INDIA: Can Legal Jobs Be Outsourced?

Eric Linge, Pitt Law '09, files from Mumbai:

Currently I am a law student. In the future I want to be a lawyer — that is, employed as a lawyer. There are a lot of voices, however, including my school's career services department, telling me the difficulty in this. Too many want to be lawyers, and there just aren't enough jobs (students: for a depressing read, check this site).

Now could it also be true that these supposedly scarce lawyer jobs are being outsourced to India? Well, yes, kind of. However, the risk India poses seems, in my Indian legal experience, more apocryphal than truly dire. Most outsourced jobs are of the paralegal and secretarial variety.

There's no doubt politicians play up outsourcing's threat to American jobs. John Kerry said business executives who outsourced work were "Benedict Arnold C.E.O.s" And there's no doubt that some U.S. legal work is being done in India. An appellate brief prepared in India by a legal processing outsourcing (LPC) company was submitted to the Supreme Court in 2005. The issue of the case was whether an I.R.S. provision violated the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause.

After all, outsourcing often does makes economic sense. Labor in India tends to be cheaper, and India offers tax breaks to foreign companies who outsource to her soil. The outsourcing of legal work began over ten years ago when law firms began establishing subsidiaries to scan and index documents in India. In 2001 General Electric established an in-house legal office in India where Indian lawyers handled issues with G.E.'s plastics and consumer finance divisions. There now exist even third-party vendors who can provide Indians to perform general legal office work. Some of these vendors even employ Indian lawyers, some even trained in the U.S.

Silicon Valley law firms have been hiring Indian companies to write and review patent applications. Complicated, high-tech patent applications can cost between $8,000 and $10,000 to file in the Midwest and up to $12,000 in Silicon Valley. The same job can be done in India for $5000 to $6000. Scientists and engineers, two fields where India is particularly skilled, do much of the work. Even in the U.S. this work is often contracted (or outsourced, if you will) to on-shore scientists and engineers.

A pitfall of this outsourcing model is how much training an Indian needs in order to perform American legal work. Even highly educated Indians need expensive training, even for relatively un-complex legal work. Professionals in the field have reported that elitely-educated Indian lawyers can take as long to train as non-lawyers from modest backgrounds.

Despite this one major pitfall, outsourcing to India sounds, on paper at least, enticing. Indian legal education is done in English. India's constitution and legal system are based on English common law, as is the U.S. The rule of law draws largely on U.S. constitutional principles with American case law often cited in court opinions. With the technology outsourcing boom already underway in India, India is a fairly wired country. Plus, Indian schools are generally producing more well-educated graduates than India can provide jobs.

And yet despite these enticements, there is just little evidence that the outsourcing of lawyer jobs to India is contributing to the legal job crunch that law school career services says exists. One study says there is "more smoke than fire,", and proof of this is the rate that the previously mentioned third party outsourcing firms are going out of business. Also there is no consolidation in this industry, which typically accompanies fast growth industries.

From my own experience, India's corporate sector is growing so fast, as are its needs for in house and out of house counsel, it is difficult for me to believe that this corporate growth would have any difficulty in swallowing (and paying well) the Indian law professionals who would otherwise be available to work as outsourced labor.

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