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India outsourcing
Anup Bhasin, UnitedLex COO, with young lawyers working in the company's document review department. (Ranjan Basu/GlobalPost)

America the Gutted: Outsourcing the law to India

Legal work from America is already changing lives in India — and the business is just starting to take off.

NEW DELHI, India — On the 15th floor of a gleaming new office building on the outskirts of New Delhi, around 100 professionals — fresh-faced enough to be college students — peer at flat-screen monitors and peck away at keyboards. The cluster of pink and blue cubicles might easily be confused for one of India's infamous call centers.

But the hushed, library silence hints there's something different going on here at the Indian outpost of Overland, Kansas-based UnitedLex. With revenue of $40 million and 750 employees, the company has emerged as one of America's fastest growing over the past three years, somewhat paradoxically, by outsourcing to India the work once done by American lawyers and paralegals.

“I'm 41, so I'm like the office elder,” said Vikram Masson, the transplanted US lawyer who runs the company's litigation support services division. Most of his team, which reviews hundreds of thousands of legal documents each month, is between 24 and 28 years old.

Welcome to the world of legal process outsourcing (LPO).

The LPO industry has had a profound effect on 34-year-old Nitin Jain, who works in UnitedLex's contract review division. Since joining from a firm where becoming partner would have taken at least a decade, he's climbed the ladder in less than half that time — and now leads a team of more than 20 associates. Along the way he's earned enough to help renovate the family home, which now has separate apartments for his parents and siblings. And he's started to spring for luxuries like vacations abroad.

“In day to day life, you don't have to think twice about things you want to own — a big LCD [TV], better furniture, all those things that affect you in day-to-day life,” Jain said.

LPO is the latest iteration of India's wildly successful offshoring industry. Demand for low-cost call centers and information technology services have spawned local multinationals such as Infosys and Wipro. “Business process outsourcing,” or BPO, created a new career path allowing millions of young Indians to enter the middle class, and to start fresh out of engineering school earning more than their fathers. This year, the Indian BPO business generated more than $100 billion in revenue. The industry employs nearly 3 million people — and has created some 300,000 US-based jobs over the past five years, according to India's National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom).

LPO looks set to play an even greater role in the next wave — expanding the scope of India's legal profession to push more Indians into the rapidly growing middle class.

India's middle class grew from about 3 percent of the population in 1995 to nearly 13 percent, or around 160 million people, in 2010, according to India's National Council for Applied Economic Research. LPO could swell those numbers, and skew their earnings upward, as the current definition includes families that earn as little as $6000 to $30,000 a year.

Currently, the entire Indian LPO sector only employs some 50,000 people, according to Sanjay Kamlani, the co-CEO of New York-based Pangea3, another top firm. But there's room for massive expansion. India already has more than a million practicing lawyers, and its law schools add another 70,000 new graduates to the rolls every year. Moreover, the LPO sector increasingly promises bright new careers for lawyers who may otherwise struggle to move up the socio-economic ladder.

“The Indian court system is pretty tough. It's not easy to make it as a litigator. Compounding that is the fact that most firms have some sort of family relationship, so unless you have a background or family influence, it's very hard to make it as a litigator on your own,” said Masson. “That's one of the prime drivers of the attractiveness of LPOs, especially for women.”

Growing at 60 percent a year, according to industry insiders, the LPO business could also dramatically increase the market for Indian lawyers over the coming years.

“We're the largest LPO in India, and we have 1,000 employees. The largest BPOs have 30- to 40,000 employees,” said Kamlani. “We have a lot of room in the LPO industry to scale [up], and there's no problem adding double, triple, even going to ten times the current headcount.”

For 30-year-old Aby Mahajan, an associate at a small, New