Potential Cost Savings Associated With Legal Outsourcing

“How much can I save?” “What is the cost of legal work done offshore?” “Please give me a quote for 100 hours per month for legal work done in India.” “What is your hourly rate?” “How much do you charge for ______?” These are the questions and requests directed my way at the beginning of conversation when someone contacts me about sending certain legal tasks offshore for completion.

Regularly I advise potential clients that the first question to be asked, either of a lawyer or someone potentially assisting in the outsourcing of a legal project, is not “how much?” Instead, at the outset, determination should be made whether those who would work on the project have the skills, training and experience to complete the assignment(s) in a quality fashion. This necessarily involves a clear delineation of the proposed undertaking and the expectations of the outsourcer. Further, what are the assurances of confidentiality? Can the time deadline for completion be met? What about conflicts of interest? These questions should be asked of every U.S. lawyer whose services might be retained. Likewise, they should be asked of every person or entity involved in outsourcing legal assignments. It should be noted that offshore lawyers are not licensed in the U.S. and do not provide “legal services” or advice. Foreign attorneys, working offshore, complete assignments under the supervision and review of qualified U.S. attorneys in generally the same manner as paralegals, summer law clerks or junior associates in the U.S. Indeed, the Code of Professional Conduct requires such supervision.

Cost savings achievable from outsourcing, however, seems to be the burning issue of the day. Large law firms, in particular, are looking for ways of cutting costs to maintain profitability or to even survive in challenging economic times. Dan DiPietro, client head of Law Firm Group of the Citi Private Bank, offered Storm Warnings (American Lawyer, Dec 2007) in observing “for the first time since 2001, expense growth actually outpaced that of revenue from January through June, depressing profit margins.” Sounding an ominous note, DiPietro observed that the biggest expense increases were in associate salaries and in occupancy and technology costs. His warning proved prophetic, as a number of old-line law firms closed their doors in 2008 including Heller Ehrman, Thelen LLP, and Thacher, Proffitt & Wood. Other large law firms are reducing staff and lawyers, including de-equitizing partners. Corporate clients are cutting the number of outside firms they engage, while pushing them to become more efficient. It is becoming increasingly apparent that difficult decisions are on the horizon for many law firms and their clients. Law firms want to retain their rainmakers, secure the best legal talent available and keep their profits per partner high. Clients want their overall costs for outside counsel reduced. How will these issues be addressed, particularly in a difficult economic climate? Outsourcing is one way of potentially confronting the challenges. Thus, the question, how much can I save?

Assuming the proper initial inquires have been made and adequately addressed, what are the cost savings reasonably attainable by an outsourcing U.S. law firm and its clients? Answering that question necessarily involves a comparative analysis of revenue and expenses. Suppose a large U.S. law firm wishes to consider outsourcing work that might otherwise be performed by one U.S. associate working exclusively for one of the law firm’s corporate clients. The junior associate bills 2000 hours annually at the lawyer’s hourly billable rate of $200.00, for a total annual cost to the corporate client (and income to the law firm) of $400,000. The law firm’s expenses chargeable against the income produced by its associate include the lawyer’s base salary ($160,000) and bonus (say $20,000) plus the associate’s share of overhead expenses for occupancy, support staff, benefits, marketing, recruitment, technology and other expenses. In its 2006 survey, Altman Weil, the well-regarded legal consulting firm, estimated average annual law firm expense per lawyer at $161,893. (Doubtless those expenses have increased since 2006, but, for the purposes of conservatism, we will use Altman’s 2006 number in our example.) Altman’s breakdown included promotion ($7,136), reference ($4,655), equipment ($9,299), occupancy ($25,879), staff ($55,147), paralegal ($17,911) and “other”($41,866). In the Altman survey, “other” includes malpractice insurance premiums and settlements, payments to former partners, recruiting costs, and other expenses not shown separately. Adding the associate’s share of expenses ($161,893) to the associate’s total earnings ($180,000) it is apparent that it costs the law firm a total of $341,893 to produce $400,000 in associate income. Let’s call it a $60,000 law firm profit attributable to the associate’s efforts. Put in other terms, it costs the law firm $171 per billable hour of the associate’s time to produce $60,000 of profit.

Now, assume the same 2000 hours were produced offshore at a cost of, say, $75 per hour instead of $171 per hour. (Higher end outsourced work such as legal research or writing might cost in the range of $75.00 per hour, while other kinds of work such as document review would likely be less. For purposes of our analysis, we estimate the overall offshore costs toward the higher end.) The actual cost to the law firm for 2000 offshore hours at $75 per hour would be $150,000 instead of $341,892. Further, the law firm’s client could be billed, say $240,000, for this work instead of $400,000. (Recent bar association ethics advisory opinions allow for a reasonable supervisory fee by the law firm, providing the client is advised of the off shoring and the Code of Professional Conduct, particularly Rule 1.5, is followed). The client would happily achieve a savings of 40%, while the law firm’s profit would also likely increase. Moreover, the law firm would require fewer associates at the ever-escalating salary structure (now starting at $160,000 base) for lawyers from top tier law schools. Because of overall lower costs and a fewer number of new associate hires, the firm would be able to more effectively compete for a reduced number of premier U.S. attorneys it decides to hire. Over time, partner equity and distributions would be shared with a fewer number of individuals. Thus, an outsourcing program for selected legal assignments, carefully implemented and supervised, can potentially result in greater client satisfaction and retention as well as enhanced law firm profitability.

In 2007 Mayer Brown, a 1500 lawyer Chicago based law firm, purged 45 equity partners. While denying any sort of crisis, James Holzhauer, chairman of the firm, commented on the move: “It’s necessary to manage a law firm like you manage any kind of big business and make sure you have the right staffing going forward.” Outsourcing, seen by some law firms as the enemy of law firm profits, may in fact be the opposite. Without doubt, even if some law firms are reluctant to change the traditional ways, their clients are not. In August of 2007 observed that “clients are pushing firms like Jones Day and Kirkland & Ellis to send basic legal tasks to India.” It is significant that this “push” came well before the global financial collapse of the last quarter of 2008. Regarding law firms, Holzhauer cautioned in March of 2007: “This (law business) is to a certain extent a fragile business. Our greatest asset is our people. If you’re not economically strong so that you can retain your best people and attract other strong people from elsewhere, a fragile business can have problems.”

Corporate clients are on a mission to reduce legal costs. Some of those clients would prefer to supervise the outsourced work in house, while others apparently are content with their chosen outside U.S. counsel overseeing the offshore work. Irrespective, legal outsourcing is on the table for consideration of cost control. “How much can I save?” is a question being asked by those who, a few short years ago, never imagined entertaining the concept of legal assignments being completed offshore.

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