In 1786, the cloth workers of Leeds, the textile centre of England, issued a protest against the growing use of “scribbling” machines, which were taking over a task formerly performed by skilled labour. “How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families?” asked the petitioners. “And what are they to put their children apprentice to?”
When disruption comes, and make no mistake, it is going to come, some of the victims of disruption will be people who are currently considered highly skilled, and who invested a lot of time and money in acquiring those skills. In the legal world, we are going to be seeing a lot of “automation of knowledge work,” with software and Artificial Intelligence doing things that used to require skills only a university graduate possessed.
So, when change comes, should people in the legal profession simply be prepared to acquire new skills? The wool workers of 18th-century Leeds addressed this issue back in 1786: “Who will maintain our families, while we undertake the arduous task of learning a new trade?” They also asked, what will happen if the new trade, in turn, gets devalued by further technological advance?
And the modern counterparts of those wool workers might well ask further "what will happen to us if?" Like so many students, we acquire the skills we are told we need, only to learn that the economy no longer wants those skills?
So, what’s the answer? To predict the future, we have only to look at the past, and we can simply look at history. We can’t pretend that change isn’t going to happen, so we can’t carry on making well-crafted arguments for maintaining the status quo because no one person can delay the inevitable.
The big question is, are we going to behave like the Luddites?