A few days back, I was reading about the Industrial Revolution in Europe when I came across the story of ‘knocker-uppers’. It was a profession in Britain and Ireland that started during the Industrial Revolution. This was prevalent even in the 1920s when alarm clocks were priced exorbitantly and were not reliable. A knocker-upper’s job was to rouse sleeping people so they could get to work on time.
They would wake up their clients by tapping on their bedroom windows. On the street outside, walking to the next customer’s house would be a figure wielding a long stick.
Fascinating, isn’t it?
The “knocker-upper” was a common sight in Britain, particularly in the northern mill towns, where people worked shifts, or in London where dockers kept unusual hours, ruled as they were by the inconstant tides.
The knocker-uppers used to be paid decently well, since they were more reliable than the clocks of that time and undertook the task of waking people up for their jobs, which was considered as a really strenuous job with a lot of importance attached. After all, it was because of them that people were able to reach their workplaces on time and earn their livelihood.
However, by the 1950s, the clock technology improved and was more accessible to the European middle-class. The profession of knocker-uppers, therefore, saw its nadir and all of them lost their jobs. All at once. So much so, that, most of us haven’t even heard of the existence of a profession like this.
One of the most in vogue job became redundant in a jiffy. It is believed that it still did continue in some pockets of industrial England until the early 1970s, particularly in the industrial areas around Manchester and the last knocker-upper retired from the job in 1973 in Bolton.
This may remind you of the plight of typists. Once considered a well-remunerated high skill job, typists vanished as computers became ubiquitous. There used to be typing schools in every neighborhood, which had to shut down too. You may still find a handful of typists sitting outside courts typing out legal documents, but it is only because they have no other skills and they are incredibly cheap. They are a testimony to the falling from grace of the profession of typists.
So what do we really learn from this story?
Technology has been impacting employment, businesses, and professions like never before. Today it may seem like a very recent issue, causing much hue and cry, but it has been always around. Even a century back, it claimed victims.
Automation, digital platforms, and other innovations are changing the fundamental nature of work. Many activities that workers carry out today have the potential to be automated. While it is a positive change, given the promising future of the digital economy, the disruption in the employment market is an opportunity as well as a challenge.
The question for each one of us to answer is simple. Do we really have the kind of skills that aren’t replaceable with the next wave of technology? As artificial intelligence, automation, and digital solutions alter the nature of work, will you still be in demand? What are the skills that you should be investing in, in order to stay ahead of the curve?
Are you spending time learning to do things that can’t be done by every average lawyer?
Are you learning skills for which you can charge a premium? If you focus merely on doing the minimum, doing what everyone else does, not investing in learning the skills of the future, are you doing justice to your career? You may be able to survive for a decade doing what lawyers used to do twenty years back, but are you at risk for failing to upgrade yourself?
Can junior lawyer charging less, or a machine or automated software replace what you do, or do it with better efficiency and in less time?
Let me give you two examples. Today law firms have invested in software that make due diligence a lot easier. What used to be done by 4 junior lawyers, can now be done by 1 using artificial intelligence software. Hence, junior lawyers who want to work in a law firm, need to have skills to do a higher level of work to get a job in a law firm. The grunt work that was relied on for their training is fast disappearing.
Another example is that of access to information. There was a time when a lawyer had a huge advantage over his clients because legal information was not accessible by common people. Information asymmetry alone made the lawyer’s service valuable. The lawyer spent capital on obtaining AIR and SCC volumes, or other reports, which were very expensive. Clients could not afford the same and hence had to rely on the lawyer blindly. Even a notification would only be available to certain lawyers, and clients would have to flock to that lawyer.
Today, case law, statutes of all kinds, notifications and even commentaries on law are available online, for free. Clients do their own research before approaching a lawyer. The lawyer, therefore, cannot rely on information asymmetry any more, to satisfy a client. They need to add real value in other ways. Clients no more pay for a mere meeting to hear some legal gyan, because they can look it up on their own.
Can you imagine how much this has changed the dynamic between lawyers and clients in the last 10 years? Lawyers who are used to how things were in the past find it hard to adjust to this new reality, and in fact, continue to give outdated advice to junior lawyers.
If you’re a lawyer, no matter how busy you are, stop giving excuses to yourself that you do not have time to learn new skills. It is fast becoming a question of survival. New industries are coming up with lucrative opportunities. New forums are being set up do deal with new challenges. Can you afford to give all that a miss?
What are the specialized skills that you can develop that could double your income in the next 12 months? I bet there would be something. Only if you stop and take time to look around!
We at LawSikho prepare lawyers and professionals to deal with the legal challenges of the future. The people we train would never face the fate of the knocker-uppers, or the lawyers whose only leverage was that clients did not have access to case law databases or Google.
If you want to learn practical legal skills that will help you to develop a future proof career, here are a few of our courses that have an approaching deadline
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