Still in its relative infancy, legal process outsourcing has already had a huge impact on the legal services marketplace: scoring major deals with the likes of Microsoft and Rio Tinto, garnering the attention of private-equity investors, and helping to expose the degree to which law firms have overcharged for the simplest legal work, among other accomplishments. But this impact has set off two important chains of events. The first affects LPOs themselves: they now need to move their value proposition beyond cost savings in a market they helped to make more sophisticated. The second affects everyone: the legal profession’s response to LPO is having an unexpected effect on how legal work is distributed and how legal resources are allocated.
The first development is summed up in a question framed by an LPO Savvy blog post: what does LPO do for an encore? It’s not fair to say that the value of legal process outsourcing lies entirely in its vast price differential with traditional law firms; but it is fair to say that that’s where many LPO conversations start. Saving money, especially on the scale that LPO offers and in this economic environment, is not to be dismissed lightly; but as LPO Savvy notes, “cost competitiveness alone is not going to propel the industry’s longevity.” Asian upstarts in other industries like cars and electronics often began by offering basic services at low prices; but they didn’t stop there:
Japanese automakers have been able to achieve [success] largely due to their ability to innovate. They did more than just maintain their competitiveness when they set up their manufacturing processes onshore. They brought with them their processes and managerial tools … fresh ways of managing Lean Manufacturing operations such as Kanban. Kanban was an innovative means of managing inventories in the manufacturing process unseen in the industry. It took cost and unnecessary steps out of the supply chain processes that went into producing automobiles.
Putting this back to the LPO perspective, I struggled with what the Indian LPO’s Kanban could be? What is the innovative game changer that we possess and can bring to the table? … The creative minds behind Kanban developed the practice through many trials of error and rework. But the need and desire to change how their processes were carried out was apparent to them, thus driving their need to explore ways to change.
There is an acute need to bring innovation to how legal services are carried out — a need that LPOs helped to highlight, and an area where they’ve already made much progress, but one that they themselves must now tackle head-on. LPOs have contributed to a slowdown (if not a dead stop) in the previously unstoppable rise in law firm fees; but are they also leading the way in re-engineering the means by which legal work is done, finding and implementing the new “killer apps” for law? And if so, are they successfully advertising and selling that fact to clients? LPO companies are still ahead of many law firms in applying process improvements and reducing costs, but their lead is not insurmountable.
Consider this example: legal process outsourcers have had greater difficulty cracking the Australian market than the UK or the US, in large part because in-house counsel there are apparently more reluctant to try new approaches and more fearful of LPO quality and security failures. So LPO provider Pangea3 is trying a different tack: a partnership with Australian law firm Advent Legal that will see the two collaborate on a wide spectrum of “junior work.” Advent and fellow Australian firm Balance Legal have to some extent already filled the LPO role in their country by their widespread use of secondments to reduce client costs and increase client integration, and have reaped the reputational benefits. LPOs have had to adapt, and this partnership — reminiscent in some ways of the alliance system between Indian and western law firms — is an example.
If I were an LPO, I’d be nervous every time I read about a law firm that provided secondments, gave legal project management training, managed its workflow, unbundled its services, used decision trees, or even employed Lean Six Sigma, because it means they’re starting to adopt some of my stock in trade. The critical battleground in the legal services marketplace is not price, but innovation: inventing and implementing more efficient and effective ways to carry out legal work. That’s a tougher and far more important assignment than simply lowering the cost of associate work, and whoever figures it out first and best could, like Toyota and Sony, dominate this market. LPOs are in a strong position to compete in this race, but they’re not the only contestants.
The second development emerging from LPO’s appearance is that a surprising number of law firms are adopting — and adapting — the outsourcing model themselves. They’re figuring out that the important question isn’t which type of provider (law firm, LPO, whoever) gets to do what kinds of legal work; the question that matters is who will serve as the primary liaison to the client and direct the allocation and assignment of legal work.
