Western law firm has unique practice group here

August 2, 2011
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The Document Control Group, a practice area of the Ryley Carlock & Applewhite law firm, celebrates it first anniversary of being in Grand Rapids this month. But the practice actually turned six at the beginning of this year in Arizona.

Matthew Clarke and his partner, Bill McManus, started DCG in early 2005 in Phoenix. The practice group was founded then because some corporate clients were involved in lawsuits that required a review of thousands and sometimes even millions of documents that pertained to their cases. Because having to review that many documents can often overtax the legal staff of a law firm hired to represent a client in the discovery process, Clarke and McManus saw an opportunity.

“They have to hire lawyers to do those document reviews. In a typical scenario, you hire a law firm to represent you in some matter, and at some point in time, you need 20 or 30 or 10 extra lawyers to do a document review, whether it’s looking at boxes of documents or e-mails. When that happens, you go out and hire some contract lawyers who do the work and then they’re gone,” said Clarke.

“That’s a very frustrating scenario for corporations because if it’s nine months later in the litigation and you have a question about that work, those people are gone and you can’t go back to them and ask them what they did. So clients came up to us and said, ‘We want you to build us a solution. We want you to give us a handful of lawyers who are always going to be available to do our document reviews for us. We want it priced right and we want them always around,’” he said.

So Clarke and McManus began hiring attorneys to review documents, while both continued with their litigation practices. As the business grew, they added more attorneys and the DCG became a full-time practice group at Ryley Carlock & Applewhite.

“It’s like having access to a fleet of lawyers on an as-needed basis, and they really liked it,” said Clarke of the corporate clients the group had then.

“Then other law firms started using us. So there was this organic growth that was very rapid. We went from a handful of lawyers in 2005 to over 100 today,” he said. “We were pretty selective about who we hired because what made us different was that the people who were working for us were part of our team and were always going to be around. We couldn’t have a lot of employee turnover.

“So we had to steer away from hiring people who were just out of law school and were very ambitious and eager, who maybe would be looking for a different type of job and would leave in six or eight months. Then we wouldn’t have the stability that we were selling that was so important to our quality.”

Clarke said a typical candidate for the DCG is a lawyer with five or six years of experience who isn’t looking to move on, or is retired and plans to stay put. But the business had grown so much so quickly out West that he and McManus had exhausted their list of candidates there and had to look to other regions in the country. Solving that predicament is how the DCG came to Grand Rapids — to 801 Broadway Ave. NW, specifically, in the American Seating complex.

Clarke, who lives in Spring Lake and grew up in West Michigan, said he is “obviously biased to this area.” He said when he received résumés from lawyers in this region, he always interviewed them because he knew they came from the “good work ethic” that exists here.

“What we found is we were pulling so many people from this part of the country that I said, ‘Let’s go open up an operation there.’ We can better service our East Coast clients and it would be easier for us to draw people from that side of the country — it’s easier to draw someone from Chicago to Grand Rapids than from Chicago to Phoenix,” he said.

Clarke said he and McManus did due diligence on the city and brought the firm’s managing partner in to look over the local market before they committed to Grand Rapids.

“I basically convinced my partners that this was a good place to set up this operation versus anywhere else on the other side of the Mississippi,” he said. “We opened up this operation in August of 2010. Since then, we’ve had a lot of success and we have a lot of people working for us.”

When the DCG was in Phoenix, Clark said it only performed litigation support services, such as document reviews, fact researching and deposition summaries — all things done by lawyers. But since coming here, he said the operation has added a coding business, which broadened its work force to include paralegals and administrators. The coding section employs 30 people. They join the 40 attorneys that bring the DCG staff to 70.

The DCG’s clients have changed since it began. Clarke said when the operation started about 80 percent of its clientele were corporate entities and 20 percent were law firms. Since then, though, he said those percentages have reversed, and now about eight of every 10 clients are law firms.

“This is an area that is very new in the practice of law,” he said. “A lot of our clients, especially law firms, basically said this is kind of a niche business and you guys have it figured out. You have figured out a way to do it very efficiently. You’re helping us reduce our risk, and you do it in a cost-effective way that helps my clients. … It’s just easier for them to have us do that, and because we’re brick and mortar, they don’t have to carve out the space.”

Besides Phoenix, Ryley Carlock & Applewhite also has an office in Denver. It carries a legal staff of more than 100 attorneys, and has been in practice for more than 60 years.

“We’re a full-service firm, meaning we have a tax department, a litigation department, a real estate department, estate planning, water and natural resources, etc.,” said Clarke, who has been a shareholder and litigator with the firm for 11 years.

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