Outsourcing and the Virtual Law Practice

Why don’t we all join Rocket Lawyer, enabling it to provide more forms to more clients for cheaper?

Because, like Sam Glover says in the comments, we’re not selling forms, we’re selling our good judgment. Criminal-defense lawyers—by way of example—earn our reputations in trial, but we earn our keep helping clients decide whether to go to trial. (“Knowing where to tap: £99.“) It’s not just the trial lawyers or the litigators; good transactional lawyers are selling their good judgment as well: their clients count on them to help them make tough calls to avoid litigation, or to better their positions in the event of litigation.

When people are making tough decisions, they often need to talk in person with their trusted advisors. There is magic in face-to-face communication that is lacking from all other media. When they are betting the company, or their future, or their life savings, people need that magic.

If you are a lawyer and you don’t have clients who need to sit down with you in person before making decisions, your job does not involve tough judgment calls; if your job does not involve tough judgment calls, it can be outsourced; if your job can be outsourced, it will be.

Therefore, if your clients don’t need to sit down with you in person before making decisions, your job will, sooner or later, be outsourced.

This does not apply only to contract lawyers. Every area of law that doesn’t require face time is on a fast train to extinction. If your idea of practicing law is “virtual,” comprising drafting documents and advising your clients by email, mail, and telephone, someone in India can do your job better, faster, and cheaper.

Put differently, if your clients are content dealing with you only virtually, there is no reason for them not to deal with someone 10,000 miles away instead.

And some day soon they will.

At this moment there is a law-school graduate somewhere in India, smarter and harder-working than you, who would love to put together those corporate papers for your Gen-Y client. He knows more law than you—or if he doesn’t he can quickly learn it—and he works when you’re asleep. So your clients can give him a task at 6 p.m. on Monday night and it’ll be done by 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

B-b-but they aren’t licensed to practice here! you protest. But you know that doesn’t matter: you’ve been hawking a “location-independent” practice for years.

Where the lawyer’s location doesn’t matter, rules against the unauthorized practice of law are but quaint and unenforceable remnants of the past. You think Hari cares if the California State Bar doesn’t want him advising people in California? There’s nothing the bar can do to him. You think your clients care? Of course they don’t: you’ve taught them that location doesn’t matter, and you’ve sold them on the idea of hiring a lawyer, sight unseen, based on the representations she makes online.

If your practice doesn’t require face time with the clients, there are two things keeping them from flocking to Bangalore: Hari’s failure to market himself to them; and their ignorance. They don’t hire lawyers abroad because they don’t yet know about the better-faster-and-cheaper services available from lawyers abroad. They think your third-tier American law-school education will serve them better than Ashok’s 150 IQ and Indian diploma will.

You know what’s going to happen? Tim Ferriss is going to discover Hari. Ferriss is going to tell your clients about Hari, and your clients, conditioned by you to do their legal business without seeing their lawyers, are going to send their legal fees abroad in droves.

This will be catastrophic for you and many other lawyers, driven out of their location-independent practices and into more fraught niches (like those involving tough judgment calls) or other jobs entirely, but the drastically reduced transaction costs will in the long run be a good thing for society.

So if you’re advocating “virtual” “location-independent” law practices, and speeding the eventual demolition of a good chunk of the American legal profession, be of good cheer: you’re making the world a better place.

6 responses to “Outsourcing and the Virtual Law Practice”

  1. Hello Mark,

    This isn’t just a matter of law, either. It’s what I’ve been saying for years to Aspies (people on the autism spectrum), many if not most of whom would dearly love to work without face time. If it can be done from across the hall or across town, it can be done from across the country…and from across the Pacific Ocean.

    The jobs that stay here in America, at good salaries, more and more involve relating to people face to face. The era of the “skunk works” – and of the socially impaired person who’s kept on due to his technical brilliance and esoteric knowledge – is closing.

    Jeff Deutsch

  2. Lawyers aren’t competing with RocketLawyer.

    The sort of person who uses that site has already decided that he can do this himself and does not need a lawyer. You are wasting your time if you think you can get this person’s business.

    Lawyers who price their services in order to “compete” are accomplishing nothing except to cut their own profits and give the impression that their services are nothing beyond what you would get by downloading a form from a website.

    Do carpenters price themselves to compete with some guy who thinks he can install a set of shelves on his own? No. You are paying the carpenter to install the shelves for you. Obviously this is going to cost more than DIY. Same with lawyers; you are being paid to provide a service, not to fill out a form.

  3. Mark, I appreciate your zealous defense of your profession, but I don’t think there’s much to fear. In the long run, stuff like this tends to shake out.

    Yes, some of the commodity-type services (simple wills, leases) will be lost to the LegalZooms and Bangalore Haris of the world. And a lot of that “loss” will inure to the benefit of society, even if it jeopardizes the short-run interests of lawyers who (in the judgment of their ex-clients) didn’t add a whole lot of value. If a lawyer was filling out forms without adding much else, I don’t mind if he gets squeezed — he should. But I think that’s rare.

    I no longer need the official writ of a physician to get Allegra. That may have hurt some allergists in the short run, but it was good for the world in the short and long run, and the practice of medicine wasn’t really at risk. If a doc made his living just doling out Allegra scripts (and I think that’s rare), I can’t feel too bad for him.

    As Thomas noted, Home Depot didn’t kill carpentry by enabling DIY guys.

    The “face time” aspect will still draw clients and add value where it did before. And for those few areas where it never did, nobody will fault y’all for extracting a few hundred years of rents. 😉

    • Matt, I am unconcerned for myself and for the profession generally. There is no way what I do could be offshored.

      But the law schools are pumping out lawyers, and many of those lawyers are trying to build “virtual,” location-independent practices; some of them are at the same time offering themselves as consultants to other lawyers, selling the same sort of practice. They think they’re reinventing the practice of law, and they are, but their reinvention is, by its nature, doomed.

      The cataclysm will be good for society; I mean it. And when the dust clears, lawyers whose practices depend on clients who care very much about where their lawyers are will still be plugging along.

  4. Mark, I agree on all counts. I really enjoy your blog, by the way, and I’m not a lawyer. Keep up the good work.

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