What’s in a Name? “Legal” + “Process” + “Outsourcing”

    The news of Rio Tinto’s Legal Process Outsourcing (LPO) initiative has been widely reported. For a detailed report, I recommend Richard Susskind’s interview with Leah Cooper, the Rio Tinto General Counsel behind the initiative.

    The number of major outsourcing arrangements between leading LPOs and blue chip global law firms, banks and corporations has increased but the topic is rarely discussed publicly.  The Rio Tinto arrangement is one of the very few widely publicized.

    Cooper’s approach to her challenges (as well as her messages to the industry) will resonate with GCs around the globe, who face similar pressures of increased workload but constrained budgets. LPO enables law departments to meet rising workloads whilst reducing costs. It opens up a “new way of working” where quality can be achieved at reasonable cost by reallocating legal tasks to partner providers.

    Indeed, as I listened to this interview I kept coming back to Cooper’s notion of “a new way of working”.  Whilst I do largely agree with her comments, I have a slightly different take on how GC should think about legal outsourcing.

    The P in LPO: Process is Not a Dirty Word

    Cooper doesn’t like the “P”. She sees her LPO team as a genuine extension of her in house team, contributing to the overall workload and undertaking tasks that a junior lawyer within the in house team might otherwise undertake. She rightly points out that the “P” downplays or downgrades the importance and nature of the work.

    I agree that LPO is not about administrative form filling. Nor is it restricted to organizations with massive volumes of standardized documentation.  Process, however, is integral to LPO: it  is core to the how LPO lawyers perform tasks, even complex ones.  Moreover, process should be core to lawyers everywhere but typically is not.  The legal market finally seems to be waking up to the importance of this.  Law Firms Look at Process Management in The Legal Intelligencer (20 Oct 2009) discusses project management and process, including law firms that are now adopting Six Sigma, a tool some LPOs, Integreon included, have used for some time.

    The benefits of process include consistency, predictability, quality, productivity and defensibility – these benefits apply across many legal tasks of varying complexity, not just tasks which by their nature are substantively straightforward, standardized and routine. For example, one of our current projects involves a multi-national corporation with a suite of 20 “medium complexity contracts” used regularly in its business. The company has different attorneys around the world following different processes using different templates in different locations, accepting different edits with different results. The LPO process brings a method which is common, documented, repeatable and scalable. Beyond labor cost savings, working with an LPO helps the company reduce work volume plus improve consistency and therefore decrease risk.

    Smart buyers of LPO services are not simply looking for Day 1 cost savings – they demand long term transformation and improvements. A key value add of LPO is creating these longer term productivity and efficiency improvements by combining process expertise with legal know-how. It’s the same core task but delivered in a more modeled and structured fashion.  Richard Susskind discusses this in detail in his recent book, The End of Lawyers?

    “Process” captures implementation and transition planning, workflow, performance metrics capture and tracking, communication, and reporting. All of these are not ends in themselves – they are genuine tools for improving performance.

    So if you don’t like the word “process” then call it “method” or “systemization”. Whatever we call it though, it’s an essential ingredient to delivering and managing legal services – whether from an LPO, law firm, or law department.

    The “O” in LPO: “O” Means Outsource, not Offshore

    “O” is for Outsourcing, not Offshoring. Outsourcing is about an approach, not a location.  The offshore element of the Rio Tinto deal is what grabbed the headlines, but Cooper explains that quite a few projects have actually been performed onshore in the US, and are still achieving cost savings when benchmarked against the cost of the law firm model.

    LPO is not exclusive to India, nor those tasks which are suitable for offshoring. The “new way of working” is broader than that. We believe that outsourcing is a global phenomenon and LPO should be no exception. Outsourcing could be onsite at the customer’s office; it could be onshore, multi-shore or offshore.

    Offshoring to India is highly successful and can be a great way to reduce cost and create efficiencies, but it’s not the only way. Organizations want the right fit for their requirements, not a one dimensional solution.  Different locations offer different attributes and mature LPOs offer law departments and law firms an explanation of the differences and a choice.  One size does not fit all; one shore does not fit all.

    So What about the “L” You Ask?

    The “L” of course is for Legal, which should not be confused with traditional business outsourcing, such as commonly associated with offshore technical support or call centers. Legal outsourcing requires domain expertise. So for example, Integreon’s legal outsourcing services are supported by our staff of full time, licensed lawyers, who can work on-site at client or law firm offices or at any of our secure facilities located onshore, including in such familiar places as midtown Manhattan and London, or in equally secure and lower cost offshore locations.

    “Legal Process Outsourcing” therefore implies professional, experienced legal staff delivering quality, cost effective services from the client’s choice of locations.