Around-the-clock help

Every working minute of the year, 125 people at Fargo-based CBF Group provide administrative support to more than 2,000 domestic and international attorneys.

Every working minute of the year, 125 people at Fargo-based CBF Group provide administrative support to more than 2,000 domestic and international attorneys.

Desk lights burn around the clock from the outsourcing firm's second-floor offices in the 45th Street Business Center at 300 45th St. S.

Shifts of employees occupy banks of cubicles, providing for a monthly fee everything from word processing and document editing to dictation and concierge service - sending flowers, purchasing gifts, making travel arrangements and delivering personal messages - for client attorneys, said Renay Rutter, company president and chief operating officer.

For instance, CBF staff provided thousands of hours of administrative and secretarial support to Piper Rudnick, a Baltimore-based, 3,000-attorney law firm that represented Ethiopia on claims arising from international law violations following a two-year war with neighboring Eritrea.

The assignment included transcribing videotapes and live video streams from the Internet of foreign television news programs covering the 1998-2000 conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia.


"We have one attorney that travels extensively in Europe," Rutter said. "He dictates his daily memos. We transcribe them and e-mail them to him."

Outsourcing legal services is the brainchild of Peter Pantaleo, a Pennsylvania-born attorney who graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Law in 1976.

Pantaleo, who works out of Washington, D.C., is now a managing partner of global law firm DLA Piper, which has 3,000 attorneys and 53 offices in 21 countries.

Large law firms are increasingly called upon to be available, he said.

"I realized there was a need for support services that would be centrally located and run 24/7," Pantaleo said.

On Oct. 9, 2001, he launched CBF (cheaper, better, faster) Group in North Dakota, a state he knew had people with a work ethic that would make his idea thrive, he said.

What began with a half dozen employees providing after-hours and weekend secretarial help for several lawyers, now offers around-the-clock service to law firms in 30 U.S. cities, London and Moscow, Rutter said.

Pantaleo's goal is for CBF to eventually employ 400 to 500 people and serve 10,000 lawyer clients, he said.


"We're definitely seeing growth. We've grown every year," he said. "It's working well."

Pantaleo chose UND because he wanted to attend a smaller school to earn his law degree.

"I loved it there," he said. "It was a great four years."

After graduating, he worked as a trial lawyer for the North Dakota highway department.

Choosing Fargo to base CBF was an easy decision, Pantaleo said.

"When I lived in North Dakota, I was well aware of the education attainment and work ethic of the state," he said.

CBF needed more than production typists, he said.

"This was going to be knowledge work," Pantaleo said, requiring flexible, well-educated employees with high skill levels and a strong work ethic.


"I felt strongly, when I started the company, that North Dakota would have that," he said.

Workload drives idea

Administrative staff at large law firms often work for one to three teams of attorneys, Pantaleo said.

When extremely busy, a team in Chicago can't call a team in Los Angeles and ask it to assume one of its projects, he said.

If structured from the outside, Pantaleo thought, there might be a business opportunity.

"It turns out we were right," he said.

"He came up with a great idea," said Mohammed A. Diwan, a corporate attorney with 200-member firm Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon, LLP in Chicago.

"Everything that I can ask my assistant to do, they (CBF) will do around the clock," Diwan said. "There's been times when I've used them multiple times in a day or night.


"I can't emphasize how reliable they are and what a good job they do," Diwan said. "Their turnaround time is amazing."

The company is planning for another 900 attorneys beginning in January, Rutter said.

As a result, CBF will hire 29 new employees by the end of the year and another 29 between January and March, she said.

A dozen new office cubicles will open in its 12,000-square-foot Fargo headquarters. Half of the complex now contains work stations with the remainder available for expansion and training, Rutter said.

Resource manager Megan Heltemes started working as a part-time specialist at CBF two months after it opened.

In four years she has worked all kinds of hours. "We adjust according to the project load," Heltemes said. "With us being 24/7, there's some long days."

The 1998 North Dakota State University business administration graduate is now in charge of interviewing, recruiting and scheduling employees.

"Legal background is a plus but not a necessity," she said. "Computer skill is the necessity."


Employees include college students and second-job part-timers who work days at a local law firm and evenings for CBF, she said.

Senior specialist Diane Kline, a former school secretary, has been working for CBF for 2½ years.

"No day is the same. You never know what you're going to work on when you come in the door," she said.

What you were working on yesterday is most likely gone when you return the next day, she said, completed by someone who worked the later shift.

This particular day, Kline is preparing to teach a class to fellow employees on how to place data contained in paper documents onto a compact disc.

"It's very detailed. We teach a two-hour class on it," she said.

Pantaleo said he is grateful to North Dakota not only for the education he received here, but also for having the ability to start a business in the state.

"He had the vision for it," said Rutter. "There was nothing like this. It's almost like a new industry which has since developed."


Readers can reach Forum Business Editor

Craig McEwen at (701) 241-5502

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