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Fulbright scholar to study legal work outsourcing

Jesse Fenichel has first-​​hand expe­ri­ence with the increasingly dif­fi­cult labor market con­di­tions faced by Amer­ican lawyers. A lawyer himself, and a sociology doc­toral candidate at North­eastern, Fenichel works in the sum­mers as a “temp attorney.” During his time at Northeastern, he has noticed sub­stan­tial decreases in the wages paid to temp attor­neys and the amount of avail­able work.

One reason, he said, is because lawyers in other coun­tries are doing a great deal of legal work at a lower cost. One of the most pop­ular coun­tries for legal process out­sourcing is the Philip­pines, where Fenichel will con­duct research for nine months starting in November thanks to a Fulbright award.

“I’m pretty excited,” Fenichel said of the award. “There has not been a lot of in-​​depth research into how much this burgeoning industry is affecting the legal pro­fes­sion in this country.”

The Ful­bright U.S. Scholar Pro­gram sup­ports about 800 American scholars and pro­fes­sionals who go to more than 100 coun­tries to lecture and/​or con­duct research in a wide variety of fields. The pro­gram is over­seen by the U.S. State Department.

Fenichel says a vast majority of legal work in the U.S., such as reviewing doc­u­ments for a large cor­po­rate litigation, doesn’t have to be done by a reg­is­tered lawyer, as long as a bar-​​certified attorney over­sees the work. So to save money and decrease the work­load of their own attor­neys, law firms send an increasing amount of basic legal work overseas.

“In 2008 the American Bar Asso­ci­a­tion had to address the issue because it was becoming such a big thing,” Fenichel explained. “And it basically gave its blessing.”

Legal process out­sourcing has even made its way to the United States’ highest court, Fenichel noted. In 2005 lawyers in India, working for a legal process out­sourcing firm, drafted a brief for a Supreme Court case.

India and the Philip­pines are two pop­ular des­ti­na­tions for U.S. legal process out­sourcing for a few rea­sons, Fenichel explained, including the fact they have sim­ilar court systems and legal pro­ceed­ings there are conducted in English.

While in the Philip­pines, Fenichel plans to research the bar­riers for how much actual legal work can be out­sourced and the impact the industry is having on both the Amer­ican and Philip­pine legal sys­tems. Fenichel said he plans to visit out­sourcing firms and speak with man­agers and employees there.

“I hon­estly don’t know what my find­ings will be,” Fenichel said. “But, when you look at other indus­tries that have outsourced, at first you think that, on a purely eco­nomic basis, ‘Why doesn’t the entire industry just get outsourced?’ But, with respect to knowl­edge work, the general expe­ri­ence has been that var­ious fric­tions pre­vent that from happening.”

Fenichel has never been to South­east Asia and hopes to utilize the prac­tical soci­ology skills he has learned at Northeastern to learn more about the people he will be working with in the Philippines.

“This research will be a sub­stan­tial part of my dis­ser­ta­tion looking at the con­tem­po­rary legal field and how globalization has dramatically changed the pro­fes­sion as a whole,” Fenichel said.

– By Joe O’Connell

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