Wednesday, June 08, 2005

If The World is Flat...

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in his new book The World is Flat, argues that the global playing field is being leveled and that as a result the world is now flat. He argues that, “it is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on a more equal footing that at any previous time in the history of the world…. [W]hat [this] flattening of the world means is that we are now connecting all the knowledge centers on the planet together into a single global network which … could usher in an amazing era of prosperity and innovation.” (p. 8).

Among the forces that Friedman argues is flattening the world is outsourcing. He discusses at length the impact of outsourcing manufacturing and service jobs to India and China. Friedman argues that “no matter what your profession – doctor, lawyer, architect, accountant – if you are an American you better be good at the touchy-feeling stuff, because anything that can be digitized can be outsourced to either the smartest or the cheapest producer.” (p.14).

During my time here in India I have thought quite a bit about Friedman’s argument that the world is now flat and that American legal service providers risk the outsourcing of their work to smart and cheap labor abroad. But far from being outsourced, it strikes me that there is a remarkable opportunity for American lawyers to engage in “reverse outsourcing.” Many jobs that could be done locally in foreign countries could also be outsourced to American lawyers. Put simply, for matters such as international human rights litigation, American lawyers are among the smartest and cheapest producers of this commodity in the world. Among the smartest because we have a sophisticated bar that has been at the vanguard of developing human rights litigation. Among the cheapest because this bar includes the (i) pro bono practices of major American law firms, (ii) the contingent fee practices of the plaintiffs’ bar, (iii) the legal work of human rights NGOs and law school clinics, and (iv) the invaluable input of professional academics. All of these service providers do their human rights work for virtually nothing. They are very smart and very cheap.

Thus far, most of their energies have focused on providing legal services to the American legal market. But they could be more effectively tapped by interested groups in foreign markets. In short, now that the world is flat, foreign consumers of this commodity could outsource a part of their human rights work to smart and cheap legal labor in the United States. To give you a concrete example, if a human rights group in India were interested in outsourcing legal services to the United States, they could readily do so. This includes not only questions of international law, but also the analysis of Indian law, which is as readily available to clinical law students in the United States as it is to Indian lawyers in Chennai. All major Indian cases are reproduced in one reporter series, the All India Reporter, available in most libraries and digitized on one affordable website, If they were interested in securing answers, a wealth of interested human rights groups would be happily willing to assist them. To the extent human rights law can be digitized, much of it can be outsourced to a smart and cheap labor pool in the United States. Friedman may worry that his tax returns will one day be prepared for virtually nothing in Bangalore. I am fascinated by the prospect that Indian sex trafficking laws could be researched and briefed for virtually nothing by attorneys in Baltimore.

Another force that Friedman discusses that is flattening the world is open sourcing. (p.81) He describes open sourcing as self-organizing collaborative communities in which either reputation or knowledge-enhancement is the reward. It is peer-reviewed and relies upon only trusted sources. Each contributor in open sourcing usually will offer his own minor contribution -- a “patch” -- that fills a particular void or addresses a particular deficiency in the system. Linux and Apache software are preeminent examples of open sourcing. Open sourcing has expanded to other communities, such as a group of scholars who have created a free, community-edited, online encyclopedia at (p.95).

It strikes me that open sourcing is a force that the international legal community could utilize with much greater gusto. For example, if one were to view the human rights bar as a self-organizing collaborative community, one could develop answers to complex problems through open sourcing. If an Indian human rights lawyer is writing a legal brief on what constitutes slavery under Indian law and he has reason to believe that reference to Pakistani, Sri Lankan, English, or Canadian law might be useful to the brief, he should be able to request a legal “patch” and easily secure the answer. This patch provider does not necessarily have pre-knowledge of the answer, but he may be trusted to discover and deliver it. Perhaps specialized legal blogs are the beginnings of such open sourcing, although they rarely are used to provide legal “patches” in the manner I have described.

Outsourcing and open sourcing are forces that could change the way certain types of legal services are provided. Of course, these approaches are wholly inappropriate in many contexts. But if I am a struggling lawyer in India who would like to help a human rights victim who has a question that is morally challenging but pecuniarily insignificant, one would think that he should be able to outsource or open source the issue. And if the legal world is flat, he should be able to use these forces to secure an answer.


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