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Piper Rudnick partner Karen McWilliams is not the first busy lawyer to ask an assistant to arrange a birthday party for her daughter. She may, however, be among the first to have called on an assistant more than 1,000 miles away from her office in Reston, Va. “I forget they’re in North Dakota,” McWilliams says. “I just dial the number and they’re there.” “They” are the outsourced office staff who work for Piper and other law firms out of a support center operated by the CBF Group in Fargo, N.D. At a time when discussions of outsourcing focus on possibilities in India, companies like CBF want lawyers to remember there is a “near shore” option as well. Renee Rutter, the president of CBF, is hoping her company will find a niche somewhere between the anonymous document processing work that may go to India and the front-line secretaries whom lawyers interact with every day. “We’re trying to market ourselves as invaluable assistants,” says Rutter. For $200 a month per lawyer, the company provides secretarial support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And just as many bosses lean on their secretaries for more than paperwork, so CBF staff respond to a wide variety of requests. McWilliams, a labor and employment lawyer, says she is “less hesitant” to call upon the CBF staff, as opposed to her regular secretary, to perform concierge-like services. Aside from locating a local athletic center to host a sports-themed birthday party for McWilliams’ daughter, CBF staffers often research entertainment options for visiting clients. “If I know they’re into Japanese food, I’ll ask [the CBF staff] to send me some trendy places in downtown Washington,” says McWilliams. A fan of the funk band Earth, Wind and Fire, McWilliams says she recently asked staff at CBF to find out if there were any upcoming concerts in the D.C. area. She says the ease of calling Fargo in the middle of the night has probably changed her life. “I’m a mother with two small children,” she says. “That’s when I get things done � after nine and before six.” McWilliams is one of several Piper lawyers who have testimonials posted on CBF’s Web site. In fact, Piper was a natural client for CBF services. The company’s founder, chairman, and principal owner is in fact a partner at the law firm. Peter Pantaleo, the chair of Piper’s labor and employment practice and the former managing partner of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, which merged with Piper in 2002, attended law school at the University of North Dakota. Others, however, are still wary of the service. New York Piper Rudnick partner Mark Zauderer says he has not used the service and is not sure he would. “I’d personally have reservations about whether someone not familiar with my work style � even working in the best of faith � could handle it,” he says. Zauderer says he values face-to-face interactions with support staff and is comfortable keeping in touch after hours via his BlackBerry pager. He also says he is not certain he would feel comfortable entrusting his dinner reservations to North Dakotans. “I imagine there could be some cultural gaps,” he says. But Rutter says Fargo’s reputation as a rural backwater is unwarranted. She says North Dakota has an educated work force and there is a high level of satisfaction at Piper and other clients. Law firms eager to lower costs have not shied away from rural outposts in the past. San Francisco’s Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe paved the way when it opened its global operations center, a consolidated site for information technology, finance, and several other support functions, in the bustling metropolis of Wheeling, W.Va. � Anthony Lin

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