Contract attorney work goes back to the farm: the fall-off in D.C. document review work

 

By:
Alexis Chrystos
Manager, The Posse List
 
 
 
 

We have received a fair amount of questions on the fall off of D.C. based document review so we thought we’d update our post from earlier this year

 
 

3 August 2017 – The D.C. Metro area used to be the place for document review work. In the years spanning 2002 to 2009 I remember contract attorneys streaming into D.C. for work because of the dearth of work elsewhere around the U.S. We were posting, on average, 8-10 projects a weak on the D.C. Metro job lists. Pay rates were $35-38 per hour.

 
 

Then things changed.

 
 

Back in 2009 we wrote that even with contract attorneys providing law firms and corporate counsel the opportunity to cut their bills/its costs with respect to e-discovery, the expenditures were still prohibitive, particularly in high-cost regions like D.C. and New York where the cost for document reviewers on a contract basis was higher than elsewhere in the U.S.   As we had reported, although firms and in-house counsel were using the developing state-of-the-art technology to drive costs down, corporations and law firms sought other ways to cover their e-discovery work – without sending it overseas.

 
 

We wrote about “farm shoring” – a development whereby law firms and staffing agencies plant e-discovery review projects in lower cost U.S. locales (away from the D.C. Metro area and NYC Metro area.

 
 

NOTE: farm shoring was started by the IT industry back in the 1970s, and the first wave of internet-era digital outsourcing started in the 1990s, most of the IT work focused on automating back-office tasks like payrolls and financial reporting, with digital software development added later. The software involved in back-office tasks like payrolls and financial reporting was a collection of huge programs maintained by armies of engineers. The internet allowed that work to be sent to low-wage nations, especially India. That brought the rise of the big outsourcing companies like Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys.

 
 

GE and Dupot had begun the trend of outsourcing low-level legal review to India. The work was primarily legal file review of product liability cases but quickly morphed into the legal process outsourcing industry we have today.

 
 


 

But although much IT work went to India and other off-shore “cubicle farms”, most companies did not wish to offshore work and ship jobs out of the U.S. to reduce costs. So they explored U.S. domestic rural locations. While the cost of living and labor wages in rural areas could effectively compete with the labor savings touted by offshore providers, it was the avoidance of offshore troubles such as cross-cultural confusion, transnational legal woes, and time-zone differences that was at the heart of its appeal.

 
 
 
 

That farm shoring has become even more the case today in the contract attorney business.  For example,  a large amount of English language D.C. contract attorney work (and even NYC English language contract attorney work) has moved to such areas as:

 
 
  • Atlanta GA
  • Columbus OH
  • Houston TX
  • Miami, FL
  • Nashville, TN
     
     

These are smaller metropolitan areas where pay rates are lower but the number and quality of contract attorneys is just as high.

 
 

NOTE: non-English language review work still dominates the D.C. market, a trend that shows no end. Over the last three years we have, on average, in D.C., posted 7 non-English language review projects to every English language review project. But this is also changing as corporations begin to use deep linguistic analysis platforms like Bitext for multi-language content which reduces the need for armies of reviewers. More on that development in a subsequent post.

 
 
 

But the areas that have seen huge spikes in work are the Metro Detroit area and the Charlotte/Raleigh NC area. There can be a $6 to $10 per hour differential from DC/NYC rates, meaning an enormous cost savings.

 
 

And it is not just the private litigation/investigation work. Federal government work is moving, too.  Posse List members who have secured jobs in the DoJ, DoL, FDIC, FTC, SEC, etc. have provided us a constant stream of information about work going outside D.C.

 
 

Yes, most antitrust and merger document review work will remain in D.C. We have spoken with D.C. law firms whose focus is antitrust/merger and they have told us that D.C. contract attorneys are often more familiar with the applicable practice issues and concepts that need to be resolved in such work.

 
 

But even antitrust/merger review work has been falling off. There have been only 7 antitrust/merger document review projects in D.C. this year, as compared to 13 at this same time last year.

 
 

And Federal government investigations and financial services work and civil litigations are being delegated out of D.C. to Federal agency satellite offices.

