Huge thanks to the University of Chicago Law School Federalist Society Student Chapter on Tuesday, who invited me to speak to their group on February 3, 2015. I previously spoke at the Booth School of Business, which was also a thrill. I am most grateful for the opportunity to speak at the University of Chicago, my undergraduate alma mater.
The event was well-attended. I attribute this in part to the drawing power of the free buffet of Indian food, and not exclusively to the appeal of the speaker. The students were attentive and asked good questions. I understand that audio of the talk will be available at some point. I will post a link when it is available.
My topic was “America 3.0 and the Future of the Legal Profession”.
First I spoke about some of the themes from America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century, Why America’s Greatest Days are Yet to Come, which I coauthored with James C. Bennett. I discussed the cultural foundations of American prosperity and freedom, the role of our legal profession in American history, in particular in adapting to technological changes, I then discussed some of the major technological changes which are now sweeping our nation and the world. I said that some of them will be general purpose technologies which will cause changes on the scale of the steam engine, railroads or computing itself.
These changes are going to present hazards and opportunities for lawyers. Whole fields of law practice will disappear. There won’t be car accident cases, or auto insurance, as we know them when driverless cars are ubiquitous, for example. On the other hand, whole new areas will appear related to emerging technologies. Lawyers who manage to associate themselves with the new businesses as they are beginning to take off can become major players and even empire builders. I mentioned Abraham Lincoln, who built his practice representing (and sometimes suing) railroads, the new technology of his day. I mentioned the Cravath firm, and how its founders were early players in corporate transactions and litigation when corporate America as we know it was just starting.
The great modern law firm is the inevitable counterpart of business and banking on a national and an international scale. … Their job was difficult, creative and exciting. They were architects of new forms, and new empires.
Much “difficult, creative and exciting” legal work will be coming along in the years ahead. What will be the “inevitable counterparts” to the transformed economy which is forming before our eyes? The “great modern law firm” which began a century ago and is still with us, will continue to evolve, and perhaps transform out of recognition. But there will be many opportunities to create “new forms, and new empires”.
I told the law students that they are very lucky to be beginning their careers at this moment in history.
Some of them will be empire builders.
I hope at some point to turn this presentation into an article or short book.
One article I have found which is outstanding on this topic is IP in a World Without Scarcity, by Mark A. Lemley. Prof. Lemley talks about 3D printing, synthetic biology and robotics, and the shortcomings of the existing intellectual property regime to deal with the huge changes which are coming.
The abstract of Prof. Lemley’s article concludes:
A world without scarcity requires a major rethinking of economics, much as the decline of the agrarian economy did in the 19th century. How will our economy function in a world in which most of the things we produce are cheap or free? We have lived with scarcity for so long that it is hard even to begin to think about the transition to a post-scarcity economy. IP has allowed us to cling to scarcity as an organizing principle in a world that no longer demands it. But it will no more prevent the transition than agricultural price supports kept us all farmers. We need a post-scarcity economics, one that accepts rather than resists the new opportunities technology will offer us. Developing that economics is the great task of the 21st century.
Do, please, read the whole thing.
I would quibble that “economics” as a field of study need not change. Economics has been defined as The study of the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends. That won’t change in any categorical way. The intellectual tools of economics are a sort of intellectual general purpose technology. There will necessarily and always still be all kinds of scarcity, such as time, space, knowledge, talents, as well as positional goods — the best seats at the theatre must be scarce, only one person gets to date the prom queen, only one person can do something first, etc. The real-world problems to be solved will nonetheless be very different, in many cases, from the ones we are used to. It will be an exciting time for the economics profession, certainly.
But more importantly, we will need a post-scarcity political and legal regime, “that accepts rather than resists the new opportunities technology will offer us.” This will require political reform on a massive scale. Society is going to be up-ended to a degree few people yet realize. And this will happen faster than most people currently imagine. And lawyers will, inevitably, necessarily be in the thick of these changes. It will be an exciting next few decades for our profession as well.