One of the largest law firms in the world is touting its new “back office” in Belfast, Northern Ireland, joining a prior “back office” in the Philippines. These operations seek to use ultra low cost personnel at local wages to do either non-billable work or, for special profit opportunities, to bill clients at markups of 500% and more.
Unfortunately, with the blessing of some bar authorities, this bit of magic is often accomplished without disclosing the full circumstances to clients, let alone getting informed consent. Who knows who all those timekeepers are on your bill, especially when there are dozens of them and few firms provide bios for non-lawyers or the document reviewers? More to the point, what are they actually doing, why, and is it really necessary?
While this is sold to clients as a benefit for them, that logic falls apart: Yes, these people are cheaper, but what are they worth? What they do requires minimal skill and training (hence, the outsourcing opportunity), but why is it even billable? It is the billable hour fiction of document review that is generating the profit for “big law” — it’s actually the prime mover of the whole “big law” fiction.
The game is often to portray some sort of savings to the firm as a benefit to the client and a sign of the firm’s efficiency — but it’s not unless the fee is proportionally lower and the work as good and actually as necessary. In the retail world, it’s Walmart that sells itself as offering lower prices by forcing down its costs (at the expense of suppliers) — does anyone pretend that Walmart also offers better or even equivalent quality? This is more like Tiffany’s advertising its jewelry is somehow a better buy if it uses untrained labor from the Third World. If Baker and other firms of this ilk are really saying that low cost is all that matters, they are just telling clients to go to the many other law firms where the ultimate fee is lower and the expertise as good or often better, pound for pound. Continue reading