Photo courtesy of Ralph Baxter.
When Ralph Baxter joined the inaugural class of Legal Rebels in 2009, he was the CEO and chairman of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe. Just a year into the biggest recession since the Great Depression, he caught the ABA Journal’s attention through his initiatives that took Orrick from a domestic, California-based firm to an international heavyweight while navigating economic turbulence.
“The financial crisis really did put a spotlight on how valuable the changes we already had made were,” Baxter says. The firm had already created an independent operations center in West Virginia, saving money in both rent and salaries. They had also changed the career paths of associates, modifying the traditional lockstep system in order to better allocate work and add more value to the firm.
“At Orrick, we had already embraced change” before the recession, he says, “and it was a real advantage for us.”
Since leaving the firm in 2013—after 23 years as chairman—he has gone on to consult with law firms looking to improve their business and service models, sit on the board of LegalZoom and run for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from West Virginia in 2018. While he lost in the primary, he believes his experience at Orrick gave him lessons members of Congress could benefit from, including how to lead. A major theme of his campaign was that he was a proven job creator due to his decision to open Orrick’s back office in Wheeling, West Virginia.
In the decade since becoming a Legal Rebel, he acknowledges that there’s a more robust conversation around innovation and change in the legal field, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“There’s not nearly as much true innovation in terms of the way that legal services are delivered,” he says. As a consequence, clients are restless and a substantial number of people can’t access legal counsel. “We have a long way to go in making real change,” he says.
That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots. He names the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) as an organization that is focused on improving legal services for corporate clients.
“They are sincerely and deliberately focused on stimulating change,” he believes. He sees the members of the organization optimizing how legal services are delivered to corporate clients and improving corresponding business models.
Even with a more robust legal innovation scene and post-recession market forces, he’s surprised to see large firms continue to raise their rates and that clients haven’t been more assertive that firms change their business models, which keeps legal costs high. He believes that data, process design and technology could improve the quality of their services at a better rate for clients while still maintaining an adequate return for partners.
With a long view, he strikes a tone of optimism as he thinks about where the profession has been and where he thinks it’s headed.
“It’s going to become progressively more commonplace that everyone expects change,” he says, “and that will make it more likely that change will occur.”
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