Economist 3/20/15

  1. CONSULTING has its Big Three; accounting the Big Four; and executive search a Big Five. But there is no corresponding clutch of dominant law firms. None has amassed as much as 0.5% of an industry with global revenues of around $650 billion a year. The Big Four accounting networks (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC), whose combined annual revenues of $120 billion exceed the $89 billion generated by the 100 largest law firms combined.The accountants insist that they do not want to compete with law firms, and that legal services will remain a small chunk of their revenues in the medium term. So far, they have focused on mid-tier, process-oriented work rather than the big deals and lawsuits that elite law firms chase. Moreover, regulation has restricted their growth.The idea of accounting firms doing legal work is hardly new.  In the 1990s the then Big Five, led by the late, unlamented Arthur Andersen, sought to diversify from auditing and tax by expanding into both consulting and law.That trend ended abruptly when the Enron scandal took down Andersen in 2002. The Big Four are taking a more focused approach this time. Rather than building full-service firms, they are concentrating on areas of law that complement their existing services: immigration.Since 2013 EY Legal has expanded from 23 countries to 64. In 2012 Deloitte scooped up Raupach & Wollert-Elmendorff in Germany, while PwC recently took over an immigration-law boutique, Bomza, in Canada. KPMG was the first of the four to register an MDP in Britain, which lets it give its lawyers there full-fledged partnerships in the firm.
  2. In 1976 there were only half as many college bureaucrats as academic staff; now the ratio is almost one to one. No wonder average annual fees at private universities have soared to $31,000 in 2014, a rise of around 200% since the early 1970s. Each new graduate in America is now about $40,000 in debt.MOOCs are cheap, but students cannot bump into each other in the library and swap ideas, chit-chat or body fluids.ASU seeks to mix online and face-to-face instruction in a way that makes both more effective. Teachers cannot keep an eye on all their charges, so the university’s “eAdvisor system” nags them instead. Since 2008 it has given all freshmen an online achievement plan, including a constantly updated dashboard that shows whether they are on track or drifting towards the exit.Online introductory courses, full of prompts and explanations, ensure that teachers do not have to keep going over the basics in seminars. This frees time to teach the more difficult stuff. Early results look good: ASU has almost doubled undergraduate enrolments since 2002, to 82,000, kept its degree costs reasonably low ($10,000 a year for in-state applicants).The notion that online degrees are inferior is starting to fade. Top-notch universities such as Pennsylvania State and Columbia now offer them in many subjects. Georgia Tech has had an online-only master’s degree in computer science since 2014.
  3. American football as it is played now involves large men in peak physical shape running into each other at top speeds. Brain injury may be an unwanted byproduct of such activity, but it is an inevitable one. One of those consequences is that promising young players quit. The league may not look as indifferent as it once did, but neither does it inspire confidence or trust.LAST season Chris Borland, a small but solid linebacker, led the San Francisco 49ers of America’s National Football League (NFL) in tackles—an impressive feat for anyone, especially a first-year player, as Mr Borland was.  But last night Mr Borland, who is just 24 years old, announced his own retirement. He walks away not just from a promising career, but also from most of a $3m contract over chronic traumatic encephelopathy (CTE) concerns.
  4. The proliferation of drones—which include both small fixed-wing aircraft and small rotorcraft with multiple propellers—raises some vexing public-policy questions. In an effort to safely integrate drones of all sizes into American airspace, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is now figuring out how to regulate the small ones (ie, less than 55 pounds). As drones acquire so-called “sense and avoid” technology to automatically avoid collisions, the FAA and the aviation industry more broadly must parse thorny questions about how to either prevent accidents involving flying robots or assign liability in the inevitable event of one.At issue is the way some drones can loiter overhead for long stretches, engaging in what is called “persistent surveillance”. The current state of the law—both legislation and court decisions—is poorly suited to deal with persistent surveillance. This is because privacy law is tailored to questions of whether one is in public—an open field—or in a space where one has a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. The Supreme Court has, at times, expanded such spaces, for instance finding in 1967 that the FBI cannot eavesdrop on conversations in telephone booths without a warrant.It’s the difference between a snapshot and an overhead video that shows the comings and goings of everybody in a city over the course of a week. In such a video, a so-called “pattern-of-life” emerges.
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