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One of the great truisms of our age is that the modern law firm is client-driven. This occasionally sounds more like a wish than a verifiable assertion, and certainly so when it comes to legal process outsourcing (LPO).
We are still in the foothills of this debate, and there are issues regarding the quality of work that is being outsourced, the disintegration of the personal touch and the effect of this organisational rupture on client service - and that’s not even counting the human cost of layoffs. It’s also true to say that the LPO providers might need to address those more emotional questions in a more concerted way than they have up until now.
And yet even for those of us with an attachment to the benign late-20th century model of partnership, it’s hard to defy the logic of outsourcing. In virtually every firm in The Lawyer UK 200, cost per lawyer has risen inexorably. The only surprise is that an enterprising managing partner has not seen this as a business opportunity and pitched it to City firms. (Perhaps DLA Piper could hive off some of its regional network into a legal services supply company? Just a thought.)
Some lawyers think that they have been affected by technology because they have BlackBerrys. This is naive. Being able to access email day and night has speeded things up, but the profession has not yet been fundamentally changed in the way that the media or advertising has, to take two not entirely random examples. The commoditisation of free-to-air information that has revolutionised other industries is beginning to make its way through to the law. Anything that lawyers do that is not a reserved activity is vulnerable.
The fact that Slaughter and May - the very last firm you would imagine - is exploring this will be seen, as Osborne Clarke chief Simon Beswick says, as a “watershed moment”. It is a rebuff to anyone who still argues that outsourcing is the province of national firms such as Eversheds or Pinsent Masons. The question to be answered is this: Is your firm’s due diligence and document-processing worth a premium?
Belatedly, and sometimes painfully, the legal market is realising what globalisation means. As Mr Burns from The Simpsons would say: “Of course your jobs are safe. They’ll just be done by other people.”