As many websites and blogs (including ATL) mentioned last week, The New York Times published an article by Heather Timmons entitled “Outsourcing to India Draws Western Lawyers.” The quote above was from the blog Shilling Me Softly giving its take on the article. As you can probably discern from The Times headline, the piece was very favorable toward legal outsourcing taking place overseas…
This article should not come as a surprise to anyone following the issue of foreign legal outsourcing, better known as legal process outsourcing (LPO). Seriously, take a look at some of the headlines on this topic from the last few years:
- The growth of legal outsourcing: Passage to India [The Economist]
- Legal Outsourcing Companies in India Now Correcting Grammar of Am Law 100 Firms [Legal Blog Watch]
- More legal legwork gets outsourced to India [USA Today]
- U.S. Legal Work Booms in India [The Washington Post]
It’s quite clear that the folks in the LPO business are smart in dealing with the media, and they operate an effective PR machine.
So why aren’t lawyers in this country speaking out against this? Let’s face it, LPOs are trampling all over the U.S. legal profession, and their efforts in the press march like an army with almost ZERO opposition.
There is plenty to mention in terms of opposing their efforts. First, let’s be clear, there is opposition out there. If I thought Elie and I were the only people screaming about this issue, I wouldn’t bother writing this in the first place.
Check out, for example, some of the less-than-laudatory comments from Timmons’ article:
Unless the various state bar associations take actions to prohibit legal outsourcing…anybody that goes to law school in the US and takes out student loans is foolish.
Just another example of the death of the US economy by 1,000 cuts. Structural 10% unemployment, one outsourced job at a time.
Until the government starts penalizing companies for outsourcing, this trend will continue, and the people of this country (except the top 1% in income) will be worse off. Out with outsourcing.
I’m a former lawyer now working in finance, so I’m biased. But I say this is but one part of an ominous trend in legal employment.
Any market needs a way of supplying competent workers. Outsourcing underscores how difficult it is to find anyone who will pay the price of training competent lawyers — suggesting that the cost is already above market. Yet no-one is taking the leadership role of pushing to lower the costs of becoming a lawyer here in the U.S.
Law schools fail young attorneys by charging exorbitant rates for very basic skills; and perversely, as the supply of law schools increase, so do costs of education. Law firms are facing clients unwilling to pay for associate training; but instead of lowering associate rates, they simply reduce the numbers of associates. The traditional catch-all for non biglaw attorneys — public service and non-profits — are drying up, and will be cutting more and more employees as austerity becomes the norm in state budgeting.
I say this knowing I am as much to blame as anyone else. I have no idea how to combat these trends, and thus do very little to organize against it. But it stinks.
Why are people up in arms? Beyond the obvious fact that skilled jobs are being sent overseas, there are several reasons lawyers should oppose legal process outsourcing. As I have stated before, I am not against outsourcing per se. I am against using outsourcing as a device to skirt the rules of ethics in practicing law. Others have brought up security issues with attorney-client privilege.
Every day this practice continues, it becomes more and more of a slippery slope. I have no problem with someone performing legal services without a license as long as that person is under the proper supervision of a licensed attorney. However, especially with large-scale discovery matters, there is no way to meet the level of supervision required by our respective bar associations and the ABA.
With the technology we have today, here are two ways the current tide in favor of legal process outsourcing can be turned in the other direction.
Making Use of Social Media
One of the more important and influential groups to oppose legal process outsourcing is underground legal bloggers. The blogs Shilling Me Softly and the well-known Big Debt Small Law write on this subject regularly, and I believe are well worth following.
I am not suggesting that these bloggers need to reveal their identities. Even David Lat, for example, wrote anonymously as “Article III Groupie” for his blog, Underneath The Robes, while he was a practicing Assistant U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, until he outed himself to The New Yorker. Also, there are no rules against writing both anonymously and publicly at the same time.
Legal bloggers, whether underground or not, are a natural constituency of writers who could take on the LPO machine at every turn. In fact, reporters like John Eligon of The New York Times have already taken a crack at this.
There are many avenues with which to disseminate this information, including blogs, Twitter, legal websites, and other forms of social media.
Speaking of which, I was pleased to learn that a “Stop Legal Outsourcing” Facebook page has been launched. Although the page is in its infancy, it’s a start. I even wrote a note on their FB wall saying that they may want to change the name to “Stop Legal Process Outsourcing” or “Stop Foreign Legal Outsourcing.” There are many ways to outsource legal work in this country that could offer a reasonable alternative to work being done overseas, e.g., farmshoring the work to other parts of the country. Obviously, with the economy being what it is, there are plenty of out-of-work attorneys willing to work at much cheaper rates. This is precisely why Wilmer Hale opened up a facility in Dayton, Ohio.
Offer a legitimate alternative
As law firms become more tech savvy, their costs to clients will continue to go down, as indicated in this recent article about how Fullbright is now dealing with document review. One thing I will say about LPOs, the good ones run very secure, state of the art centers. Lawyers in this country should demand those same types of technologies, and constantly work with vendors to improve efficiencies to make pricing more competitive.
When you read news on legal processing outsourcing you will see plenty of declarations along the lines of “It’s here to stay!” And I don’t necessarily disagree. But if lawyers in this country do not make more of an effort of protecting the licenses they have worked so hard for, or take advantage of the technologies available to them, we may be reaching a tipping point that could spell disaster for the legal profession.
Gabe Acevedo is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and the owner of the e-discovery blog, GabesGuide.com. He also writes on legal technology and discovery issues for Above The Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.