The days when legal work flowed from a client exclusively to a law firm and back again are over; the reality now is that numerous providers are in play and numerous models are on offer. While a number of UK firms have embraced LPO providers as a means to get legal work done more cost-effectively, some firms remember the words of Rio Tinto’s one-time GC Leah Cooper, who said law firms should think of Rio’s LPO partner CPA Global as an extension of the company’s in-house department. Law firms don’t like anyone — offshore LPO, procurement department, accounting firm — coming between them and their client. So in future, what really matters is this: who sits next to the client, receives its instructions, and decides how its legal resources are to be allocated among myriad providers? Smart law firms are taking steps now to ensure that that answer is never in dispute.
Here are two examples of what I mean.
Mexican Waves. Despite its name, law firms involved in a Mexican wave system don’t send work back and forth across national or continental borders; instead, the work circulates between firms in bigger cities and those in smaller, less expensive locations. The system was pioneered by UK firm Lovells — now transatlantic giant Hogan Lovell, and interestingly, the term no longer appears on the new firm’s website. Clients like the Royal Bank of Scotland prefer a Mexican Wave arrangement to a pure LPO because they can cut costs while still retaining a long-term relationship with their primary law firm. Eversheds has adopted a sort of internal Mexican Wave by outsourcing work to its own firms’ lower-cost locations worldwide. And Magic Circle firm Freshfields rejects suggestions that its recent discussions about “referral arrangements” with smaller law firms is a Mexican Wave arrangement, but it’s hard to tell the difference. Meanwhile, some UK firms are outsourcing directly to law firms in foreign jurisdictions: Lewis Silkin, for example, is sending litigation work to Minter Ellison’s New Zealand office.
Outsourced law departments. One of the most interesting developments of the past several months has been a pair of joint ventures between UK law firms and public-sector law departments. In February, Geldards LLP and the Kent County Council created a new entity called Law:Public that will handle not just all of KCC’s legal work, but will also seek out work from local governments and public sector agencies across England. Law:Public’s 100 lawyers (80 from KCC) will charge below-market rates to these increasingly cash-strapped clients and will boast unparalleled experience and expertise in this sector. Then in March, large UK utility Thames Water essentially transferred its legal function to London firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, leaving behind a core group of in-house lawyers to provide strategic legal advice to the company. Here’s the key quote from a BLP partner: “With this model, we’re able to say that BLP’s embedded in the business. Other models such as LPO take you a certain way, but [they] don’t necessarily do what clients want, which is complete alignment.” In both cases, a law firm has completely integrated its operations and interests with those of a key client, ensuring continuing control of the assignment of legal services.
What these developments share in common is the law firms’ recognition that when clients say legal work has to be carried out differently and more efficiently, they mean it. Clients are putting all their options on the table and studying them closely, and many of those options don’t involve law firms much if at all. Some firms have therefore come to realize that they need to (a) find different ways of getting clients’ work done that (b) still leave the firm as the conduit through which that work flows and as the primary provider of the highest-value services.
What we’re starting to see now is an industry-wide jostling for position by legal services providers, each competing not just for the client’s attention but also for the coveted “quarterback” or “foreman” role that directs work to the other players, supervises its production, and takes ultimate responsibility for the result. Law firms used to hold that conduit position by default; they can’t count on that anymore, and the threat of losing that position is as close to an existential one as the legal profession should care to come. Clients are going to have more and more options for their legal work in the next several years, and managing all those options is a difficult and demanding job; but whoever holds that job will have an extraordinary amount of influence with the client and over the other providers. That’s the new Holy Grail for law firms, and I think that’s why a few smart firms are now taking outsourcing seriously: because they need to get very good, very quickly, at managing the production of legal work by a multitude of different providers.
Two specific sets of players should be concerned by all of this. The first is LPOs and other upstart providers of legal services, because if law firms (a) figure out how to manage legal work more effectively and (b) become entrenched as clients’ primary legal services overseer in a multi-provider environment, these entities risk a serious clipping of their wings. And the second is North American law firms: all the examples in this post and almost all the examples I’ve seen of this trend are in the UK, Australia and New Zealand: if any US firms are working on this, they’re keeping an extremely low profile. That’s risky, because this trend won’t take long to metabolize and it won’t take long for some clear winners to emerge. Law firms that don’t recognize this trend might find that an important and decisive war ended before they even knew it had begun.