"IBM Documents Give Rare Look At Sensitive Plans on 'Offshoring'" blared the headline on page one of last Monday's Wall Street Journal, which went on to describe how the computer services giant plans to shift 3,000 computer programming jobs to countries such as Brazil, China, and India.
It seems every day brings a new story about a U.S. company closing down a factory or business division here, and moving the jobs offshore. The movement began with the shipping of low-skilled manufacturing jobs to Mexico and Southeast Asia. Then came the shipment of customer service jobs to call centers in English-speaking foreign countries (although low-cost-of-living U.S. states in the Midwest and deep South also benefited).
Now, American companies are beginning to ship out their professional jobs. Although the movement is still in its infancy, IBM
It is beginning to seem like there is no work that a U.S. worker can do that his employer cannot convince a foreign worker to do as well, and for less wages.
Next up: Lawyers
About a week ago, West, the best-known name in legal publishing in the U.S., began publicly ruminating about joining the stampede to India. For the past few months, West has been running a pilot program in Mumbai, India, where several Indian lawyers are preparing summaries of unpublished U.S. court decisions.
For those not in the legal biz, West is a unit of Canada's publishing behemoth, The Thomson Corporation
But as big as the company is in the financial world, financial publishing is only its third-largest business segment. The largest by far is its legal publishing arm, spearheaded by the twin on-line and off-line powerhouses Westlaw and West Publishing. Those two units, along with others such as RIA, Findlaw.com, and the BAR/BRI bar exam preparation program, combine to produce roughly 40% of Thomson's $7.6 billion in annual revenues.
West also employs over 100 legal editors in the U.S., who toil day and night reviewing court decisions and preparing summaries of their major points of law for use by lawyers doing legal research. So the hiring of a handful of lawyers in India may not seem like much of a threat to the larger U.S. legal staff -- especially when West requires the Indian lawyers' work to be quality-checked by the U.S. lawyers.
But eventually, the Indians' work will no longer need to be reviewed. They are, after all, qualified lawyers in their own right, English-speaking, and educated in a common law system (the same legal system as in the U.S.) And they receive on-the-job training from West instructors in India, supplemented by supervision and feedback from their counterparts in the U.S. Ultimately, the Indian lawyers' work product will equal the quality of the Americans', at which point, the biggest difference between West's U.S. and Indian lawyers will be that the Indians earn about one-fifth the salaries of the Americans.
How long it takes to reach that point should determine whether West decides to expand the program. For as IBM has learned, the difference between the wages paid to foreign workers and to U.S. workers does not translate immediately into corresponding savings. On the contrary, while IBM's Indian employees earn about one quarter the salaries of their U.S. counterparts, outsourcing industry analysts predict the company will save less than 25% on the cost of the workers in their first year.
This is probably due to the fact that the new workers, even if they have skills equivalent to their U.S. counterparts', are not thoroughly familiar with American laws. This would increase overhead costs for IBM, which would have to assign American in-house lawyers to check the Indians' work, decreasing efficiency and increasing costs.
But once the Indian lawyers are brought up to speed, those inefficiencies should disappear, making each dollar saved on wages more and more likely to translate into a dollar saved on operating costs for West. The example of another high profile user of legal services, General Electric
The future of legal outsourcing
In coming years, expect to see more and more companies outsourcing their legal work to offshore countries -- most likely former colonies of England with English-speaking workers, lawyers versed in common law, and highly educated populations.
In particular, companies with big contingents of in-house lawyers, like West and its staff of legal editors, will be moving more legal jobs offshore. If West, for example, begins to see significant cost savings from its India venture, and uses those cost savings to reduce the fees it charges to lawyers who use its services, its main rival, Lexis-Nexis (owned by Anglo-Dutch publisher Reed Elsevier
The impact back home
Dire as these predictions may seem for the U.S. legal establishment, as Fool Bill Mann correctly pointed out, outsourcing production of goods (including legal advice) ultimately lowers costs to the benefit of everyone. Here are a few other predictions that I see likely to arise from the move towards using offshore lawyers:
- For legal publishers, those who look abroad will lower their cost of producing goods, raising their profitability and increasing their ability to compete against less nimble publishers.
- For subscribers to those legal publications (i.e., American lawyers) they will see some of the savings by companies like West trickle down in the form of lower subscription fees. Moreover, these firms may even take a page from West's playbook and begin farming out low-margin legal work to smaller American law firms and outsourcing some of their own "litigation support" functions abroad.
- Translation, transcription, and document management services will all begin moving to low-cost providers in India and elsewhere, boosting the law firms' profits and enabling them to lower the legal fees they charge. These lower fees should, in turn, trickle down further to benefit the law firms' clients -- including companies such as GE, who will also already be benefiting from their in-house use of offshore lawyers.
- The double-savings to the American companies that buy the legal services will then trickle down further to the great mass of American consumers of the companies' products.
Rich Smith celebrated his fourth anniversary as a card-carrying Fool yesterday. He has held his lawyer's bar membership card for far longer, but holds no interest in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.