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  • July/2010

Growth in Legal Outsourcing Creates New Challenges

by Jared Newnam
July 29, 2010

Wanted: Legal associate with at least two years of experience to do high-end legal research for U.S. law firms. Location: Bangalore, India.

Try doing an internet search for legal jobs and you’ll find scores of postings like the one above that aren’t so close to home. Welcome to the burgeoning business of legal process outsourcing (LPO), where lawyers in India do the work for a fraction of what it would cost in the United States.

“It’s cheaper for a law firm to hire a lawyer in India than here,” says Doris Rachles, online director of Legal Studies for South University — Savannah. In fact, some U.S. firms are hiring lawyers overseas to do work that paralegals do here. That means schools need to train paralegal students to be competitive, Rachles says. “We need to offer more than they get when they hire lawyers in India.” 

South University offers both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in Legal Studies. Graduates often go on to become paralegals. “A paralegal basically does everything lawyers do, except they can’t give legal advice, can’t set fees in the firm, and can’t represent clients in court,” Rachles says.

Paralegals draft pleadings and interview clients. They can go to court but can’t argue; and they gather evidence, do investigations, contact expert witnesses, make appointments, and work a lot with clients. 

“People in India are doing this kind of work,” she says. “They are doing this by email.”

ValueNotes, an Indian research firm, reports that income from LPO services in India will grow to $440 million by the end of this year, up from $320 million in 2008. The number of Indian firms offering these services has increased from 50 in 2005 to more than 140 now. Just this year computer software giant Microsoft contracted with Integreon, a legal support services company, to have them provide contract and document review services from their offices in India.           

More accessible technology has helped LPO firms expand outside of the United States. Need to check out someone’s criminal record or mortgage data? Just log on to one of the subscription-based online legal research services, such as LexisNexis and Westlaw. These services give easy access to databases that feature all current U.S. and state statutes and laws and nearly all published case opinions from the late 1770s to present, as well as public records, including property deeds, motor vehicle registrations, death certificates, and more.

“It’s an electronic world,” says Rachles. “Paralegals have to be extremely computer savvy. If everyone is doing most of their work through emailing and online, our paralegals have to be experts in everything: cyberlaw, storing data, finding data, cleaning data, metadata.” 

Rachles is working on a new track at South University that will give students an edge in learning about advanced technology in the legal field. Two courses, Cyberlaw and Advanced Technology for Paralegals, will teach students about computer forensics, operating systems, encryption, data recovery, and the use of trial presentation software.

Rachles says LPO has accelerated in just two years ago, since the American Bar Association issued an ethics opinion that said it was okay for U.S. lawyers and firms to outsource legal work to both lawyers and nonlawyers in other countries “if they protect confidential information, ensure that the service providers are competent and suitably trained, and charge a reasonable fee for the work.” That opinion came on the heels of the Florida Bar Board of Governors opinion that authorized both domestic and foreign outsourcing in Florida. Other state bar associations are expected to follow this trend.

The use and sharing of electronic data, and shipping that information overseas, brings a host of ethical issues into the mix, Rachles says, including attorney-client privilege and confidentiality. “If the work is outsourced you have to get permission from the client to discuss the client’s case with someone outside of the firm. You can’t just hire these outside firms without getting your client’s permission.”

When the ABA gave the okay to outsource legal work, it did so with caveats. The association recommends obtaining written consent from a client before engaging in foreign outsourcing. It also recommends conducting reference checks and background investigations of the foreign legal providers and their workers and analyzing the foreign company’s security systems and to visit the provider’s premises. The ABA is currently reviewing the developments in global legal practice.

Though the trend to send legal work offshore may be growing, ValueNotes reports that there are plenty of firms in the legal community that have not considered offshoring. A large number of firms, irrespective of their size, were hesitant about sending work to another country, according to an online survey. It was found that less than 3% of the respondents had any experience with LPO. Overall, the exposure of U.S. law firms to legal services outsourcing is extremely limited, says the Indian company.

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A Pollution-Free Solution to Medicine Disposal

by Jared Newnam
July 27, 2010

Medication use has soared during the past 50 years. And with the proliferation of pill bottles in the medicine cabinet, healthcare professionals have long counseled patients about minding their supplies and getting rid of those drugs that have expired.

“What we worry about is patients bringing in new drugs, putting them on the shelf with old expired drugs, and then when they pull out their medicine bottle to take their meds, they take the old outdated one,” says Launa Lynch, an assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy at South University — Savannah. “You also worry about children getting into medicine cabinets and pulling out those old prescriptions.”

