Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Is an LLB enough for an LPO ..The GLPC Test

One of the concerns expressed by foreign law firms offshsoring to India, is whether Indian attorneys have the capacity to deliver work on par with their US counterparts. The basis of this concern seems to be the fact that the US attorney has to clear a Bar exam apart from the law exams, which is not the case with the Indian attorney. I think this is a very reasonable concern.

As a teacher of law it has become apparent to me, that the law as taught in our law colleges is strictly examination oriented. In India, law degrees are conferred either after a 5-year law course following secondary school (BSL.LLB.), or as a post-graduate degree in law, (LLB.) Both courses chiefly teach the origin of law, which perforce is a study of British law, and the principal codes of law in India.

Are either of these degrees a sufficient qualification for working in an LPO? Yes, if the work is the sort of work that most LPOs are getting presently, which is mostly a filling of data for summonses, warrants, bankruptcy forms, that any clerk, given some basic training could do.

If however, you are looking at more complicated legal work, a BSL.LLB or an LLB. is not enough. Reviewing documents for assessing their relevancy in a court proceeding, judging patent infringements, or deciding whether a particular document is ‘hot’ needs a more in-depth knowledge of law. Furthermore, the work of drafting documents, or legal research work is impossible to be done competently, with just a Bachelor’s Degree. In fact, for the LLB course, drafting of documents is taught in just the final semester. Legal research is not taught at all.

A Masters degree in Law (LLM), however, makes up for that. The LLM course teaches a study of law from a totally different perspective. The reason, cause and effect of laws is studied which requires a disbanding all the various parts of law and putting them together again. The process necessarily involves use of all your commonsense, reasoning powers, and intelligence. Review and research tools, the process and methodology of legal research are also learned here.

Those few LPOs that are getting high-end legal research work, employ LLB holders to do it, after (perhaps), giving them a very, very brief training on the project. They however, do employ professionals with a Masters Degree in Law to do the actual, final, quality work on the project. If the work is medico-legal in nature, medical professionals too may be called in for a final dekko.

To conclude, while Indian professionals may not have a Bar exam to pass in order to qualify them to deliver work as good as the US attorney, a Masters degree in Law more than meets the demand.

Another test that has been developed by LPOs to enable them to access the best professionals available in India, is the Global Legal Professional Certification Test, available online. The test assesses a candidate’s professional, legal and technical knowledge, as well as his command over English. It also claims to test ethics. In my opinion, an in-depth interview of a prospective candidate would serve a similar purpose, but the test coulda serve to give professionals an edge, when it comes to cutting out the competition which is going to get cut-throat soon.

Nothing however, can beat the training provided by a handful of LPOs, in US and UK laws and procedures. Unfortunately, few LPOs do this. The reason could be the time consumed in such training , as also the fact that considering the rate of attrition, very often the benefits reaped could be by someone other than the trainer. But this sort of training coupled with a higher degre in law is invaluable, for LPOs seeking to develop a high-quality bank of employees to work on complicated legal projects.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Legal Outsourcing Ethics

The newly passed Limited Liability Partnership Bill 2008, together with the amendments to the Companies Act, allow formation of partnerships, in which liability of the partners is limited and also remove restrictions that were in place ever since the Companies Act came into existence. Not only will Indian professionals be able to set up shop outside the country but foreign firms will find it easier to bring their business to India, since the new provisions bring great flexibility in operations to companies and put India on par with global provisions in this respect. Under the new provisions, winding up of the entity is also made easier since the more severe strictures provided under the Indian tax law can now be avoided.

All this is good news for legal process outsourcing in India, which is already on an upward spiral. It will result, and indeed already has, in a rash of small LPOs crowding the outsourcing scene. Some of these will be swallowed by the bigger corporations but the feistier ones will thrive. The ultimate test of success or survival of any LPO, whether it is a huge corporate or a smaller firm, will be the amount of business it will be able to attract. This race to fetch business is going to be a breathtaking one and could result in the breaking of many an outsourcing rule.

A major concern in legal process outsourcing has always been maintaining confidentiality of client data and preserving the attorney –client privilege. The ethics of legal process outsourcing however, is not confined to just these two issues. It also includes an ethical procurement of business. In the face of cutthroat competition service providers might well be tempted to throw any or all of these considerations of ethics to the winds and overlook unethical behavior on the part of its management, in the face of their ability to bring business to the firm.

