LPO’s Have Become Legal Project Outplacement Firms: They Are Outplacing Legal Work from Traditional Law Firms

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                                                                             Jerome Kowalski

                                                                             Kowalski & Associates

                                                                             October, 2011


 The guild rules designed to govern the practice of law and create barriers to entry by unlicensed professionals have been completely trammeled.

As the legal spend continues to decline, competition for the ever diminishing budgets for outside counsel continues to fiercely escalate.  Today, we again address the stiff competition coming from offshore legal project outsourcing.  Frankly, United States law firms, the American Bar Association and regulatory agencies governing bar admissions and the unauthorized practice of law seem completely clueless as to what is actually happening in the marketplace.

The LPO industry is a growing behemoth.  Still barely in its infancy, LPO’s will likely reach revenues of $2,500,000.000 next year.  That may seem a pittance compared to he $180,000,000,000 revenues derived by law firms, but revenues for LPO’s continue to grow exponentially, while law firm revenues remain largely flat.

LPO’s initially entered the market by focusing on the processing end of legal work.  As Jeff Carr, general counsel of FMC Technologies, has frequently noted, legal work falls into one of four buckets:  Processing, counseling, advocacy and content.  LPO’s got their noses into the tent by offering to handle the processing component arguing, quite correctly, that US law firms were ill equipped to handle large volume processing efficiently, while LPO’s, staffed by low paid foreign lawyers and aided by state of the art technology, could perform these services at a small fraction of the price of large law firms, allowing these law firms to focus on the other more lucrative buckets, for which these firms were far better suited.

At the outset, LPO’s marketed their services to law firms, offering to serve as their subcontractors. Law firms, in turn, often simply “marked up” the fees charged by LPO’s, on the rubric that the firms were assuming some level of supervision and risk and, well, it was a pretty easy way to make a couple of extra bucks. In short order, sophisticated clients, dealing with sophisticated LPO’s,  entered into direct contracts with LPO’s, having general counsel use the services of LPO’s directly.  Corporations, the ultimate consumers of LPO services, used their economic prowess to extract favorable pricing from LPO’s and often then directed their outside law firms to utilize the services of LPO’s with which the corporate clients had favorable pricing arrangements.  These LPO’s were essentially “designated subcontractors.”

LPO’s are well capitalized and are investor owned. These two factors provide LPO’s with enormous advantages over law firms.  Their technology tends to be light years ahead of that typically  used by traditional law firms.  They are not bound by much of the expensive baggage weighing down traditional law firms, like expensive midtown office space or paying off outmoded technology  cquired years ago.  I have had the privilege of meeting and working with some of the world’s best LPO’s.  I’ve uniformly found the leaders of these LPO’s to be exceptionally bright and astute business leaders.

But, even as the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission dawdles with merely tinkering Model Rule 1.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct by making some minor revisions and expanding the Rule’s comments to provide the guild’s belated imprimatur to the LPO industry, the facts on the ground have created new realities.  Perhaps only an idealist might believe that the Model Rules are designed to do anything more than create artificial barriers to entry.  Any realist recognizes that free market forces rendered the attempt to be of no moment.

The fact is that LPO’s are working hard to get in to each of Jeff Carr’s four buckets. At a recent Global LPO Conference, much of the discussion by LPO leaders was about inroads they were making in these buckets.  One LPO leader chaired a panel in which he encouraged the industry to re-brand itself, since calling the industry Legal Process Outsourcers created the misimpression
that it was focused only on processing.  I, for one, view the industry as simply providers of legal services.  Period.

Another LPO leader boasted about serving as a processing outsourcer on multi-district related litigation in which the lead counsel and the corporate general counsel concluded that the time was ripe to file some 61 motions for summary judgment in related cases across the country.  Lead counsel estimated the cost of preparing these motions to be in the area of $1,500,000.   The LPO offered to prepare these motions for approximately $350,000.  The motions were in fact ultimately prepared in India and revised and edited by lead counsel; the client saved nearly $1,000,000.  Welcome to the advocacy bucket.

These alternate providers of legal services have for long been preparing routine corporate, real estate and financing documents.  Welcome to the content bucket.

And these providers of legal services have been providing basic and sometimes even advanced legal research to support both general counsel and outside counsel in their counseling functions.

