Offshore My Job? Not Bloody Likely!

Scott Greenfield is having a conversation (of sorts) with Rahul Jindal about legal outsourcing. Rahul, who is in Noida (a suburb of Delhi) is an advocate of LPO — variously, “Legal Process Outsourcing,” “Legal Process Offshoring,” or “Legal Services Offshoring.”

Mention of Delhi drew my attention because that’s one of my hometowns. Until I was 20 or so, the address at which I had lived at the longest stretch was on Jor Bagh Road in New Delhi. Back then India was a lot farther from the U.S. than it is now. There was no internet, telephone connections were spotty, and mail to or from the States took two weeks. Now

Because I’m an old Delhi-wallah, I’m interested in the idea of legal process offshoring. India has a population over 1.1 billion. There are lots of college-educated English-speakers (including, allegedly, a million lawyers — about the same as in the U.S.), the economy is still in the process of spooling up after 40-plus years of parochial protectionism, and the overall cost of living is low. Finally, India’s legal system, like America’s, is based on the English common law.

All of this comes together to make India a good place to hire knowledge workers. My brother sent some photos off to ScanCafe in India to be scanned to disk. I use iDictate to transcribe audio files; I’m not certain that the work is done in India, but it might as well be. The knowledge workers who scan photos and transcribe audio files are, without intensive training, capable of doing many things that lawyers do in the U.S.: document review, for example. The work of a biglaw first-year associate could clearly be sent offshore to India, as could the work of a contract attorney. (There are logistical and privilege matters to resolve, of course.)

Lots of India’s 1.1 billion people are really, really smart. If the curve is the same in India as in the U.S., India may have 110 million people with an IQ over 150. These people can be trained up to do almost anything they want to do. So if the LPOs are hiring smart Indian lawyers and training them well, there’s no good reason to think that they couldn’t do the bulk of the work that the bulk of American lawyers do. Aside from document review, American legal research is well within the reach of properly trained Indian lawyers. Contract drafting, as well, might be feasible. Teaching law is a cinch.

But there are, at the moment, limits. Scott complains about not being able to understand the accent of Charlene from Bangalore; I suspect hyperbole — I’ve never had a problem with understanding any Indian’s English. More justly, Scott has trouble understanding Rahul’s prose:

I have seen young parents worry about the influence of crime on impressionable minds, that practicing criminal law can, in extreme cases, also have its effects is a new one!

I can see how Scott might not immediately understand that sentence — especially since he is the one being dissed. It’s not exactly a model of limpidity. It might well make perfect and immediate sense to someone raised in India, or even in Great Britain, but it doesn’t to Scott.

And there’s the rub. Much of what lawyers — especially trial lawyers, and most especially criminal trial lawyers — do requires a thorough grokking of the culture. Such knowledge of American (or Texas, or New York) culture can’t be taught; it takes decades to absorb. And so communicating with juries, judges, and valued clients — almost all we do as criminal trial lawyers — cannot be offshored.

0 responses to “Offshore My Job? Not Bloody Likely!”

  1. If you haven’t come across someone at a call center whose accented English presents a problem then you haven’t called any major American company’s customer service lately.

    But that aside, you hit the point. Would you want that sentence in a brief or memo to a judge? Would the judge chastise himself for not being sufficiently British to understand it, or would he throw your memo in the file and your client in the can?

    The point is that India is not, at least not now, a suitable substitute for all things done here, and that neither low cost nor hard promotion changes that fact. Some things, sure. Our thing, no.

  2. Sorry, but I just thought of something else. We argue here all the time about Defenders vs. Pretenders. There are better and worse lawyers, as we all know.

    So is there something special about lawyers in India? Are they all fungible? Is any one as good as any other? Should we not care who does work for our clients because every single one of them is fully competent?

    We care very much about the work we do, and our clients care very much about our doing their work. Does this suddenly fall by the wayside when work is shipped off to Bangalore?

  3. Nasim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swam, says, among other things, on the topic of forming stereotypes, that we usually form groups and think all Americans to have the same attributes or all women are same, while in reality this is not be the case.

    Extending that argument, one may comment there is a lot in common between a lawyer in US and a lawyer in India.You know where this can be taken forward to.

    I think Taleb is bang on.


  4. In Pasadena, CA, a newspaper is taping the city council meetings and sending them to India to have Indian reporters write the stories. The problem with that is the same as there would be with outsourcing lawyers- the people in India don’t know the context and background. But they’ve already started doing it.

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