Russell Smith is only rarely in the New York headquarters of SmithDehn LLP, the firm that bears his name. He spends most days working from his Mysore, India, office, where he first went to study yoga. Before that, he was stationed at his beach house in Montauk, Long Island.
But in March he was in the the ten-lawyer media and intellectual property firm’s generic-looking New York conference room. Among the lawyers seated there were British and Irish transplants. A poster on the wall behind them read “Who be dis Ali G?” Ali G, aka Sacha Baron Cohen, the star of Da Ali G Show and the lawsuit-laden film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, is one of Smith’s clients.
But it’s not Borat business that brings Smith, 51, to New York. It’s India. The team has spent the past eight days meeting with movie studios and publishers to market its new idea: outsourcing legal work to India. Smith has opened a 40-lawyer Indian outsourcing subsidiary, SDD Global Solutions Pvt. Ltd. The lawyers do legal research, draft pleadings, and memoranda, and process U.S. visas and health insurance claims, all for $30-$90 an hour.
Smith Dornan, founded in 1996, is not a traditional law firm. That’s probably because its founder, Smith, isn’t a traditional lawyer. “He just sort of refuses to conform to the rigid legal stereotype,” says Aaron Georghiades, executive vice president of SDD Global.
He made partner at Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz (now Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz) in 1994, but quickly felt the need to move on. “I began to think I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore,” says Smith. His solution: a yearlong sabbatical on the northwest coast of Ireland.
Smith intended to spend his time in Ireland, a country he had been visiting for years, engaged in quiet contmeplation. It didn’t work out that way. “People would just be knocking on my door bringing a bottle of whisky.” He did manage to write a novel, but the book was never published–mostly, says Smith, because he wasn’t a good writer.
He came back to the states in 1996 and started his own firm. His first case involved Rent, the musical. Smith represented Lynn Thomson, who claimed she was denied royalties and credit for her work on the Broadway show. Smith won. Next he tackled a libel case for Roberts Reinhart Publishers of Boulder. He hired Eamonn Dornan, the head of the legal department at the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, a non-profit organization for Irish immigrants, and the firm was born.
But Smith was restless. He’d been practicing yoga for many years and in 2004 he went to Mysore to study “at the feet” of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. After many visits to the city he began to notice both the many talented lawyers and the low cost of doing business. In April 2006 Smith launched SDD Global.
Smith Dornan now represents 12 television series, as well as Home Box Office, Inc., Sony Pictures Television, and the William J. Clinton Foundation. Since he works on Indian time, Smith gets woken up most nights. The price of not conforming.