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Marketing isn’t something you’d expect to find on the to-do list of Santa Clara County Counsel Ann Ravel. But over the last year, she’s been sending out pitch letters to potential non-county clients, part of a plan to drum up more paying work for her 60-lawyer office. Already, it represents 30 outside clients, including school districts, fire districts, cities, nonprofits and the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. The work brought in $250,000 in revenue last year, a figure she hopes to double in 2004. With money tight, that will pay for 2 1/2 lawyer positions. “This is a way to pay attorney salaries,” Ravel said. “Most other counties, in response to the fiscal crisis, have had to lay off employees.” To Ravel, that would have meant losing momentum. Since taking over the office in 1998, she’s seen headcount increase50 percent as the office took more matters in-house and pursued affirmative litigation, like a class action against paint manufacturers. “This is a way to continue doing what I am committed to doing,” she says. If that means taking a private-sector approach to productivity, so be it. “The days of government law offices being a country club are over,” says Ravel, who insists her lawyers bill 1,900 hours, similar to what private firms require. Her unionized deputies are behind her — up to a point. “We support efforts to attract other clients,” said Deputy County Counsel Denis O’Neal, who is president of the County Counsel Attorneys Association. “But the billable hours model, when you try to apply that to the public sector, has some problems. At this point in the budget crisis, you can’t bill your way out of it.” Ravel first started looking for new clients in 2002, when department heads were required to pare down budgets. Anxious to maintain her staff, Ravel approached the Board of Supervisors with the idea of doing work for other public agencies. “We already have overhead costs,” Ravel said she told them. “This is a way to save lawyers.” Ravel stresses that the idea wasn’t to make a profit but to hang on to personnel with specialized knowledge. The board liked the idea, agreeing to assume the risk of malpractice suits that could arise from outside work. “We applaud county counsel’s creative approach to resolving the budget crisis,” said Caroline Judy, chief of staff for Supervisor James Beall Jr. “The Board of Supervisors has requested departments to look for creative approaches, including creating enterprise funds.” To bring in business, Ravel approached a few of the county’s co-defendants with offers to assume their representation, sent out pitch letters, and responded to requests for bids. Most recently, the office bid to handle insurance defense work for the Housing Authorities Risk Retention Pool in Vancouver, Wash. Most outside clients are billed $165 an hour for attorney time, a few dollars more than the $161 the office charges Santa Clara County agencies. In addition to low rates, Ravel says good service makes the office “very competitive.” To date, one of Ravel’s biggest outside jobs is a $40,000 contract with the state Administrative Office of the Courts to represent Santa Clara Superior Court. Ravel, who sits on the state’s Judicial Council, said the contract pre-dates her appointment. The office had represented the trial court before the state assumed responsibility for funding in 1998, and Ravel persuaded the court to continue the arrangement. Meanwhile, Placerville City Attorney John Driscoll hired Ravel’s office to defend the city in a class action. Placerville was one of more than 30 cities and counties sued along with Santa Clara for the policy of slapping drunken drivers with bills for police time. Ravel’s office represents eight defendants aside from Santa Clara itself. “They did all the good things an attorney should do. They kept me informed of what was going on. If there were going to be any unusual costs, they told me. And they got a good result,” Driscoll said. Placerville and five other Ravel clients have been dismissed; Santa Clara County remains a defendant. “I believe they had the experience and expertise to know what they were doing and explain all the avenues that were open to us,” Driscoll said. “Certainly other attorneys could have done it, too.” But maybe not for $60 a hour, which is what Santa Clara billed for work done by Deputy County Counsel Aryn Harris. When doing work that benefited multiple parties, she billed that amount to each of them. Driscoll said it was a good arrangement. Private outside counsel would have cost more than $200 an hour. “It made perfect sense,” Driscoll. Pacifica City Attorney Cecilia Quick hired Santa Clara to represent it in the same suit. She said the low cost and Santa Clara’s expertise and understanding of municipal clients were persuasive. A private firm would have charged $275 an hour and billed more hours for research, she said. “They had already done a lot of the background research, which is expensive. They reviewed all the legislative history,” Quick said. “They succeeded in getting us dismissed, so I have to say they did a good job.” So far, Ravel’s stab at the private sector is raising more eyebrows than objections. Steven Meyers, managing partner of Oakland’s Meyers Nave, which specializes in representing local governments, commends Ravel for”being entrepreneurial” and, he says, “I am sure they have great expertise that would be valuable to other public agencies.” Meyers said his firm bills $175 to $275 an hour. But Sacramento attorney Franklin Gumpert, another specialist in representing government agencies, said that while government attorneys have long offered to help other agencies as a courtesy, competing for paying work crosses a line. “From the taxpayer’s perspective, is that what they want the county counsel to do?” asks Gumpert, a partner at Barkett & Gumpert. “Considering the potential for malpractice, are the taxpayers of Santa Clara going to want to pay a legal judgment of $3 million for malpractice? Did the Board of Supervisors get outside legal representation to discuss all the benefits and risks instead of getting advice from the county counsel who is going to perform the service?” For their part, Driscoll and Quick say they wouldn’t hesitate to sue Ravel’s office if the work on the drunken driving class were defective. “If that had become an issue, I wouldn’t have viewed them any differently as a private firm,” says Quick. But Ravel said she’s looked closely at the potential for liability and conflicts of interest and believes the risks are small. For example, she says, the office already sets up ethical walls when county agencies, such as the assessor and the assessment appeals board, could be in conflict. “The courts have said very clearly, if you have ethical walls in the office, you can deal with those kinds of conflicts,” Ravel said. “That’s exactly what we do.” Ravel says that, so far, her staff is willing to put in the hours to handle outside matters. Attorneys are meeting the 1,900 billable hour requirement, she says. “The lawyers have been incredibly cooperative,” she adds. “It’s been amazing.” In fact, adds union president O’Neal, deputies have even done some business development. But he said attorneys resent the closer scrutiny that’s come with the hours requirement. Under what some call the “butt-in-seat” policy, attorneys must sign in and out of the office and are supposed to leave a note whenever they leave their desks. After the county unveiled a voluntary reduced work hours program this year, Ravel told attorneys they could cut their hours — but they’d still need to meet the 1,900 billable hours requirement. “We are talking 10-hour days for people around here, and they’re not at trial,” O’Neal said. “I don’t think billable hours translates well in the public sector. I also see it as not being a very useful tool in balancing the budget.” O’Neal said Ravel might be wise to consider sabbaticals and early retirement packages as another way to make ends meet. But Ravel said taking on outside work will allow the office to preserve the gains it’s made the past few years. “Our office was marginalized,” she says. “We are now an integral part of the county. I would hate to change that.”

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