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Robert McCaffrey knew Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison was in trouble. The night staffer in Brobeck’s document processing center handled a flood of paperwork that deluged the firm every day. He also swapped stories with lawyers and employees who paused to chat at his central hub on the fifth floor. So when Brobeck’s machinery began to slow down, he felt the shuddering vibration. “In the evening it was generally frantic,” McCaffrey said. “You would get calls from lawyers in Palo Alto and Washington, D.C., saying, ‘I need this document right away.’” But by December, he said, the calls weren’t coming in, and on some nights no one dropped by the center. McCaffrey was so worried about the fate of the firm that he canceled his annual winter vacation to Italy to save money and vacation pay. He wasn’t completely shocked then when Brobeck Chairman Richard Odom called staffers together Jan. 30 and told them the firm was folding. But McCaffrey was taken aback when Odom, answering an employee’s question, said Brobeck probably wouldn’t be able to pay staff their paid time off. “It didn’t seem legal to me,” McCaffrey said. “I thought there would be issues down the road.” Expecting the firm would close the next day and worried that people wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other, McCaffrey started an e-mail list using the pseudonym Broke Beck. In his first firmwide message to staff, he encouraged people to join the list in case they might need a lawyer to handle their wage claims. As Broke Beck, McCaffrey became a mystery celebrity among Brobeck staffers. It wasn’t until employees filed suit against Brobeck and Philadelphia-based Morgan, Lewis & Bockius last month that his identity was revealed. He was named as the lead plaintiff in the complaint, in which employees are seeking two months’ severance pay. Sitting in a cafe across the street from the Asian Art Museum, where he has a membership, McCaffrey talked about his experience at Brobeck during the firm’s final days. Jayne Loughry, a former senior counsel at Brobeck and one of the plaintiffs in the employee suit, joined him in the interview last week. Quiet and articulate, McCaffrey, 49, doesn’t seem like the confrontational type, and that perhaps makes him an unlikely candidate to take on Brobeck’s brass. At first, he said, he only intended to create an e-mail list. But by doing so he became a de facto leader, encouraging employees to save documents and fight together. Approaching 50 “had something to do with it,” he said. “Reaching that mid-century point made me less anxious of getting involved.” McCaffrey, whose two passions are gardening and Chinese arts and antiques, had never done any organizing before. But he was familiar with union activism, having worked in the printing industry in his 20s. And he said his background as a second-generation Irish-Italian immigrant made him more conscious of the history of workers’ struggles. “There is more solidarity among workers and less naivete about management if you come from that background,” he said. “I think white collar workers are somewhat naive about management and might do better to look at how blue collar workers organize — look to that for inspiration.” After starting his e-mail list, McCaffrey sought advice from several attorneys. One lawyer was charging $400 per hour and wanted McCaffrey to be the go-between with the employees. In addition to the high fee, McCaffrey said he was concerned about the lawyer’s level of expertise. “He didn’t know what PTO [paid time off] was,” McCaffrey said. “That gave me pause.” McCaffrey then sent an e-mail to a former Brobeck partner who offered encouragement and a list of labor lawyers. One of these attorneys eventually referred him to Mark Thierman, who is representing the employees on a contingency basis. McCaffrey started working for Brobeck as a temp while he was completing a college degree in English literature. He joined the firm as a full-time word processor in 1990, working in the real estate department. He said that after 10 years he was tired of the department’s internal politics and transferred to the document processing center where he worked the 3 p.m. to midnight shift four days a week. “It put me in a position where I got to talk with everyone at the firm and I got a perspective,” McCaffrey said. “People who work at night are generally cranky. They come down and want to share information.” Staffers in the center also handled attorney curriculum vitae, deleting them from the database when attorneys left the firm. They, of course, noticed the flood of departures. “Every day I’d come in and say, ‘How many people have left today?’” McCaffrey recalled. Employees were also being axed from the firm’s ranks. Initially, McCaffrey and Loughry said, there were farewell parties but in the final months that changed. “People would disappear and there would be no word of it,” said Loughry, who joined the employee suit, saying she was dismayed at how partners had treated the staff. In addition to PTO and severance pay claims, employees have not had access to their 401(k) retirement plans. The funds have been frozen in part because Brobeck failed to pay plan administration fees for the last nine months of 2002. And staffers have been uncertain whether they would receive COBRA insurance coverage. Months before Brobeck collapsed, many staffers knew the firm intended to substantially cut its ranks. During a partnership meeting in September, a member of the IT department had been called in to fix a problem with a Power Point presentation and saw a document proposing to cut total staff by 25 percent, with the IT and human resources departments targeted for more than a 40 percent reduction. Other staffers also got a glimpse of the document and spread the news. While the plan was never implemented there was a series of mini-layoffs during Brobeck’s final months. Rumors about staffers fired in these early waves fueled worries among employees who remained with the firm until the last day. “We heard horror stories of people who were laid off and told to stay because the firm couldn’t pay them PTO to leave,” McCaffrey said. Loughry said there were also e-mails circulating about people who had reimbursement checks from Brobeck that bounced. Brobeck had given employees mixed messages as to whether they would receive their paid time off. So when employees received PTO checks on the 14th they were eager to cash them. People dashed to the Wells Fargo bank around the corner from Brobeck, creating a minor run on the bank’s money. The overwhelmed bank staff brought out chocolate cake for Brobeck employees to eat as they waited in line. McCaffrey said his PTO payment of $6,000 has helped him get by while he looks for another job. Given his background he said he might have to work in the legal community, though it is with “a certain reluctance” given his experience at Brobeck. “There were rumors that a few partners expressed sympathy [for employees] but I didn’t see one of them step out of the mold and say anything,” he said. “I’m kind of disappointed in the whole lot of them.”

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