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Newark, N.J.—There’s no getting around the facts: Law is a business, law firms are companies and companies need corporate counsel. The idea of a “lawyer’s lawyer” who handles the firm’s personal legal work is not new. Most larger firms have one or more lawyers informally dedicated to ethics compliance, risk management, insurance and even litigation matters. But with lawyers finding themselves more and more the subjects of government scrutiny and the targets of lawsuits, de facto has become de jure at many large firms. A survey last March by Altman Weil Inc. of Newtown Square, Pa., found that 63% of the nation’s 200 largest firms had designated a general counsel, and 10% planned to do so in the next year. Drinker Biddle & Reath and Duane Morris, both based in Philadelphia, have had a general counsel for about seven years. McCarter & English of Newark named its first general counsel in October 2003, and Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, also of Newark, did the same this past January. McCarter and Gibbons Del Deo say their legal malpractice carrier, Attorneys’ Liability Assurance Society of Chicago, encouraged them to carve out general counsel posts. The trend is driven by traditional malpractice claims, clients’ conflict suits, third-party suits alleging that lawyers assisted in their clients’ illegal acts, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and increased prosecutions of lawyers over clients’ questionable tax shelters. And more firms can be expected to follow suit, say consultants. “Five years from now, I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to find any firms of 150 lawyers that don’t have [a general counsel] in place,” said Altman Weil principal Tom Clay. All of the firms responding to the Altman Weil survey had hired their general counsel from within. Gibbons Del Deo and McCarter each gave the title to longtime partners who previously handled some of the firm’s legal business on a less formal basis. Gibbons Del Deo selected litigation and intellectual property partner Michael Quinn as part of an overhaul of the firm’s management structure. Quinn previously had been designated the firm’s loss-prevention partner, requiring him to be the liaison with its liability carrier. Now he also investigates disputes with clients and intercedes in conflicts of interest. When McCarter named financial and products liability litigator Richard Eittreim as general counsel, it made official a role he had held informally for several years. Sending a message For Quinn and Eittreim, the symbolism of the title is important for the message it sends. Quinn says the most important advantage is that colleagues apprise him of potential legal problems early on. “What we teach is, the quicker the person in my chair gets an issue, the easier it is to resolve. Our claims history, I think, proves that it’s a procedure and philosophy that severely limits any potential claims against the firm,” he said. Eittreim says the title gets out the word that his door is open. “Once you have the title, people realize they’re supposed to go to the general counsel,” Eittreim said. For Michael Silverman, general counsel at 525-lawyer Duane Morris, the role entails a lot of visits to the firm’s 21 offices. He assumed his post in June after the firm’s first general counsel, Gene Pratter, was appointed to the federal bench in Philadelphia. “For Duane Morris, [the general counsel position] demonstrates that the firm considers risk management, professional responsibility and loss prevention to be a high priority. It helps to have someone who’s approachable and willing to listen so that people will feel comfortable raising issues of concern,” Silverman said. The duties of general counsel vary widely. In the Altman Weil survey, respondents spent a mean of 43% of their time on such responsibilities. Quinn declines to say how much of his time is taken up by his general counsel role, but says he bills as many hours as other partners. Eittreim said he spends more than half his time on his general counsel duties. Silverman, a litigator in Duane Morris’ information technology group, spends 50% to 75% of his time on general counsel work.

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