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THE PERFECT LAW FIRM GIFT? CLIENTS WHO PAY THEIR BILLS The holiday shopping season has arrived, and the partners at Morrison & Foerster are in a tizzy. It’s year-end collection time. And just like retailers, law firms count on a December jump in revenue to plump the year’s financials. That means partners are on the phones, seeking cash from clients with what MoFo Chairman Keith Wetmore calls “our customary restrained frenzy.” But Wetmore said the firm is working to make sure the flurry of last-minute collections becomes a thing of Christmas past. The firm has been expanding its collections department to keep on top of partner billables and receivables year-round. In the past three years, MoFo tripled its collection department personnel from five to 15 people, said Laurie Hane, MoFo’s managing partner for operations. “We’re slowly working our way into a position to bill and collect on a regular schedule,” Hane said. “In a perfect world, partners wouldn’t be in a position to make phone calls to clients.” But it’s not a perfect world. And even Wetmore is doing some begging. “It’s the one time of the year when we are seeking prompt payment,” Wetmore said, voicing the sentiment he uses to squeeze payments from his own clients. And it usually works, he said. “Virtually every law firm in the country is engaged in the year-end waltz, so clients are agonizingly familiar with the request,” Wetmore said. There is one bright note this collection season, and that’s having to make fewer calls overall. Wetmore said more MoFo clients have paid their bills so far this year than in any year in the firm’s history. He credits a stronger economy and the firm’s bigger collection team. He doesn’t credit his partners. “My partners are extraordinarily talented at the practice of law,” Wetmore said. “They are mediocre at best at the practice of debt collection.” – Renee Deger PLANE SPEAKING When San Rafael plaintiffs attorney Robert Mills has a deposition or a hearing in a far-away city, he flies there himself in his prized Malibu Mirage airplane. On the return flight, the 54-year-old litigator often has another passenger on board, as he logs hours for his other job. A member of Angel Flight, Mills shuttles people with diseases like cancer to hospitals for treatment. The volunteer organization fills a big hole in the social fabric, said Mills, since medical services today have become highly centralized. “There are just a lot of hard-luck cases,” like people who “have constant experimental cancer treatment somewhere far away on a regular basis,” said Mills, whose legal career focuses on consumer class actions. “How are they going to get there without quitting their job?” The Angel Flight group has more than 1,000 volunteer pilots, most flying short-range, propeller planes. Mills’ plane, which has a pressurized cabin and a 1,500-mile range, allows him to sign on for longer journeys than some of his cohorts. Since joining Angel Flight in 1999, Mills has flown missions almost every week to places like Eugene, Ore., Saratoga, Wyo., and Salt Lake City. He can select an assignment that fits his schedule through the Angel Flights Web site, though he’s also on call for emergency missions, like organ transplants. Working with Angel Flight is a big commitment in terms of time and money, but Mills says he’s hooked. “It’s very rewarding stuff, and it’s a chance to make a tangible kind of gift to somebody,” says Mills. “And of course it’s a chance to fly your airplane.” – Alexei Oreskovic SOMETHING’S FISHY HERE The rugged, Western landscape near Santa Clarita is a favorite backdrop for cowboy films, with titles ranging from Gregory Peck’s 1950 “The Gunfighter” to “Blazing Saddles” to its credit. Now, the small city about 35 miles north of Los Angeles is the center of a real-life showdown, as residents have mobilized to fend off a proposed gravel mine, and Bay Area hired guns have swooped in to lend support to each side. Last month, San Francisco attorney Kerry Shapiro won the first round in the battle on behalf of CEMEX, the giant Mexican concrete company that’s building the quarry. Kerry, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, intervened in a suit that charged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with improperly clearing the project under the Endangered Species Act. According to the suit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to designate the mining area as a critical habitat for a tiny fish known as the unarmored threespine stickleback. The suit also contended that the agency’s opinion allowing some “incidental” destruction of the fish in the course of the project violated state law, since the stickleback is a fully protected species in California. U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi shot down both claims, ruling that California’s higher standards of protection for the fish do not pre-empt a federal agency from issuing a permit approving the project. Brent Plater, an attorney for Oakland’s Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suit, said he was surprised by the judge’s “paltry” three paragraphs of analysis and said an appeal is very likely. “We certainly haven’t given up. If anything, the judge’s opinion has strengthened our resolve,” said Plater. Meanwhile, there are another two pending suits involving the mine, one filed against CEMEX by the city of Santa Clarita. “Endangered Species Act issues are always critical to a project’s success,” said Jeffer, Mangel’s Shapiro. “So I would say that that was a key battle that needed to be won for this project to go forward.” — Alexei Oreskovic

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