The fact is that the only areas in which these providers of legal services are precluded from active participation are in connection with actual court appearances and signing legal opinions. The workaround here is rather obvious and likely inevitable.  All that an LPO needs to do is to establish a U.S. law firm, populated by duly admitted American lawyers, which will own the equity of the law firm (obviously to circumvent the bar against non-lawyer ownership of law firms), and have these captive law firms contract with the LPO to have the latter handle all of the firm’s “processing” requirements – inclusive of every one of the four items in the bucket, save for court appearances and the signing of legal opinions. Control over the nominal U.S. law firm would be maintained by the LPO, which will have the captive law firm sign a promissory note for the funds it has advanced to capitalize the firm. (After all it has sometimes been said, not completely in jest, that the largest owner of law firms is Citibank, the premiere lender to law firms, which has some 650 law firm clients and 38,000 lawyer clients).

My friend and professional colleague, Bruce MacEwen, writing as Adam Smith, Esq., recently noted that the LPO’s are “smart, stocked with top talent, well-funded, strategically astute, and not the least bit afraid to break some china.”   My only disagreement with Bruce is that these folks won’t be content to simply break some china.  I believe they are planning on walking away with the china closet.

At the end of the day, traditional law firms will need to consider developing their own LPO, aligning with an existing LPO or, perhaps finding some different lines of work.

One final cautionary important postscript:  LPO’s typically carry about $5,000,000 in E&O insurance. In a world where we already have one claim pending against a prominent law firm  redicated on errors allegedly committed by its LPO subcontractor in connection with a matter that may involve some $380,000,000, Quite clearly, LPO’s need to materially beef up their coverage, law firms and general counsel need to examine any LPO’s coverage and law traditional law firms should use their own expanded insurance coverage as an important marketing tool as they will increasingly compete toe to toe with these alternate providers of legal services.

In all events, as Paul Lippe of so cogently observed, non-traditional law firms may well eat the lunches of many traditional law firms and these traditional law firms must now take notice and action.

Jerome Kowalski, October, 2011.  All Rights Reserved.


15 Responses

  1. Great analysis on one of my favorite topics. Do you see the LPO acceleration reaching a tipping point in the near future or do you think its capture of market share from traditional law firms will be slow and steady over the next couple of years?

  2. […] market factors will dictate the answer. Those market factors will in some measures be driven by the relentless competition from LPO’s who provide the equivalent fodder of novice lawyers at a fraction of BigLaw rates.  […]

  3. […] There will be a marked increase in offshoring, a phenomenon I previously addressed. […]

  4. […] the concept of the year was “Alternative Fee Arrangements” and value billing. In 2011, it was LPO’s and outsourcing. Plastics, AFA’s and LPO’s have stayed with us since they each emerged as the flavor of the […]

  5. […] web sites. At the same time, BigLaw will be competing, again to its competitive disadvantage, with offshore unregulated alternative providers of legal services, which are continuing to grab sizeable market share and are indifferent to the requirements of […]

  6. […] to an estimated $2,500,000,000 in 2012 with some estimating a doubling of that number by 2015.  As I have said in the past, it is a major mistake to simply think of LPO’s as limited resource providers of […]

  7. […] Increased direct competition for the legal spend from LPO’s and other alternate providers of legal…. […]

  8. What are the trends in legal outsourcing?…

    The most significant trend I see is LPO’s moving in to direct competition with traditional law firms, contracting directly with clients and delivering a wide array of legal services that  were previously thought to be the sole of the traditional law fi…

  9. […] regulators were and continue to be asleep at the switch as nonlawyer owned and unlicensed LPO’s moved and continue to move to openly practice law in the United States and nonlawyer owned and unlicensed Internet providers of legal services do the same, These […]

  10. […] structure for the delivery of legal services, which will have real value, be saleable and scalable. Our LPO competitors have already figured out how to do so and may be soon eating our lunch. And their enterprises have real […]

  11. […] structure for the delivery of legal services, which will have real value, be saleable and scalable. Our LPO competitors have already figured out how to do so and may be soon eating our lunch. And their enterprises have real […]

  12. LPO Services deals with Legal Process Outsourcing Services, Intellectual Property Services, Personal Injury Services, Bankruptcy Services, and Legal Research.It offers a comprehensive suite of services covering Legal, Paralegal and Secretarial aspects of law.LPO firms in India had predicted an annual growth of 200% due to recession related litigation and the increased need to save costs in the U.S. Their expectations have not been met.The major reason for this is that U.S. lawyers themselves have started looking at alternative fee structures due to the recession and job losses.In spite of some setbacks, the LPO industry has seen growth of about 40-60% in the last one year. Although some areas of practice, such as real estate, have drastically collapsed due to the recession, some areas such as litigation, document review, and corporate compliance, among others, have gained ground, resulting in a good amount of business directed to LPO firms in India.

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