Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sala Main To Sahab Ban Gayaa.

If this side of the pond ponders Indian lawyers in danger of turning into clerks, the other side sees US and UK attorneys metamorphosing into top management honchos overnight.

The fear of recession even before the bogey actually arrived, led to large scale layoffs and downsizing of law firms particularly in the US. As predicted, legal process outsourcing itself apart from a slight hiccup in the early part of 2009 saw a smart pickup in the second half of the year.

With the ABA mandating strict legal supervision on all legal work that is outsourced, many LPOs set up in India have begun hiring US attorneys not only to satisfy compliance with due diligence procedures but also to increase the comfort levels of their clients. The salaries paid to these attorneys are invariably twice and thrice what an Indian lawyer is paid for the same job.

The result is that US and UK attorneys who would never otherwise have dreamed of visiting the Orient are making a beeline for India and China and happily playing leading roles in LPOs. At home, they would probably still be struggling juniors, serving summonses and recording EBTs. Here, they manage large teams of Indian lawyers and head ambitious projects. Their salaries may not be as high as what they might have earned in the US even at the lowest rung of their careers, but the lower cost of living both in India and China more than makes up for that. Furthermore, LPOs in India are based in metros where the standard of living can be even more lavish than abroad, what with malls, multiplexes, and in-house help for every chore.

LPOS here may not really need foreign attorneys, particularly those with experienced legal professionals on board. While a JD brings to the firm a deep and close knowledge of the law of his/her land; the basic concepts of law are the same in every corner of the civilized world and US and UK legal provisions and procedural laws, or at least as much of those that are needed to work on legal projects, can be easily imbibed by some focused study on the net. FindLaw.com. and other law sites on every aspect of the law, in every state, are easily available online. Bluebooking skills are not difficult for an intelligent, skilled professional.

Many Indian lawyers fear that having foreign attorneys working here is going to affect their own chances. If so, so be it. In a global setup there is no room for protectionism. The competition is open and it is fierce. And if you are really good you need not fear it. Of course there are others who believe they are as good as their US and UK counterparts and so they are; but they will just have to wade in there and prove it.

In any case, LPOs themselves are totally unconcerned about any real or imagined insecurities that Indian lawyers might be experiencing. And rightly so. Outsourcing firms are sprouting as wildly and enthusiastically here as weeds in the Indian monsoons. Survival may not be an issue to most, but growing into an entity to contend with, certainly is. And for that, every weapon available must be used. If that includes employing foreign attorneys at twice the cost of what they would pay for their highest paid Indian legal employee, well, no one is thinking twice.

Incidentally the title of this post is a popular Hindi song which loosely translated means, "Hell, I just turned into the Boss."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Are Indian Lawyers Turning into Clerks?

A lot of law firms in the US have back offices in India and several insist that the work be done by Indian attorneys rather than paralegals. Most of the work is low end work. The sort of work that in India is done by clerks with a 10+2 higher secondary school certificate.

For starry eyed young lawyers fresh out of law colleges faced with the reality that court practice in India is not for them, LPOs are an attractive option. But rare is the fresher who can work on a legal research project or engage in a really complex e-discovery project. The work they are set to do is prepare case files and upload data. Their concern is therefore, "are we turning into clerks?"

In an earlier post, I had written that a degree in law is sufficient for back office work. I eat my words. While the work is often mindless no-brain work, nevertheless the product delivered by Indian attorneys is often subpar. The reason is not that they are below the average in intelligence as compared with their US or UK counterparts, but rather that the intricacies of the English language often cripple them.

Even for low end, back office work, one needs to understand the queries raised. Legal writing is archaic and very technical. Because a lawyer has to cover all aspects of a situation in order to make a document airtight, the language is also invariably very convoluted and complex. Merely having studied and answered law exams in English does not suffice.

Law in many of our local colleges, is very often taught by professors who, while they are excellent with the subject itself, are from a vernacular background, with the result that their hold on the English language, is tenuous at best. An LL.B. degree merely introduces its holder to legal vocabulary; to breed familiarity, one needs to be constantly reading and handling legal documents.

Not understanding the difference between "referring" and "referral", "consistent" and "consisting", "verily" and "verify", "at " and "on", can indeed, like Cleopatra's nose, decide fates.

I would say the question is not whether Indian lawyers turning into clerks, but whether you are even qualified to work in an LPO merely because you have an LLB?

In my opinion a law degree is far from sufficent even to engage in practice in Indian courts; but since I restrict myself to a discussion on legal outsourcing, for that, I would say, one definitely needs something more. A certificate course in legal process outsourcing if it's syllabus includes training in Legal Communications might help to at least teach the basics. But this course needs to be taught by people who have an idea of the legal processes involved in legal process outsourcing. Anyone seeking enrolment for such courses needs to consider this. See also the Global Legal Professional Certification Test .

The truth is however, that even without a law degree or any legal outsourcing diploma, one can still do most of the low end legal work done in any LPO ( and which is indeed done by paralegals abroad), provided one has a good command of English. The question therefore, is not whether back office work is turning Indian lawyers into clerks, but whether they have the competence to do it? The decisive factor is their command on the English language. And that is the whole truth.