OUTSOURCING: THE BEGINNING OF A NEW AND IMPROVED BIGLAW BUSINESS MODEL?

If you’re a new law school graduate looking for work, or an equity partner seeking to profit this year (and maybe next) from the leverage that high-priced associates add to your firm’s bottom line, outsourcing sounds like a bad idea. But for those concerned about the long-run psychological well-being of the profession, the implications are more ambiguous.

It’s not novel. Throughout corporate America, outsourcing has been an important profit-maximizing technique for a long time. Lawyers have made a lot of money assisting clients in the development and implementation of such strategies. The resulting loss of American jobs has been sold as a necessary price paid to remain competitive in the world economy.

Such cost-minimization makes sense where protocols can assure a quality finished product. But when lead turns up in the paint on children’s toys from China, well…. 

Now, as the  NY Times recently reported, outsourcing has pushed its nose into the biglaw tent.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/05/business/global/05legal.html) If the trend continues, what is the fate of the dominant large law firm business model that relies on associate/partner leverage as the source of equity partner wealth? (See my earlier article, “Send The Elevator Back Down” at http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/07/harper3071410.html)

Its days may be numbered but, then again, its days may be numbered with or without outsourcing.

As the Times article notes, outsourcing is particularly advantageous for mundane legal tasks — due diligence on corporate deals and document review for major litigation matters. What client can resist paying “one-third to one-tenth” of a big firm’s hourly rates for such work?

The challenge will be to find the limits and assure quality output. Due diligence seems unimportant until a major potential liability gets overlooked. Document review is dull, but large lawsuits have turned on an internal memo buried in a gigantic collection; a discerning eye made all the difference.

Still, it seems likely that clients will gravitate toward firms that can offer lower rates for outsourced attorneys performing necessary but non-critical work. It is equally clear that clients will continue to “pay a lot of money” to lawyers with special experience and expertise — “world-class thought leaders and the best litigators and regulatory lawyers around the world,” as one corporate leader put it in the Times.

With these trends, new law school graduates will face shrinking labor markets, especially at entry level positions in big firms. But for the fortunate few who get jobs, their work could get better as outsourced labor performs some of the menial tasks that now account for most young associates’ billable hours.

Meanwhile, senior attorneys will have new incentives to mentor proteges so they become their firms’ next generation of “world-class thought leaders.” (See my earlier article, “Where Have All The Mentors Gone?” at http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/07/harpermentors.html)

What will all of this mean for equity partner profits? The big firm leaders who do the right things — strict quality control of outsourced work coupled with a serious investment in the development of inside talent — will thirve as their firms deleverage. Unfortunately, others intent on maximizing short-term dollars by prolonging the lives of their leveraged business enterprises will do okay, too — at least for a while. But such a myopic focus runs enormous long-term risks for the affected institutions.

And here’s a wild card: Small and mid-sized firms with talented senior attorneys may find that these new pools of outsourced talent enable them to compete with the mega firms. Size may no longer be everything. In fact, it may not be anything at all.

If I’m correct, the resulting transformation will slow biglaw’s growth rate and, perhaps, shrink that segment of the profession. But instead of the mind-numbing tasks that are the bane of any young attorney’s biglaw existence, associates will find themselves doing work that more closely resembles what they thought being a lawyer meant when they first decided to attend law school. If that happened — and reality began to resemble expectations — lawyers as a group could become more satisfied with their jobs. The unthinkable might even happen: a slow reversal in the tide of recent surveys that consistently rank attorneys near the bottom of all occupations in career fulfillment.

Such a scenario would be an ironic turn of events. The extraordinary wealth that clients now confer on those running today’s highly leveraged big firms could be providing the impetus to upend the profession and force the emergence of a new business model in which leverage no longer mattered.

Of course, everything could careen wildly in a different direction –toward further corporatization of law firms as non-attorneys provide private investment capital, become shareholders, and complete the MBA takeover of the profession. That movement is clearly afoot in Great Britain. (See http://www.abanet.org/legaled/committees/Standards%20Review%20documents/AnthonyDavis.pdf) Once senior partners become accountable to non-attorney boards of directors, the individual autonomy that once defined being a lawyer will have disappeared.

But it doesn’t cost any more to be optimistic, does it?