Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Long Distance Relationships

Sure, the long distance thing always starts out well enough. You assume you’re going to stay in touch. You assume that nothing can go wrong. And hey, it’s kind of convenient to have the place to yourself again. But in the back of your mind, you know that what you had together won’t be the same when you’re so far apart.

I speak, of course of the lawyer-client relationship, and the law firms that outsource work on your case to foreign countries. In a bizarre twist, saving costs by sending jobs to India isn’t just for companies that make blue jeans anymore.

At this point, it’s very important to note that in America, lawyers have a monopoly on the practice of law. If you want legal advice, you’re either hiring a lawyer or trying to memorize the Wikipedia article on eminent domain. The latter approach is what you call a catastrophically bad idea, and will likely lead to an interstate being built where your bedroom used to be.

The only people allowed to give out legal advice are lawyers, who have passed the bar exam, which has granted them Magic Lawyer Powers. These include most of the skills of a paralegal, and a better parking spot. Now here’s where the fun bit happens.

When you’re suing someone, one of the Magic Lawyer Powers that a lawyer can call upon is the mighty subpoena. You get a court to make people turn over records to you, so you can read through their diary looking for the part that says “Dear Diary, today I committed a tort!” and use that as evidence.

But looking through a box full of diaries can be tedious. As not all law firms are lucky enough to have herds of unpaid interns wandering the halls, some of these firms have taken to shipping documents of one kind or another overseas. Lawyers in countries with lower costs of living (and lower costs of BMW leasing) do the tedious work, and ship the results back over to America, at a firm that may or may not have passed the savings along to you.

I say “have passed,” because recently the American Bar Association’s ethics committee advised attorneys that they should start passing the savings along to the client. This is merely an advisory opinion, and there can be a significant gap between ethical and legal. But ideally, a law firm will be open about shipping work to lawyers overseas.

As a client, I don’t know how I’d feel about spending money on a big fancy law firm, only to find out later that the work was done by some fellow making less in a year than the lawyer handling my case does in a week. The wacky part is that yout the client can’t go grab those savings yourself: Foreign Lawyer is not licensed in America, and so he can’t provide legal advice to you. You need to ask American Lawyer to hire Foreign Lawyer for his own convenience, and to pass the savings along to you.

And as a second year law student, I’m not going to pretend to be at ease with the prospect of outsourcing legal work. I mean, I don’t think every lawyer in a firm can be replaced, but tedious legal work is the domain of the first-year associate. On the one hand, I probably won’t feel the direct effect of outsourcing, but the secondary effects like lower wages or plain old unemployment have a very real chance of impacting new lawyers.

Long distance complicates everything.