why are so many of these people going into finance, law, and consulting?

There is a common impression — by no means illusory — that smart young people from top schools can walk into high-paying jobs in these areas with relative ease, even if they don’t have much or indeed any real-world experience. They start at salaries above the US median household income, and very quickly many of them are earning above six figures. . . . Beneath all the chatter is a sense that these salaries are possibly unmerited or unjust, because, to repeat an expression I used to hear from my father (he was a businessman of the old school): “I wouldn’t trust him in charge of a candy store.” If you took a few of these same young workers out of the consulting firm and put them on a factory floor, they probably would be lost. They do seem to be an impractical bunch. . . .

These freshly minted students will seek out jobs that rewards a high “g factor,” or high general intelligence. That means finance, law, and consulting. The students are productive fairly quickly, they make good contacts with other smart people, and they can demonstrate that they are smart, for future employment prospects. Working to exercise and demonstrate their general intelligence is in fact the main thing they are good for, and moving beyond this can take quite a few years. . . .

We tend to glamorize these well-paying jobs. If we can set aside the glamour and perhaps our envy, we might notice that our society does not know what else to do with these people, who are otherwise not always very productive. Fortunately (for them), they really are needed. The more the rest of the world specializes in production, the more that general intelligence can produce some value.

And later this prediction about a growth in data on lawyer performance:

Potential customers can ask their smart phones where a lawyer went to school, what her class rank was, and what kinds of promotions she has received. That information will be accompanied by an asterisk: “This information explains only 27 percent of lawyer performance.”

The better lawyers will open up their courtroom performances, their win-loss records, their contract analyses, and their written briefs to computer analyses for more accurate evaluations of professional quality. Siri will tell you: “This lawyer’s written briefs are in the top eighty-first percentile of his peer group; that explains thirty-eight percent of performance on a corporate deal.”

Many of the lesser lawyers will decline to be rated by a computer-human team at all, for fear of getting a bad rap and also because producing the rating will involve some cost. That will hurt their business prospects, especially with wealthier and better educated customers. . . .

It’s going to be a very different world when consumers feel so much on top, and in some ways it will be more dangerous because consumers do not always know what they are doing. . . . Once professionals are rated, their customers and clients might scorn them more often and be less likely to heed their advice. A client may wish to plead “not guilty” when an experienced lawyer recommends the guilty plea instead, or recommends a settlement out of court. The client will bark back to the lawyer, “Look, you’re not even in the top third of lawyers in Denver!” It will be harder for doctors and lawyers to “nudge” us and control us, because we will become more used to evaluating them, standing above them, and applying the programs to them in a manner that will make them feel small and will make many of us feel more powerful.