We’ve written extensively about the offices of Orrick in Wheeling, West Virginia. It’s the place where non-partner track associates go to perform the kind of quasi-paralegal tasks that you really shouldn’t have to pay somebody $160,000 a year to get done.
Here’s the thing about these “onshore,” “insourcing” operations: they are successful. Ridiculously successful. In an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Orrick chairman Ralph Baxter called the decision to open the Wheeling center “one of the smartest decisions we’ve ever made for the firm and our clients.” And that’s coming from a man who made the smart decision not to merge with Dewey Ballantine.
The article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette focuses on the positive experience Orrick and Reed Smith have had in West Virginia. Most of it is happy-clappy tales of how wonderful the town is and how difficult it is to tell the difference between a man’s wife and his sister.
But the brass tacks of the piece is the money Orrick has been saving:
Orrick estimates the Wheeling facility generates cost savings of $10 million to $15 million annually, primarily as a result of lower salaries and real estate expenses than it would pay in San Francisco or other major metropolitan cities.
Reed Smith is also saving a bunch of money. Check out this money quote from a giddy Reed Smith partner, COO Gary Sokulski:
Reed Smith’s customer center now employs 300 including its e-discovery group and 75 staff attorneys, who, like Orrick’s career associates, are not on the partner track but perform document reviews, e-discovery and other tasks for the firm’s associates and partners.
“Instead of hiring a $130,000-a-year new lawyer, we get these people for less than half that number,” Mr. Sokulski said.
Now, somebody please tell me why all the law firms aren’t getting their next crop of document monkeys at half price?
I don’t want to hear about how clients need or expect the best lawyers in all the land to perform menial tasks related to massive discovery production. They don’t; for most part, we’re talking about work a reasonably diligent high school student could perform.
And while you might not get the very best students, there are a lot of decent law schools that are producing thousands of unemployed graduates every year. Biglaw firms can still get their fill of Harvard or Berkeley or top 5% lawyers to fill their traditional associate ranks. But when it comes to the jobs that just require man hours, there are more than enough law graduates clamoring for jobs that pay a middle-class salary and benefits. You never see one of these firms complaining that they can’t fill their West Virginia seats.
The only reason every Biglaw firm doesn’t already have an office in Wheeling or some other bombed-out crater of a former industrial town is that Biglaw firms are slow to change. They know how to hire people, they know how to fire people, but if these guys were natural businessmen…. well, they probably would have gone to business school instead of law school.
Unfortunately, you know who is even slower to change than law firms? Law schools. As we’ve said before, the problem is not the availability of these jobs, the problem is with the people who spent over $100,000 to go to law school who graduate and can get only these jobs (if they are lucky). The problem is with a law school model, dictated by the ABA, that forces every lawyer to be educated in a fairly similar way, regardless of the type of lawyer they’re going to end up being. Law firms might be able to recognize that not every associate is going to become a Biglaw partner, but the ABA can’t seem to understand that not every law student is going to become a judge or an academic.
What we need is the Wheeling version of law school: some glorified, year-long bar prep course that teaches you some basic, practical skills, allows you to sit for the bar, and then sends you on your way for less than half of what some law schools charge for a full year.
We need the Wheeling of law schools, because the Wheeling of Biglaw isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s getting stronger.
Future generations will look back at our time as the point when the term “associate” irrevocably split into different kinds of careers. And some associates are going to be more equal than others.
Law firm’s operations center helps revitalize West Virginia mill town [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]