Professions and Technology: History and Transformation

I gave a presentation at a roundtable organised by the Royal Society on professions and machine learning recently. This is the text:

Professions and Technology: History and Transformation
One way of characterising professions is as vehicles that convey expertise to consumers who are unable to generate that expertise themselves. To this basic formulation we add professions are usually self-regulating for which entitlement they form compacts with the state to prevent exploitation of consumers because of asymmetrical relationships, all of which results in a social licence to operate. Over the years, to follow Sciulli, professions have functioned within structured situations as opposed to fluid sites. For lawyers, this is the court; for doctors it is the hospital. These institutions granted the professions status, autonomy, and the right to determine the socio-cultural conditions of reproduction. Having gained independent authority in civil society, these professions have been able to monopolise resources and create closure. States sanctioned moves towards professionalism thereby entrenching it in society. In this paper I focus on law with medicine as my comparator.

The history of law and medicine shows how the professions have altered in structure and institutions. Despite their central importance, law and medicine were small-scale enterprises, almost guild-like. Relationships were based on collegiality and patronage. The professional was a single person delivering services and different components within occupations competed with each other to dominate their fields of practice (e.g. solicitors v barristers; doctors v chiropractors). The French Revolution brought physicians to the fore as the treatment of the body was separated from that of the soul and the modern hospital was born. Industrialisation hastened hospitals’ development and consolidated their place as sites of treatment and research.

Within law the archetypal lawyer was the sole practitioner whether barrister or solicitor. But the division of work practices between the two, augmented by status concerns, created different constellations of practice. Barristers focused on the court, which also represented potential judicial career progressions for them. Rules such as the cab rank rule helped impose a commitment to sole practice and deterred the formation of firms and partnerships. Most barristers were located in London, close to the courts. Solicitors, while technically officers of the court, applied their skills and talents elsewhere, and they became agents for barristers. They were men of capital and located throughout the country. According to Sugarman, solicitors were the conduits for capital flowing around the country. They drafted contracts and agreements, and transferred property titles. And as London became the financial capital of the world, the law firm grew as the key legal institution to serve capital both nationally and internationally. Freshfields, one of the big City law firms, formed its main relationship with the emerging Bank of England in the 18th century, a relationship that endures today.

Both institutions—hospitals and law firms—have grown massively through the 20th and 21st centuries. And while both have the missions of health and justice, they have been driven by commercial concerns, which raises questions about their commitment to the public good or interest. This leads me to a crucial point in this discussion, that the ethos of business is now endemic in professions and professionalism. The ABA, for example, in 1986 attempted to restore ‘principle’ over ‘profit’ with little success. Similarly, hospitals are driven by commercial concerns whether in for profit areas or social medicine. Hanlon argues that we should talk of ‘commercialised professionalism’ emphasising technique, managerialism, and entrepreneurialism. If we look at how law firms are evaluated today one of the more common measures is ‘profits per equity partner’ based on billable hours. Lobby groups like CityUK applaud the £23 billion contribution to GDP made by legal services and the Lord Chancellor entreats foreigners to litigate in the English Commercial Court.

The value system of professionalism has shifted and changed over the course of the last 200 hundred years. The distinction between professions and expert occupations is harder to justify and the ideal of the autonomous professional has transformed into an expert with degrees of discretion. It is even reflected in the way regulation has moved away from self-regulation towards more external regulation—evident in both legal services and health care. These changes refer to internal and institutional factors like the rise of global law firms and managed health care companies. The consolidation of power and authority in fewer hands has had to be balanced by stricter regulation.

The transformations beginning to flow into health and law now are separate, but related, to the changes outlined above. Technology is increasingly penetrating the world of professionals and redefining their work. Their business models (and so their ideas of professionalism) are slowly and painfully adapting. The first autonomous surgical robot tied perfect sutures in a pig and IBM Watson Oncology is assisting in cancer diagnosis and treatment. However, the hospital is a site of research as well as treatment. Law firms are not engaged in research and development although they may innovate occasionally. This difference means law has less ability in its traditional form to manage the incursion of technology, which will probably reach a crisis point in the near future.

The big law firm has relied on employing large numbers of associates and paralegals to administer complex litigation, for example. Discovery of documents means examining thousands, if not millions, of documents to exclude those ineligible for disclosure. E-discovery done by legal process outsourcers in India using sophisticated algorithms is accurate, faster, and much cheaper than humans. This is standard fare and generally affects junior members of firms—neo-professionals and paraprofessionals. What is potentially more interesting is where professions are being exposed to and made subject to the environment of competition. In Britain the Legal Services Act 2007 opened up the ownership of legal services providers to those outside law and so to new business models (ABS). Perhaps the biggest development is in the provision of online legal services that dispense with lawyers or minimise their involvement. For example, companies like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer provide legal documents online; Divorce-online sells automated divorce packages; and Radiant Law uses technology to analyse companies’ contracts in order to expedite contract formation over time. Modria is already automating online dispute resolution without the intervention of lawyers. The emergence of new legal ABS compromises the legal profession’s claims to expertise and closure. Yet the legal profession still exists, so perhaps these moves should be interpreted as boundary movements rather than fundamental change.

Are professions secure or is the possibility of radical mutation likely? Two developments in legal services convince me insecurity is reasonable. One is the advent of blockchain and related technologies, e.g. smart contracts and decentralised autonomous organisations (DAO). I won’t pursue this further now but to say the ramifications are profound. And the other is the introduction of artificial intelligence in law. Riverview’s Kim is a virtual assistant for inhouse counsel to improve decisionmaking through triage procedures. ROSS Intelligence is a legal research tool based on IBM Watson. Watson has been ‘fed’ data—legislation, cases, articles, etc—on bankruptcy law and it responds to natural language enquiries to produce tailored answers as relevant as possible. ROSS improves its predictive capacity the more it is interrogated. While it is designed to augment and supplement lawyers’ expertise, it is not difficult to imagine AI beginning to supplant lawyers. If we tie this to the DAO, for example, the potential for AI in law increases enormously.

For the legal profession, in existence for hundreds of years, new technologies will be disruptive innovations as modelled by Christensen. Already traditional partnerships are under strain and the Bar is shrinking the more legal work is unbundled. Does it mean the end of professionalism or its redefinition? The answer will emerge over time as technology and law collaborate or contest each other. And I haven’t discussed what this means for education: what will the new lawyer need to know?