Fair Work Australia has just ruled https://www.afr.com/companies/professional-services/the-40-hour-week-fair-work-rules-hit-law-firms-20200226-p544ol that law clerks must be paid overtime when they are working above full time. Some commentators have decried the end of a rite of passage and induction into a particular culture. Others have wondered if this will impact upon law graduate’s job opportunities. And others have celebrated the end to overwork and underpay. 

Here’s my view: 100 hour a week jobs produce dumb work and are destined to disappear.  

The legal profession is (mostly) filled with intelligent and driven practitioners. The majority of high achieving school students go to study law or a another profession (to which my comments also apply). As lawyers, we pride ourselves on being smart and being able to solve problems that other cannot.  

The problem is a human cannot do 100 hours of highly intelligent work each week. Indeed, humans can rarely do 40 hours of highly intelligent work. The studies https://hbr.org/2018/12/the-case-for-the-6-hour-workday are various and dependent on person, activity, environment, etc, but a reasonable goal to aim for is 3-5 hours of intelligent work per day on average. (Yes, there can always be bursts and fluctuations, which is why I am looking at consistent, repeatable workloads)

Intelligent work can encompass things like problem-solving, creativity, lateral thinking, empathy, advocacy, judgement. The very things that lawyers market themselves as being able to bring value

So someone who is working 40, 60, 80, or 100 hours of week is doing 20, 40, 60, or 80 hours of dumb work

Yes, responding to emails with updates of matters is dumb work. Sitting in hour-long meetings is dumb work. Reading through hundreds of pages of documents is dumb work. Making pedantic changes to contracts is dumb work. There is a lot of dumb work in law. 

Lawyers charge high hourly rates on the basis that they are doing highly intelligent and valuable work and that they are therefore worth that amount. And they definitely are – when they are doing that work (indeed maybe undervalued). But someone who is billing 8 hours a day is probably overvaluing at least half of that time. 

Maybe this is just how the market works? An equilibrium of intelligent work (possibly undercharged for) and dumb work (definitely overcharged for). But the problem is that there is something that is way better at dumb work than humans: AI. 

As much as a human might be able to push themselves to work 60 or 80 or 100 hours a week, an AI can work 100 hours, 1,000 hours, or 100,000 hours a week with a mere upgrade of server capacity. There is no overtime wages, missed family life, or burn-out. There is no loss of focus from tiredness. An AI can do as much dumb work as there is to do.

I know this because I build AI to do dumb legal work. And yes, I am sure that many lawyers are thinking that “that applies to everyone else’s dumb work, but not mine.” Well, let me tell you that that is what everyone else is thinking about your work, and all of you are half-right

This means that most of the work done in a 100 hour week can and will be done by an AI faster, better, and cheaper than a human.

What I cannot do is build AI to do highly intelligent legal work. And I do not think that AI will ever be able to do that highly intelligent work. This work will always be done best by humans, in their 20 hours of clever weekly time. 

Maybe the billing target should be 4 hours a day?