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The Social Decline of Lawyers?

I previously posted about the rise of computation and its implications for legal practice, as machines replace some of the functions of lawyers. I recently wrote an essay that focused more on the displacement’s implication for the status of lawyers in politics and in society. As De Tocqueville saw almost two hundred years ago, lawyers were the aristocrats of America’s democratic society. The rule of law, not men, made them paradoxically the key men in the early Republic. But their position is now threatened by the rise of engineers and tech entrepreneurs.

This development may have good effects for society. As I observed:

In the twentieth century, lawyers continued to wield power, but the direction of their influence in economic affairs changed. Since the birth of the modern regulatory state and social democracy, lawyers have had incentives to increase and revise legislative mandates; they became the technocrats of regulation and redistribution. The more a nation intervenes in the free market, the more in compliance costs and transfer payments that lawyers can expect to receive. As a result, lawyers don’t tend to be strong proponents of economic liberty or even of a stable rule of law. Their interest frequently lies in legal complexity and the uncertainty it brings.

The decline of lawyers may therefore prove a boon to the rule of law and to market norms. Computational innovators benefit from capitalism’s process of creative destruction; their new applications transform industry after industry. Their success lies with a stable rule of law and relatively light regulation. True, once successful, innovators become incumbents and may seek to use government to hamstring new entrants. But the dynamism of technological acceleration will make it difficult even for big government to hold back waves of new “disruptions.”

In any event, I think we are seeing a change in the social power of various groups in modernity brought on by the relentless rise in computational power:

Edmund Burke famously mourned the replacement of the Age of Chivalry by “that of sophisters, calculators, and economists.” For Burke, the first category would probably include many of today’s lawyers. So long as there is law, however, we will need lawyers to offer interpretations of difficult texts and to smooth legal difficulties in the most important transactions. And so long as we have our Constitution, lawyers will have an essential role in the nation’s governance. Nonetheless, in the Age of Computation, the calculators are gaining on the lawyers—at work and in politics.

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