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Now, legal research work moves to India

By Shakti Bhatt

To the long list of American jobs that are potentially at risk from outsourcing, one can now add legal research work.

Research, along with other back-office work carried out at lawfirms, is the next set of white-collar jobs that companies in India are gearing up for.

"What we have witnessed not only in the last few years but the last decade or so is business process outsourcing." said Ashok Deo Bardhan, a senior economist at University of California, Berkley's Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics.

"Although it is a high-value added work and is relatively recent phenomenon I believe this is only in the beginning."

Openwave Computing, a New York consulting firm that has more than 150 employees in Chennai, "stumbled upon" this area of providing research for its clients in the United States that include law firms, said its vice president of development, Sumeet Nath.

Nath, however uses the term "subject matter expertise" instead of "legal research" which, he said, can be misunderstood.

"It's a huge issue," he said of outsourcing of legal research.. "I want to make it clear that we do not provide case files which are confidential and contain sensitive information."

Outsourcing of legal work has the same benefits of finance-, software-, or accounting-related professions: the cost and time differentials.

According to a recently released report by Bardhan and his colleague Cynthia A Kroll, The New Wave of Outsourcing, paralegals and legal assistants are paid an hourly wage of between $6 to $8 in India compared to $17.86 in the US. Based on 2001 Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 180,000 Americans are currently employed in this profession.

The New Wave of Outsourcing, which mainly consists of business services outsourcing, will leave few professions untouched, argue Roll and Bard han. Indeed, the study says any job that mainly involves 'sitting at a desk, talking on the phone and working on the computer, is a job under potential threat.

To enable legal services for its client, Open wave Computing has developed strong partnerships with law firms, law schools and bar associations across India, Math said.

"We will concentrate on students who have concentrated on US law, "he said. "We also have exclusive access to recruit from North India as well as South India. It is an opportunity we are still in the process of exploring and building pilot projects for our cilents."

Nath said he is aware of the backlash against outsourcing in the US and said his company is "very careful" not to market or advertise this part of their services but only cater to their client's specific demands.

Bardhan considers the backlash against outsourcing, so far, as "mild." He points to the "awkward position" that the US is in as it takes regulatory measures in public sectors to restrict outsourcing in certain areas.

"This time, the free market chicken has come home to roost ," Bardhan, who with Kroll and Dwight Jaffe is also the author of the forthcoming, Globalization and a High-Tech Economy, said. "Yet, the US point of views is too much of an alarmist kind.

"Off the 800 occupations that are detailed by the Bureau of Labor, a surprising number are not "outsourceable" - like real estate and the food industry and even parts of the financial and information technology sector work where interaction with the customer is required."

Despite Bardhan's comforting view on outsourcing, his own study estimates that almost 14 million jobs are at risk from outsourcing, more than four times the 3.3 million figure forecast by Forrester Research that has been ubiquitously quoted.

"In the '80s; the Indian economy was protectionist because it was unable to compete with foreign goods," said Nath of Openwave. " The US is adopting the same measures because its major sectors are unable to compete with labor prices, that is a fact."

According to Bardhan, the US stand is based more on convenience than principle."A lot of people who promote free market do so when they are on the selling side," he said. "When they are on the buying side, they quote Karl Marx."

A few weeks ago, British media reports stated that lawyers in the United Kingdom too plan to move legal document production overseas, particularly to India, putting under threat the jobs of about 20,000 legal secretaries.


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