While outsourcing work, legal process outsourcers generally make an enquiry into past projects, the technical competencies of the LPO, and outsourcing ethics. While every LPO highlights its technical know how and the projects undertaken, by it, its concern as regards outsourcing ethics seem in comparison, remarkably downplayed. Any LPO that intends to develop a reputation for soundness in business would do well to guard against unethical conduct not only by employees but also by its management.

The outsourcer, while enquiring into the credentials of an LPO, must therefore carefully scrutinize not only the credentials of the legal professionals employed in the LPO, but also the professional background of the persons in charge on either side of the pond. In the interests of security and the ultimate survival of the LPO, the professional ethics of management personnel in an LPO should be the most important consideration, more even than his or her qualifications, capability, or ability to bring business to the LPO.

Not only the outsourcer but legal professionals too, should assess options carefully. Job hoppers need only consider infrastructure, ergonomics and the pay scales; but those discerning lawyers who intend to make a career in legal outsourcing must scrutinize the type of work being provided by the LPO and take a careful look at the background and history of the company. No matter how upscale the LPO, and how impressive its roll call of directors, if the business ethics of even one is unsound, it takes very little to bring down the edifice and you with it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Outsourcing-the Beginning

In India, law has traditionally been a respected profession with many of our politicians and freedom fighters being lawyers and our court corridors teem with “black coats”, many of whom literally tout for work. Most youngsters who take up law are bright kids from educated backgrounds for whom working in murky courtrooms, rife with bureaucracy, corruption and red tapism, and who have to engage in an unequal contest with senior attorneys who never retire but practice till they literally drop dead, is definitely unacceptable. Making a living in the practice of law in India is tough work. To be a successful lawyer here, just good brains are not enough. Moreover, to build up a practice without a father or godfather in the legal field, takes at least five years if not more. And for women, the picture is even more dispiriting. The prejudice against women lawyers, no matter how accomplished is not likely to die down any time soon. The only other alternatives to court practice that are available, are working back office with senior counsel at a miserable pittance, or doing conveyance work. Neither of these options is tempting to young lawyers, burning to make money and earn a name.

Legal process outsourcing has appeared on the Indian horizon like the proverbial rainbow promising a pot of gold, to the hordes of lawyers being churned out yearly by hundreds of law colleges all over the country.

The young lawyer of today is an extremely articulate and well trained professional, holding not only a basic degree in law but often even a masters’ degree. Many specialize in different branches of law, like taxation, cyber law, or intellectual property. A large number also hold management degrees in addition to their law degrees.

We have started dating but will the dream last? Most LPOs here provide only mundane, routine legal work like filling in summonses, or transcribing depositions and interrogatories or coding of documents. This can be extremely boring to a youngster with a string of qualifications and after a while, the package however fat, may fail to provide job satisfaction. Unless LPOs start providing employees with high end work, they could find well themselves facing a dearth of qualified professionals.

Nasscom chief Natarajan predicts a 2500-crore business for LPOs by 2010. That will happen. With the current recession corporations need to save money more than ever and e-discovery costs are a major concern. The present financial crisis will do for Indian LPOs what Y2K did for Indian IT outsourcing companies. But unless we get high end jobs outsourced here, the bubble might just pop.

Paul Easton, MD for Global Colleague, an LPO in Pune puts forth the concept of contract attorneys. According to him, “The recent trend of contract legal employees that is catching on is one that will succeed. Such contract work will give exposure and experience not easily obtained elsewhere without having to make a long term commitment if you are unsure if you want to dedicate your career to an LPO. Some will want to do this work for lifestyle reasons, if it pays enough to allow other needs to be met during the downtime. I think it will shake up the legal market in India.”

Far be it for me to argue with an expert but surely while this might work for those who have an alternate source of income, to the fledgling lawyer just embarking on a career, the prospect of being employed on a contract basis, with perhaps being out of a job, for a few months every year, could be alarming. Moreover, he/she would be put in the unenviable position of being unable to go back to a career in the practice of law since legal practice is a demanding mistress requiring tremendous inputs in terms of time and labor and intolerant of anyone taking a break from it job for any amount of time.

On the other hand, if the LPO industry takes off, as it seems set to do, then the shoe might well be on the other foot. It could be the legal professionals who prefer to work on contract, picking and choosing the type of work they want to engage in.