The March 29, 2004 issue of the National Law Journal features a cover story titled ‘Offshore’ Legal Work Makes Gains. It presents a detailed and, in my opinion, balanced view of the trend and issues.  

Unfortunately, I could not find the story online (I have never been clear how and why selects some articles to upload to and not others, but I digress). So, here are some highlights and comments.

The article starts by reporting on Lexadigm, an outsourced legal research company that relies on lawyers on India, is growing rapidly. The company web site indicates that lawyers in the US supervise the research of lawyers in India. So it’s not obvious to me how this differs from traditional legal research companies, at least with respect to legal and ethical issues.

It goes on to say that the potential for offshoring work is great, but that, so far, there has been no outcry against the practice (as there was when accounting firms threatened to take share from lawyers). Several lawyers quoted, however, express various ethical reservations about offshoring. As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, I am not clear what the legal reasoning behind these concerns are. I was therefore pleased that the article explored the ethics issue in more detail.

The article quotes Prof. Morgan of GW Law, who points out that US lawyers are still “on the hook” for the work performed in India, which should suffice to address ethics concerns. He does suggest, however, that as a relationship management issue, lawyers who offshore elements of the work disclose this fact to clients.

Another concern discussed is whether rules concerning the unauthorized practice of law might apply. The analysis concludes this should not be an issue, in part because defining law practice has proven difficult and in part because “much of the everyday work of attorneys can be performed by consultants, paralegals, law student or interns without violation of the restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law.” Also, two companies that provide offshore service make clear that they are not providing legal advice.

I was pleased to see a more in-depth article and, in my opinion, more balanced one on the ethical considerations. There may be reasons why offshoring does not grow (e.g., the cost of supervision may be too high or the politics too inflammatory), but at least the marketplace should be able to make that decision, unencumbered by alarmist and probably ill-founded ethical considerations.

If offshoring takes off, it could have strategic implications for technology in law firms. First, it would help support the concept of Working Virtually (one of my recent blog postings and article) by further reducing the link between physical location and work. Second, if any large firms do consider offshoring, it may push in the direction of work flow systems to better control the work (though e-mail and document management may suffice). And third, if the concept takes root, it’s possible that some large firms could use lawyers in India to assist with internal knowledge management activities.