But the conventional wisdom for dealing the problem — flushing unused drugs down the drain — has created some unintended consequences. Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and personal care products are showing up in rivers and streams, says Lynch. And while levels are so infinitesimally low that studies so far show no health risk to humans, scientists increasingly voice concern about the impact on wildlife.

U.S. Geological Survey scientists, for instance, reported widespread incidence of “intersex” fish — that is, fish such as bass with both male and female characteristics — in river basins across the country in September 2009. Attributed commonly to pharmaceuticals and other household chemical compounds polluting waterways, this increased incidence of intersex raises concerns about the viability of fish populations and wider effects on the environment, says Lynch.

What is the safe way to dispose of unused medications? To help answer that question, South University’s School of Pharmacy recently teamed with officials in the city of Savannah to host the community’s first “Medicine Cabinet Cleanout” as part of its Earth Day RecycleRama celebration.

Area residents were invited to bring a variety of substances — human and pet medicines, prescription and over-the-counter drugs, vitamin and herbal supplements, liquids and pills — to Savannah’s Forsyth Park for safe disposal on April 17. To encourage appropriate disposal, organizers urged residents to drop off medicines along with recyclables such as paint, oil, tires, compact discs, batteries, and household electronics.

Thirteen pharmacy students and five faculty members from South volunteered at the event, identifying and sorting hazardous and non-hazardous medications. Many people took advantage of this rare opportunity. One man brought three garbage bags full of products that he said he had removed from his mother’s home, according to Lynch.

“This happens to be something that I want to research, looking at the amount of pharmaceuticals in waste streams and seeing how pharmacists can play a part in being good stewards,” she adds.

Promoting awareness and educating the public, the city also ran television commercial spots and set up a website on safe drug disposal, says Laura Walker, a Savannah environmental administrator who organized operations in cooperation with South University representatives. The effort was supported by the Savannah Water Resources Bureau, Walker says. It responds to a call from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for communities to offer safe “drug take-back” programs.

Because the priority was the disposal of potentially harmful medications, no participants were questioned for surrendering any medication at this “amnesty event.” Participants were encouraged to remove labels from medicines if they wished. “We tried to make this as discreet, open, and safe for people as possible,” says Walker.

And what is the appropriate method for destroying medications? “Incineration is the best way,” Walker says.

That was mainly the job of Return Logistics Inc., a Savannah-based company in the business of medication disposal. Also an event sponsor, Return Logistics inventoried and incinerated the medications at its specially equipped facilities.

“Water filtration hasn’t gotten to the point where we can filter out all drug molecules, but we have become good at having incineration with scrubbers, so chemicals don’t become airborne,” Lynch explains. It is important not to try to incinerate drugs at home — in the fireplace, for instance — because toxins potentially can be released into the air, she adds.

Responsible medication disposal can be difficult for some populations, Walker says. Drug take-back programs like Savannah’s Medicine Cabinet Cleanout are rare across the southeast — organizers say it was only the second such event ever in South Carolina. In some western states, pharmacies offer a “drop box” for safe disposal of medicines. Maine has a drug take-back program that is facilitated through the mail, Walker notes.

The federal government has issued guidelines for proper disposal of medications, Lynch points out, and information also is available through the American Water Works Association.

“We want to shift the paradigm of people’s thinking about the old guidelines for flushing drugs down the toilet when they become expired,” says Lynch. “There’s a better way to take care of it.”

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Prison Security Goes High-Tech

by Jared Newnam
July 15, 2010

With more than 2.3 million inmates in state, federal, and local prisons across the nation and some prisons housing more inmates than their official capacities, prison facilities are turning to sophisticated technology to keep control. 

Many modern prisons are built with a Panopticon design, a concept from the late 1700s that allows prison staff to observe inmates without the incarcerated being able to tell they are being watched. The design concept still is being used today, says Denny Powers, Criminal Justice program director at South University — Columbia. The layout usually includes a central control room or tower that provides corrections personnel a 360-degree view of inmates. 

“This coupled with video surveillance makes prisons safer and requires fewer correctional personnel for surveillance,” Powers says.

Many of the cameras used to monitor inmates are more sophisticated than those used by gas stations and shopping malls. Newer prison cameras are bullet resistant and able to withstand the force of a sledgehammer, and this sturdier design prevents inmates from disabling cameras during a fight or escape. 

