Law firm's operations center helps revitalize West Virginia mill town

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WHEELING, W.Va. -- In this sprawling, four-story building, workers a century ago churned out tin products and kerosene lanterns.

Today, 300 employees of law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe sit at workstations and peruse electronic documents, conduct legal research, and manage functions including payroll, human resources, billing, and networking services for Orrick's 1,100 attorneys around the world.

This exquisitely restored factory, which once housed Wheeling Stamping Co., is not Orrick's headquarters. The law firm's home is across the continent in San Francisco. But to cut costs, the California firm selected this once-thriving steel and coal town along the Ohio River to house its 24/7 global operations center.

"We proved we had a pool of talent, the real estate costs were favorable, and we had proximity to Pittsburgh International Airport," said Will Turani, director of the center, who was Wheeling's city manager when government, development, church and historic preservation officials rallied together to attract the Orrick facility more than a decade ago.

It didn't hurt that Ralph Baxter, Orrick's chairman and chief executive, hails from New Martinsville, 40 miles south of Wheeling along the Ohio River.

Two other West Virginia cities were also in the running, Charleston and Huntington, as well as San Antonio, Texas, and Nashville.

After Wheeling became a finalist, Mr. Turani said, then-Mayor Nicholas Sparachane cold-called Mr. Baxter during a business trip to the West Coast to make a personal plea to award the operations center to Wheeling. The city won the center in 2001 and the long-vacant plant, owned by the non-profit Regional Economic Development Partnership, was ready for occupancy for the first 73 employees by spring of 2002.

The $13 million renovation project -- designed by McKinley & Associates Architects of Wheeling and Alliance Architecture of Annapolis, Md., and Durham, N.C. -- transformed a dilapidated structure in Wheeling's riverfront warehouse district into a round-the-clock service center with cutting-edge technology that pays tribute to its industrial past at every turn.

Among the first things visitors see upon entering the four-story, open-air lobby are reproductions of black and white photos of Wheeling Stamping employees; a chalkboard that tracked tube department production; and original metal doors from the plant's boiler room. Exposed brick walls and supporting wood beams were preserved from the original structure; exposed computer cables and duct work hang from the high ceilings. Single-pane windows are original and were maintained to qualify for historic tax credits, Mr. Turani said.

"This is the firm's culture: saving a building," he said.

Outside the rear of the building, near the river and a scenic trail, a patio with tables and chairs for employee breaks borders a train trestle wall where the Baltimore & Ohio line once traveled. A Wheeling Stamping Co. sign was re-created on the back exterior.

Inside, each floor features a pantry with refrigerators, microwaves and coffee and tea service.

"The casual work environment encourages brown-bagging," said Mr. Turani, adding that employees can cross Main Street to grab fish sandwiches at Wheeling Centre Market or Middle Eastern fare at the Lebanon Bakery.

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.

Another cost-reduction step taken in 2009 was creation of a program for law school graduates who are on a non-partner track at the firm. Because Orrick is not licensed to practice law in West Virginia, the 17 career associates handle duties such as witness preparation, memos and drafts for associates and partners throughout the firm. Another 26 attorneys work in the document review division, Mr. Turani said.

Though other large firms have established 24/7 operations centers in recent years -- including Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith, which has its Global Customer Centre on Stanwix Street, Downtown -- Orrick claims it is the first U.S. firm to consolidate back office functions off-site.

"I would give them that nod. They were pioneers" in choosing to locate a back office service center far from their primary offices, said Gary Sokulski, Reed Smith's chief operating officer.

Reed Smith, which has about 1,700 attorneys in 23 offices worldwide, set up technology and support workers in offices in the Gulf Tower in 2002, and moved the group to three vacant floors in the former National City Center on Stanwix in 2009.

While Reed Smith was "blessed with great resources" in the form of reasonable rents for its customer center within close proximity to its headquarters, Mr. Sokulski said, Orrick "had a much greater need for low-cost space because they are in San Francisco."

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.

Because of demand and growth of the customer center -- particularly its e-discovery division -- Reed Smith is "bulging at the seams" in its current space and recently relocated about 30 marketing staff back to its flagship office on Fifth Avenue.

At a 10th anniversary celebration for the Wheeling center last month, Mr. Baxter called the move "one of the smartest decisions we've ever made for the firm and our clients."

"I believe that we have far surpassed our goal of simply improving client service and reducing operating costs. ... We've helped revitalize a former steel town."

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Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.


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