 
 

NOTE:  what is growing in D.C. are Federal government contractor positions offered by numerous  staffing agencies and legal vendors, as well as directly via Federal government agencies (we now have 18 Federal agencies posting jobs directly with us in addition to USA JOBS postings). These tend to be paralegal positions/law clerk positions that pay anywhere between $24 and $40 an hour and involve document review work, due diligence review, and assorted litigation support assignments.

 
 
 

In a recent presentation at an IQPC corporate counsel workshop on e-discovery, one general counsel noted:

 
 

we are all re-thinking our cost-saving strategies, and expanding it to ask not only who is performing document review, but where. Yes, we have focused on the developing use of AI technologies and CAR [computer assisted review]. But when it comes to brute force review … and  even CAR … we are accepting the fact that the location of the contract lawyers is irrelevant. The quality can be found all over the U.S. There is nothing magic about the D.C. contract attorney pool. That type of talent is all over the country, in lower-cost regions. 

 
 

His department has made it a policy to avoid, when it can, DC and NYC for contract attorney work due to the cost, a sentiment echoed by numerous GCs at the event.

 
 

And his comments echo what many staffing agencies that deal in D.C. have told us. Said one agency head (reflecting the views of many):

 
 
What I am seeing is the client asking, for instance, “can you staff this in Raleigh or Detroit and not D.C.  Break down the cost differential so I can see the numbers”.  And the type of staff – contract lawyer, paralegal, whatever – is totally independent of the location of the law firm staff. Or in-house staff for our corporate clients. It’s why we established review centers in The Triangle [The Research Triangle, commonly referred to as simply The Triangle, is a region in North Carolina anchored by the cities of Raleigh and Durham and Chapel Hill] and in the Greater Detroit Metro area. 

 
 

And so we have seen a significant upswing to these “on shore” centers – to U.S.-licensed lawyers in less expensive areas of the country.  And areas with a wealth of law schools, and a varied supply of legal skills and legal services capacity, so housing document reviews is not as expensive as other regions.

 
 

Which is why in the past year alone … based on off-the-record chats with several agencies … we have seen reviews destined for D.C. go elsewhere: for example, two 50+ lawyer document reviews to Chicago, three 45+ attorney document reviews (and multiple smaller reviews) to Raleigh and Metro Detroit, etc.

 
 
 
 

It also explains why The Posse List membership roster … we average 95 new members a month … has grown (percentage wise) in Florida, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio. Away from D.C. and NYC. Yes, the number of Posse List members on the D.C. Metro list is still the largest of all our job lists (we maintain 120 public job lists: city/state/region/country/law specialty/language), but these other U.S. state/metro lists I’ve mentioned are growing at a faster rate.

 
 
 
 

We’ll keep an eye on this trend.

 
 

POSTSCRIPT

 
 

This is not related to e-discovery document review but to the points I made about IT farm shoring. I thought I’d throw in a few comments from a recent Gardner (the “We-Have-A-Magic-Quadrant-For-Everything!!” company) on outsourcing, plus a few notes from a recent New York Times article about the subject:

 
 
  • The growth of offshore software work is slowing, to nearly half the pace of recent years.
  • Salaries have risen in places like South Asia, making outsourcing there less of a bargain.
  • IBM, one of the country’s foremost champions of the offshore outsourcing model, has announced plans to shift more work back to the U.S. and will hire 25,000 more workers in the United States over the next four years.
  • The nature of work is changing. It is becoming very local. As brands pour energy and money into their websites and mobile apps, more of them are deciding that there is value in having developers in the same time zone, or at least on the same continent.
  • The offshore industry is not imperiled. But from 2016 to 2021, the offshore services industry will have average yearly growth of 8 percent. The rate in the previous five years was 15 percent.
  • Domestic sourcing is here to stay, and it’s going to grow rapidly.
  • Key take-away: offshore services companies still excel at maintaining the software that runs the essential back-office systems of corporations. But today, companies in every industry need mobile apps and appealing websites more, digital “cognition” more, which can be made smarter with data and constantly updated. That software is best created by small, nimble teams, working closely with businesses and customers on the same time zone, or reduced time zone differentials – not shipped to programmers half a world away.

Good news

 

“Good news. I hear the paradigm is changing”

About the Author Gregory P. Bufithis, Esq.

Gregory P. Bufithis is the Founder & Chairman of The Posse List. He has over 25 years of experience in intellectual property law and digital media in the U.S. and Europe.

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