Ralph Baxter Jr., a former CEO of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe who retired to West Virginia four years ago, will announce Tuesday that he is going to run for Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. News of Baxter’s interest in running for public office emerged again earlier this year.
In a conversation with The American Lawyer, Baxter stopped short of formally announcing his candidacy, but did admit that he would be making a public proclamation of some sort at noon on Sept. 12 in front of Orrick’s global operations center in Wheeling, West Virginia. A local newspaper reported late last week that Baxter would officially announce his candidacy on the Democratic Party ticket at Orrick’s facility in Wheeling.
The operations center, which Orrick opened in 2002, was Baxter’s brainchild and made him an innovator for a trend that took off during the past decade of large, global law firms moving certain administrative functions to low-cost areas. On Aug. 31, Baxter filed an official statement of candidacy with the U.S. Federal Election Commission that designated “Ralph Baxter for Congress” as his official political action committee as he prepares to take on Republican incumbent Rep. David McKinley, who has held his seat since January 2011.
Baxter, who turned over Orrick’s leadership reins to partner Mitchell Zuklie on Jan. 1, 2014, declined to discuss the specifics of his looming election battle with McKinley, preferring to reserve such discourse for the campaign trail. Baxter did note that he has long been interested in education and bringing jobs to West Virginia, where his family has lived for some time.
After Orrick selected Wheeling as its back office operations center more than a decade ago—Baxter recalled how he pushed for the region to get the business over other finalists like Nashville, San Antonio and Tulsa—the firm’s former longtime leader bought a home near the city in June 2002. For the next decade, Baxter would frequently spend time in Wheeling, where his children would spend their summers, he said.
“Now back then I basically lived full-time on United Airlines,” said Baxter, joking about the hectic travel schedule of a Big Law leader, but also keenly aware of how his political rivals will likely try and paint him as a West Coast carpetbagger. “But I spent as much time as possible [in Wheeling] and my family loves it here.”
Baxter’s family—who may or may not be distantly related to this writer (it’s a somewhat complicated Scots-Irish family tree)—has long had West Virginia roots, but he was born in California after World War II, when his mother had moved westward for work. He would return to West Virginia for a few years, but then headed back to the Golden State with her a few years later. He would periodically return to West Virginia for family reunions, but in 1999, when Orrick first began considering the possibility of moving some of its operations to a lower-cost center in order to take advantage of information age innovations, it was Baxter who noted Wheeling’s close proximity to Pittsburgh’s international airport as making it a desirable location for cost savings.
In early 2013, before Baxter had ceded his chairman role to Orrick’s Zuklie, it was reported that he had designs on a U.S. Senate seat being vacated in West Virginia by John “Jay” Rockefeller IV. Asked about that interest, Baxter admitted that he did consider running for Rockefeller’s seat—now held by Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito—but said that the timing was simply not yet right for him to make his initial foray into public service.
At the time, Baxter was still preparing for his transition away from Orrick, where he would spend 23 years in firm leadership. He also had new opportunities outside of private practice that he wanted to pursue, such as working with data analytics-based legal services providers Intapp, LegalZoom, Lex Machina and Ravel Law, holding board or advisory roles with those companies and several law schools, as well as helping financial information giant Thomson Reuters Corp. start its Legal Executive Institute.
“I think that first year I wrote about 50 blog posts,” Baxter said of his Thomson Reuters days. “That was enough for me.”
In West Virginia, Baxter and his wife, Cheryl, owner of athletic clothing boutique The Sweatbar Inc., traded in their country home for one closer to Wheeling, where they began living fulltime and immersing themselves in a community of roughly 650,000 people. Baxter said he has also done public service work in his role as a private citizen, citing a “jobs cabinet” position he held under former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, now a Democratic senator from the state.
“I want to make a difference and do things for the right reasons,” said Baxter, catching himself before potentially ruining his own exclusive Tuesday.
Baxter declined to discuss whether or not he spoke with other former law firm leaders and colleagues at Orrick before deciding to run for office, but he’s far from the first to mull trading the halls of Big Law for the corridors of Capitol Hill.
The Observer reported just last week that Goutam Jois, most recently an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in New York, where he once moonlighted as a stand-up comedian, would seek to challenge Republican Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey in the 2018 midterm elections.