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Proportion of complex legal work in law departments is low and complexity does not equal high value

A law review article to be published by Mitt Regan, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, discusses offshoring legal services. At page 111, among several arguments in favor of outsourcing services, the authors write, “Finally, a firm may free up its internal resources for more complex work, thereby expanding capacity for higher-value activities.”

Dig into this quote with me.

Lots of the work of legal departments is not complex, not to the experienced lawyer who handles it. To solve a problem may take time (because more facts are needed, for example, or someone must make a decision or something has to occur) and may require attention to detail, but elapsed time and precision do not create complexity. Some legal research may even be necessary, not that that is the same thing as complexity. In sum, I would argue, legal problems that are challengingly complex account for only a fraction of the matters handled by a legal department.

To that point, I have already wondered about how eagerly in-house counsel strive for ever more complicated legal problems (See my post of Sept. 10, 2005: need for some B-players; Dec. 3, 2005: need to handle a steady diet of normal legal work; Dec. 5, 2005: rocket science and commodity work; and Dec. 12, 2007: lawyers need to do the work of lawyers.).

The second point from this quote is the implicit equation of complex legal work with higher-value legal work. It is probably true that innovative, game-changing legal arguments or tactics introduce new elements, forge different relationships, or run legal risks of a different sort than the traditional action or advice, but I doubt that high-value correlates necessarily with complicated. Essential blocking and tackling, done efficiently, produces ample surplus value.

Nevertheless, as the quote suggests, a general counsel might look to offshore providers to dispatch routine work and hope thereby to elevate the amount of complex and valued work done inside.