Friday, January 16, 2004

Globalization and the Export of American Labor: Outsourcing non-IT knowledge work -- now it's the lawyers

Neal St. Anthony, Star Tribune, On business: Outsourcing hits legal services
First it was the apparel workers -- the working class -- who saw their $10-an-hour jobs go overseas.

More recently, the United States has started to export to India the $35,000-a-year customer-service center jobs from the likes of American Express Financial Advisors and $50,000 technical-support positions from IBM and ADC Telecommunications to India and elsewhere where educated, English-speaking workers are hired for a tenth of the cost to communicate with U.S. customers by phone and over the Internet.

Now, six-figure lawyers and legal support staffs are starting to sweat.

At West, the Eagan-based legal-publishing unit of Canada's Thomson Corp., there's a buzz over a small test office in Bombay, India, where Indian lawyers may one day interpret and synthesize U.S. court decisions for subscribers of Westlaw, the online legal network relied upon by thousands of practicing U.S. attorneys.

To date, this work has been the growing province of a group of 150-plus editor-lawyers in Eagan and elsewhere who review court decisions, synopsize them and write "headnotes" for each point of law. This work is then keyed into Westlaw's league-leading database, enabling lawyers to quickly review and cite decisions and other relevant case law in West's venerable classification system.

So far, just a few months into the quiet Indian pilot-office experience, the half-dozen or so Indian lawyers have been doing online interpretation and legal-classification of "unpublished decisions" of U.S. state and lower courts that are not considered big deals -- or "precedential" in legal parlance.

West editor-lawyers, who make up to $100,000 per year, continue to do the "published opinion" work and are editing the work of the Indian lawyers.

The Indian lawyers are trained in British Common Law, different than U.S. law. But they've been brought into West for in-house training, and more through West trainers in Bombay.

Their work so far has been good, and has the West editors "terrified" that the pilot program will blow into a wholesale operation, which would displace lawyers in Eagan and elsewhere making five or more times the Indian lawyers.

Kyle Christensen, a spokesman for the 6,000-employee West unit in Eagan, said the Eagan workforce has been expanded in recent years to accommodate case analysis and headnoting for Westlaw.

And, as part of its expansion to start giving the same treatment to unpublished opinion, West opened the Bombay office to "assess potential improvement in the product and how we might better use outside resources," Christensen said.

"None of the work, to this point, that has been completed in India has made it into any of our publications. It's a test. It's possible that some of the low-end support could work out. The analysis, headnoting, detailed classification will remain in Eagan." he said.

Referring to the Indian office, Christensen said: "They're not actually providing analysis. They're doing some review of how to assign key numbers to administrative law decisions. And they're doing some training on writing headnotes for unpublished decisions."

The West spokesman is quick to add that dozens of West lawyers also work in Minnesota to interpret the legal decisions of British, Spanish, Greek and other courts for lawyers in those countries.

Still, West's Indian office is a toehold in what once was considered an all-American business, immune from the foreign competitors that took manufacturing, and now services jobs, overseas.

The American Lawyer reported recently that General Electric and other U.S. behemoths are starting to use low-cost Indian lawyers to supplant some of the work formerly done by outside U.S. law firms.

A vice president of the Chicago-based outsourcing firm Mindcrest, which has an Indian subsidiary that handles legal work, told the American Lawyer that business is booming for basic research and low-rung work usually done by paralegals and junior lawyers for U.S. corporations and law firms.

Moreover, Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., the market research firm, predicts that by 2015, more than 489,000 U.S. lawyer jobs -- about 8 percent of the total, will shift to lower-cost countries.

Ironically, a Twin Cities personnel recruiter says the trend will grow because corporations and senior partners at law firms will have a financial incentive to farm out the less-costly boilerplate work now done by junior people.

Ron Kreps, the managing partner of the Minneapolis office of Fulbright & Jaworski, said: "West provides a great service, you bet they do. We can't just rely on a West editor and keynotes, but yes, they get you started. And it's very important that the keynotes are accurate.

"I don't care where the people sit who write them, but I do care that they know U.S. common law and the trends in the U.S. And that's different than British common law. The bigger question is: Can professional services be done offshore? That's the question a lot of professions are worried about."

Globalization, long the nightmare of displaced Minnesota taconite miners, electronics assemblers and North Carolina textile workers, takes on a different wrinkle when it starts to claim not just the job of Jane Lunchpail, but also threatens the jobs of those who were banking on country club memberships.

Fascinating, an understated and very well written summary. Not surprising; I've been predicting this one for a couple of years. Nice to have confirmation though.

The synthesis and extension of existing "content" (industry term for this type of knowledge) has no regulatory barriers. It requires intellect and domain knowledge, it requires an ability to read but not speak or write English, it does not require physical presence. If the domain knowledge is costly in the US, but substantially less costly overseas, the work will move very quickly. In other words, the barrriers to migration of work in this instance are very low and the incentives are high.

I know of one corporation in the medical content domain who's essentially outsourcing some of their content management and development to a (relatively) "low wage" nation. (In this case English speaking and highly industrialized, but physician wages in many nations are a fraction of US physician wages. The same thing is true for lawyers.)

I think this globalization, which does put my own job at risk, is a great thing for the world. Insofar as we are a part of this world, it's a great thing for us. The challenge for a great leader is to find a way mitigate the great hurt it will do to many people in the US. Injuring the career prospects of lawyers is likely to lead to more change than unemploying blue collar workers and IT professionals. Lawyers are close to politicians, and politicians have the power. The danger is a stupid protectionist response, one that will harm us and the world. The other choice, however, is far too novel for our current administration to consider. One can only pray that a miracle occurs and Bush is displaced from power this year.

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