Onshore unsure?

June 25, 2013

Onshoring is all the rage. But what are the career implications?

Photo: Shutterstock

There was once just one way to climb in law. Graduate, get a training contract with the best firm possible and scrabble your way up to partnership. Succeed, and you’re in the money. Fail and, well, your choices are limited.

The economic downturn may have been a catalyst for change, though. Facing fierce competition and continual pricing pressures, firms have been forced to think of new ways of delivering better value legal services.

And this may have important implications for UK lawyers interested in pursuing a different – and more flexible – kind of legal career.

The rise in onshoring

Offshoring – to, say, India or South Africa – has long promised a cheaper solution for back-office functions and basic legal services. But, being a risk-adverse bunch, lawyers often struggle with the idea of shipping out work to far-flung and seemingly unmanageable shores. So increasing numbers are choosing what is seen as the safer option and onshoring such services to cheaper UK locations instead.

A thriving centre for such onshoring is Belfast (pictured). Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) has just launched ‘Respond’, a team of 12 graduates who have been recruited to the Belfast office to work as legal assistants on a part-time, flexible basis. They add to the office’s existing complement of 114 full time staff, including 107 fee earners.

While the group are currently all working as legal assistants, the firm plans to expand the team rapidly, including qualified lawyers by the autumn. Apart from benefits to the firm and clients, HSF hopes that the initiative will offer more opportunities to law graduates and those lawyers seeking a more flexible work-life balance.

Allen & Overy too has been making more of its NI offering, recently adding 67 jobs to its team of 300 people who cover a range of support and legal functions.

Credible career option?

With these moves comes a perception among large UK law firms that such offices could increasingly offer a ‘viable career path for domestic lawyers’. (This is according to research conducted by outsourcing consultancy specialist Fronterion, back in 2010.)

In the wake of redundancies across UK law firms, the study pointed to rising interest from qualified UK lawyers in job opportunities offered by legal process outsourcing (LPO) providers in the UK. Nearly half of the LPO respondents also expected to be recruiting more qualified lawyers to their onshore centres.

The question is whether this really is a good alternative option for lawyers.

Much of the legal work undertaken by onshoring and offshoring centres is low-value, process-driven work. And the need to keep down costs means that investment in training and career development is likely to be low. Managing the churn in a dead-end job is hardly the stuff of career fantasies.

Flexibility will be one big job advantage of the onshore legal centres, but it’s unlikely to be enough. Even the promise of part-time, contract or flexible hours will not assuage an average lawyer’s desire to advance to work that’s just a little more sophisticated. But by that time, the options to move back into mainstream law will be limited.

Promising signs?

Legal work is likely to become a bigger component of onshore (and offshore) centres if law firms want to offer more options to clients at a lower cost-base. In that case, firms will have to seriously consider how they are going to attract good-quality qualified lawyers.

HSF is showing promising signs by offering its Respond team on-going training, professional development and career programmes. It’s unclear exactly what this means, but given that this team has been brought in to help the firm during particularly busy periods, and within the context of generally expanding its legal service offerings in Belfast, then it might be assumed that the work will be more varied and evolving.

It’s a development worth watching in any case. Because if these larger brands can get it right then other firms will follow. And then the onshore proposition might just become a true alternative to the 24/7 grind of the more traditional legal career. CP

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