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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 2,000 miles away from her office in Reston, Va. “I forget they’re in North Dakota,” McWilliams said. “I just dial the number and they’re there.” “They” are the outsourced office staff who work for Piper Rudnick 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,” said 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, said 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’ daugher, CBF staffers often research entertainment options for visiting clients. “If I know they’re into Japanese food, I’ll ask [CBF staff] to send me some trendy places in downtown Washington,” said McWilliams. A fan of the funk band Earth, Wind and Fire, McWilliams said she recently asked staff at CBF to find out if there were any upcoming concerts in the D.C. area. She said 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 said. “That’s when I get things done, after nine and before six.” McWilliams is one of several Piper Rudnick lawyers who have testimonials posted on CBF’s Web site, but others at the firms are still wary of the service. New York Piper Rudnick partner Mark Zauderer said he had not used the service and was 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 said. Zauderer said he valued face-to-face interactions with support staff and was comfortable keeping in touch after hours via his Blackberry pager. He also said he was not certain he would feel comfortable entrusting his dinner reservations to North Dakotans. “I imagine there could be some cultural gaps,” he said. But Rutter said Fargo’s reputation as a rural backwater was unwarranted. She said North Dakota has an educated work force and there is a high level or satisfaction at Piper Rudnick 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.

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