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Few lawyers are apt to liken their clients’ problems to mythical nine-headed water serpents. But then again, there aren’t many lawyers like Ralph Ferrara, who talks about chopping off the heads of the hydras — or corporate scandals — that he must defeat. “Ralph is Ralph. He is not a drone or a legal technician,” says Jeremiah Lambert, chair of Global Crossing Ltd.’s audit committee and special independent committee. “What he conveys is true concern and dedication and fearlessness. . . . He’s not an ethicist trying to read tea leaves. He’s in the arena fighting lions.” A University of Cincinnati law graduate, Ferrara says he treats the defense of a besieged board as a multidimensional problem, not an isolated incident. “These are not just pieces of litigation. You have to handle it like a sick subsidiary,” says Ferrara. And what is his recipe for landing big-ticket clients such as Global Crossing, many of whose current and former officers and directors he has defended in dozens of shareholder suits? It’s simple: “They’re looking for someone with good judgment who has seen a lot of messes,” says Ferrara. The 58-year-old head of Debevoise & Plimpton’s D.C. office has certainly seen his share of corporate missteps. Ferrara has defended a slew of beleaguered companies, including Waste Management Inc., which admitted that over several years in the 1990s it had overstated its pretax profits by $1.4 billion, and MicroStrategy Inc., which disclosed in 2000 that it would restate profits from 1998 and 1999, thereby revealing losses so substantial that the company’s stock declined by about $2 billion in one day. And what did the Securities and Exchange Commission do to Ferrara’s clients? As part of a settlement, the commission issued a cease-and-desist order requiring MicroStrategy not to violate accounting rules, but did not bring civil fraud accusations against it. Waste Management also reached a settlement in which it promised not to violate the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws, but admitted no wrongdoing and wasn’t fined by the SEC. Ferrara also went to bat for Dollar General Inc., which admitted to overstating its profits for 1998 through 2000 by about $100 million and paid $162 million to settle related shareholder suits. The SEC hasn’t yet brought a case against the discount retailer. Gordon Gee, a Dollar General board member, says that part of Ferrara’s appeal to companies in trouble is his ability to help nonlawyer board members understand the intricacies of securities laws. “He provided almost a tour de force on the world of securities litigation,” says Gee, who is also chancellor of Vanderbilt University. “He proved to be the most passionate of advocates.” Before joining Debevoise & Plimpton in 1981, Ferrara was general counsel of the SEC, a post he had assumed in 1978. Previously, he had served the commission as special counsel and branch chief in the Division of Enforcement and special counsel to the SEC chairman, among other positions. Ferrara prides himself on his trial work at the SEC, but says settling cases is his forte. And settling is a tactic he doesn’t shy away from talking about. “I firmly believe that the kind of cases that I handle are not lawsuits, they’re business questions,” says Ferrara, who then adds wryly in a well-rehearsed dash of humor: “They call me a pilgrim — I’m an early settler.” Jokes aside, Ferrara’s zeal has brought him top rainmaker status at Debevoise. Lambert praises his work for Global Crossing: “He has done a remarkable job of taking a very difficult and ominous situation into a remarkable turnaround, especially given where we were 18 months ago. I appreciate his candor, occasional humor, and earthiness. He’s not speaking to you from some perch. He has a vital awareness of where you’re coming from.”

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