When I look at the pile of articles which I dictated before Christmas, and at the mess which my voice recognition software has made of them, I wonder if the time has come to outsource the typing around here. Instead of talking into a machine and trying, days later, to work out what I meant from the random selection of words on the screen, I could have someone like that nice Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) from Mad Men sit beside me and take down my drafts, leaving me free to concentrate on what really matters. Perhaps Mad Men’s Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) would come and run the office, whilst Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) from The Devil Wears Prada would do all those other litle jobs which distract from my primary business functions.
That is not really outsourcing, of course – that would involve sending the dictation to South Africa or India, which would be less enjoyable but probably more efficient (or at least less distracting). The real answer, in fact, is to invest in better technology, and get voice recognition equipment whose output more closely resembles what I dictate.
The point of this rather glib introduction is to draw attention to the fact that every business needs to reappraise how it gets its work done. The nature of the work may change; new inventions can provide faster, cheaper or better ways of getting through the work and thus make time for things which add more value to the working day; new services are offered by people who specialise in a sub-set of your activities, and who can do it better for a lower cost. The only mistake is not to consider from time to time where the bottlenecks are in your production process – and most businesses are, at bottom, production lines, even for those of us who publish words for a living. I am unwilling to delegate as much as the placement of a comma to anyone else, so my focus is on better technology to accelerate the production process and on minimising the time spent on activities which, however essential, are peripheral to getting words published. It gives me more time to decide where that comma goes.
Although I usually try to add some value of my own when passing on links to articles by other people, there are two reasons why I simply point you to Fronterion’s LPO (Legal Process Outsourcing) predictions for 2011 and to Integreon’s comments on them. The first is that Integreon and Fronterion are not just big players in the LPO market but shrewd and informed – and objective – commentators on it; they need no additional comment from me. The other is that the last few weeks of 2010 were packed with useful and interesting things, and I do you a better service by pointing to as many of them as possible than I would by adding detailed commentary on a few. There is no point in publishing things just before a holiday, which is why I am only now picking up what I squirrelled away at the end of the year.
One of the problems with snappy labels like “outsourcing” and “LPO” is that they have no real meaning to those not already alert to them – the audiences we are all aiming for, in other words. I often find it helpful to use more discursive ways of saying what I mean: “proportionality” becomes “a balance between the estimated value and the estimated cost”; “defensibility” is better understood as “can I justify my steps to my opponent, the court, my client – and myself”?”; “early case assessment” has become just another noise phrase, where “early assessment of the facts, issues and prospective costs of a case” is a common-sense description of what must be done.
In the same way, when Ron Friedmann of Integreon asks “what is the best way to centralise non-core support functions in a low-cost location?”, outsourcing becomes a more meaningful idea. That “low-cost location” need not be south of Dover, despite my reference to sunnier climes in my opening paragraphs. In UK terms, it may be a small firm down the road or in a regional city where someone with a lower cost-base and a better process is able to perform cost-effectively a task which you can do only at a loss or at a price which is unacceptable to the client (oh, and by the way, the word “process” becomes demystified if you think of it as “this is how we do things here”, with its implication that someone has thought through what resources, at what cost, must be applied to a specific task in order to get it done quickly and cheaply without loss of quality).
You will recognise this concept – that parts of a legal task may be split up into discrete components and performed by those best able to do them quickly and cheaply – as part of the wide-ranging assessment by Professor Richard Susskind which is pulled together in his book The End of Lawyers? (and yes, I know this is my second reference to Richard Susskind’s predictions in a week, but this one was dictated before his excellent 2011 predictions podcast was published). Susskind published an article in The Times on this in October which focused on three predictions which he had made in 2008 – that clients would increasingly demand “more for less”, that “fundamentally new ways of sourcing legal work would emerge” and that there would be a “widespread uptake amongst lawyers of social networking systems”. The first two of those, he said, had already come about (and he referred specifically to CMS Cameron McKenna’s 10 year deal with Integreon to outsource its back-office and support services). Sending out document review to a specialist provider of these services (whether just for first-pass review or the whole exercise, and whether for a one-off job or as a standard practice) is no less outsourcing than long-term broad arrangements like CMS Cameron McKenna’s. As Ron Friedmann notes, firms are becoming less coy about offering this to clients as one (perhaps of several) available approaches for dealing with this expensive component of litigation.
I could not link you to Richard Susskind’s Times article because of the paywall and it now seems to have disappeared anyway. As firms come to re-evaluate their costs models against client perceptions of their services, they may care to look at The Times as a model – of what to avoid. The target is to offer more for less, not the reverse.
If you are interested in keeping up with developments in the outsourcing world, Fronterion has a new e-newsletter which is well worth getting (sign up from their home page). Integreon has a commitment to the spread of views and information which cover a wide range of legal business practices on their blog and on Twitter as @IntegreonEDD, plus Ron Friedmann as @ronfriedmann and Jeffrey Fehrman as @jfehrman. I was one of a group of industry commentators who was recently given a tour of Integreon’s Arlington impressive data facility. Just as one needs to get behind the snappy buzz-words, and to read the thoughtful commentary not just the marketing blurb, so one really needs to see the tangible elements of a provider’s service offerings when considering whether to outsource functions to others. Do your own technical facilities and in-house processes match up?