Of Lawyers and Hygienists

Two speakers at #LegalTech Toronto used a lawyers-and-dentists analogy to show that lawyers don’t have to do everything.  It’s not a very good comparison.  Essentially the line goes like this:  when was the last time your dentist did your teeth cleaning?  On it’s face it seems like an easy way to describe division of labor.

It made me wonder whether this division of labor had impacted either dentist jobs or dental hygienists.  After looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates from 2005 to 2014, I don’t think it has.  While dental hygienists are regulated to work under a dentist’s supervision in most cases, they are their own licensed and regulated trade.   They have their own qualifications and obligations and, while that may enable a dentist to shift some work to the hygienist, the hygienist is in many ways already a standalone role.

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment expectations for dentists and dental hygienists
Bureau of Labor Statistics employment expectations for dentists and dental hygienists

Law practice strikes me as different.  Lawyers are, for the most part, responsible for the end product but can rely on others to do the interim legwork.  Law clerks and paralegals can handle a wide variety of work, from litigation support to research to writing briefs and other documents.  While there are some jurisdictions where paralegals are licensed (Washington and Ontario) for a limited practice scope, similar to hygienists, paralegals would otherwise voluntarily gain certification.

Unlike the relationship between dentist and dental hygienist jobs, there are vastly more lawyers in the US than paralegals.

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment expectations for lawyers and paralegals

There doesn’t seem any short-term possibility that those proportions will flip so that, like in dentistry, the supervised positions are double the supervisory positions.  [The ABA lists 2x as many lawyers and the numbers for paralegals may be just as soft, so using the BLS data may just be a foolish consistency on my part.]

The discussion centering on lawyers, however, often involves shifting work not to other people who have their own certifications or licenses.  Instead, it often focuses on the technologies and systems that can be used to automate those activities.  I suppose some of those roles are things that would be routine even for someone who bills less than a lawyer (paralegal, legal assistant, law clerk).  Perhaps the oversight of those systems will fall on those intermediate staff, supervised by the lawyer.  One might expect a significant growth in the paralegal field (and a diminishing of the number of lawyers?) if that’s the case.  However, the disparity between the number of lawyers and paralegals may reflect the number of lawyers who work without legally-trained support, the large mass of solo lawyers.

Watson may be a remarkable computer with a role to play in supporting the practice of law, but a dental hygienist, through licensing and activities, isn’t merely picking up the dentist’s unbillable slack.  If lawyers are doing work that they can’t effectively get paid for and that can be done by someone unlicensed to practice law, or a technology, it may be more useful to find other professions similarly situated and see how they have accomplished it.

** I couldn’t resist looking at librarians as well, since there is often a division of labor with library technicians, and similar voluntary certifications contrasted with voluntary graduate degrees for librarians.  Unfortunately, where I hoped to see a rise in technicians to offset an anticipated drop in librarians, it seems both careers are in a slide.

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment expectations for librarians and library technicians
Even where there may be a cost-saving in shifting work – or jobs – from librarians to library technicians, it looks as though funding cuts and other external impacts (and no, I don’t mean the Internet) may be pushing down the opportunities to even make that shift.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.