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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.