Offshore reflections

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It’s a few weeks late, but this article about offshore legal services published early last month in The Hindu is worth a read, although it’s not offered on the basis that all its contents should necessarily be taken at face value. It comes across rather as a corporate Q-and-A for SDD Global Solutions, an Indian legal services PKO, and some might differ with company president Russell Smith’s uncompromising opinions on the state of Western law practice. In fairness, not every shot he fires is accurate — but a lot of them sure are.

What’s particularly interesting about this article, however, is the unattractive picture of the Western legal profession that comes through — this is the image the profession has managed to develop for itself throughout the rest of the world. If your North American or European firm wants to be a global player in the law, you should be aware that your reputation is now preceding you.

Some highlights:

On training: “A recent study conducted by Harvard Law School and LexisNexis reveals that 75 per cent of US law graduates admit they do not have the necessary skills to practise law. … It is typical for Western law students to graduate from law school without ever having learned how to draft a contract. …[Y]oung lawyers receive no organised, on-the-job training. They learn as they go along, by trial and error, with their firms’ corporate clients footing the bill. … Our training program accomplishes what Western law schools and law firms have failed to achieve, namely, the systematic preparation of young lawyers to provide quality legal services.”

On language barriers: “[A]t least in the US, law graduates for the most part are notoriously incapable of writing effectively in English. The problem is so severe that some large US law firms now assign a writing coach to each incoming associate. However, most lawyers in the West never receive this kind of training. By contrast, reputable legal services offshoring companies in India train all their attorneys in English writing.”

On certification: “[I]n part because India has no bar exam, some commentators have suggested that Indian lawyers working for legal offshoring companies should be required to pass a certification test.… But who will develop a certification system for Western lawyers, many of whom lack skills needed to practise law properly? Regarding bar exams in the US, they are useless, except as a public relations device for the legal profession. As noted by New York University Law Professor Harold I. Subin, they test ‘nothing relevant to the practice of law…. The bar exam [serves] the same socializing purpose as hazing … drinking in useless legal data is the profession’s equivalent of swallowing goldfish or great quantities of beer, and leads on exam day to a similar regurgitative result.’”

On costs: “[E]xamine what a client pays for when it hires a typical large Western law firm (although there are exceptions): (a) staggering real estate costs … (b) having most of the work done by newly minted … associates who admittedly lack many of the skills needed to practise law, but yet are paid a starting salary of $160,000 per year, and who are learning as they go along, at the expense of clients … (c) padding of time sheets and/or an unnecessary stretching out of work assignments, encouraged by an hourly billing system that rewards fraud and inefficiency … and (d) generally a high-quality level of service, due to editing and supervision by talented senior lawyers, but at a cost that clients are no longer willing to tolerate.”

On ethics: “[V]irtually all major law firms in the US routinely use non-licensed attorneys to perform legal work, and they bill their clients for it. The hours of summer associates, who have neither graduated from law school nor passed a bar exam, are billed out to clients at rates as high as $260 per hour or more. Moreover, the work of first-year associates, who start work at law firms before their bar exam results are in (and who often fail on their first attempt), is billed out to clients for as much as $360 per hour or more. This is all permissible, because the work is supervised by licensed attorneys.”

On corporate counsel: “Corporations, not Western law firms, will drive the market in the years ahead. … For example, a major Detroit auto manufacturer approached SDD Global for offshore litigation support. When we asked what the reaction of their usual outside law firms would be to most of the legal work being done in India, the answer was unambiguous: ‘Our outside law firms will operate the way we tell them to.’”

On the future: “[T]he growth and development of the legal offshoring industry in India will help bring about a major change in the way legal services are delivered in the West. This will be a monumental, history-making development. It will help economies around the world as well as India’s. It will contribute to a better, more equitable world, in which artificial barriers across countries and continents do not hold back the most efficient and enthusiastic people from doing what they do best.

This post originally appeared at Slaw on October 1, 2007.

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