However, today’s prison administrators are taking the monitoring of inmates beyond camera surveillance. A recent article in Popular Mechanics explains how some prisons are using radio-frequency identification tracking (RFID), a monitoring process where an inmate wears an electronic bracelet that tracks his or her movement throughout a facility.

Keeping some inmates safe require they be locked up, segregated, and isolated.

If an inmate wearing a RFID bracelet enters a prohibited area, an alarm will sound. RFID tracking also can make it easier to count prisoners, and prison staff can react quicker when inmates try to escape. An article published in 2009 by a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice describes other uses for RFID in prisons.

“A few correctional institutions have used the systems to provide information on prisoners' movements and to alert staff if there is an unusual concentration of people in a certain area,” states the article in the National Institute of Justice Journal. “Movement information can be stored in computers and could prove useful in investigations to determine who was present in a certain part of a building at a particular time.” 

Other, more advanced tracking mechanisms exist, such as biometric entry points that scan an inmate’s iris or fingerprints. However, cost is a major hurdle with biometric technology, especially considering the large number of inmates that would have to be monitored at overcrowded facilities. 

In some cases, technology is isolating more dangerous prisoners as a method of protecting prison staff and other inmates. Some prisons conduct inmate visits using electronic audio/video technology, such as closed-circuit televisions. Teleconferencing and videoconferencing are used to allow inmates to appear in court remotely. In addition, advancements in packaged food technology enable many prisoners to remain in their cells during meal times.

Technology is also changing health care in prisons. Some prison medical facilities are now equipped with cameras and remote medical tools, allowing inmates to receive virtual checkups from doctors. The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), in a partnership with Texas Tech University, has a sophisticated telemedicine program where doctors can use cameras to remotely look down an inmate’s throat or listen to a prisoner’s heartbeat over headphones. 

“The most widely recognized cost-saving benefit of the use of telemedicine comes from reducing the need for travel which, in the correctional arena, has broad implications,” states a position paper from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. “The need to transport an inmate outside the confines of a correctional facility can be a significant barrier to providing medical care.”

Critics argue that relying on technology to limit face-to-face contact dehumanizes inmates and inflicts psychological damage through constant isolation. 

“Psychiatric research embodied in study after study as well as correctional standards recognize that depriving individuals of human contact creates conditions of extreme isolation that go on to either exacerbate existing mental illness or create mental illness in folks who were previously healthy individuals,” says Amy Fettig, staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. 

However, Powers says this isolation is necessary in order to keep other prisoners safe from more dangerous inmates. 

“Keeping some inmates safe require they be locked up, segregated, and isolated,” Powers says. “Hiring more corrections officers with higher standards costs more money, and taxpayers are reluctant to spend money on convicted criminals.” 

But what happens when technology falls into the hands of inmates? 

Corrections officers across the country have seen an increase in the number of cell phones being smuggled into prisons, and the devices let inmates contact people outside of prison. Some of these calls have enabled inmates to commit illegal acts, such as contacting other criminals outside of prison to organize crimes, harassing lawmakers, and even threatening and mocking the families of their victims. 

In many prisons, cell phones have become a more valuable contraband than drugs. According to a recent article in Time magazine, during a sting operation in Texas, an undercover officer was offered $200 by a prisoner for a cell phone and only $50 for heroin. 

“Smuggling in cell phones speaks to the poor procedures of the individual prison,” says Powers. “Unfortunately, members of the prison workforce are often corrupt and assist inmates by smuggling in drugs and other contraband.” 

Time reports that a California prison staff member admitted to making more than $100,000 by selling cell phones to inmates. 

While the cell phone problem can be addressed by cracking down on corrupt prison staff, technology is also being used to reduce the number of phones being smuggled into facilities. Full body scanners can locate contraband on prisoners more efficiently than body searches performed by prison staff. 

In addition, new technologies allow prisons to jam or block cell phone signals. The Senate has passed the Safe Prisons Communications Act, a measure that allows prisons to jam cell phone signals. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) forbids the practice, and cell phone companies are fighting signal blocking. 

What will prisons of the future look like? Powers says advancing technology will lead to inmates being monitored with more elaborate audio and video devices. Powers also believes inmates of the future will get even less human-to-human interaction. He predicts that the overcrowding problem will change the way prisoners are punished. 

“I see more segregation and isolation for violent offenders and fewer non-violent offenders going to prison,” says Powers. “The general public will determine whether we put more in prison or put them in community service types of punishment.”

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