BellSouth's lawyers make a virtue of being cheap--and give back plenty to the community.
By Jill Nawrocki|May 01, 2006 at 12:00 AM
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Change may soon be afoot in the legal department at BellSouth Corporation. In March, AT&T Corp. announced plans to acquire the Atlanta-based telecommunications company. But after reviewing BellSouth’s application for Best Legal Department, we hope that some things will stay the same. Namely, that the company’s in-house counsel will continue to do a lot of their own litigating; and that the lawyers and staff will still take part in the department’s novel and ambitious pro bono programs, which made the former Baby Bell a standout among our entries. BellSouth is a company that keeps a close eye on costs; the law department has turned this tightfistedness into a virtue by keeping many key legal matters in-house. It handles 85 percent of its labor and employment cases, and 100 percent of its arbitration in-house. “I don’t know of another company that even approaches that level,” says general counsel Marc Gary. BellSouth was able to cut its legal department’s expenses between 2004 and 2005 by 16 percent, in part as a result of these efforts. (Gary is a member of Corporate Counsel’s editorial advisory board.) In court, the telecom’s own attorneys often sit in the first-chair position. It’s another thing that makes BellSouth’s legal department unique. “We’re not looking for lawyers who want to get out of firms because they want to get out of litigation,” says Gary. Four of BellSouth’s seven litigators were partners at firms before coming in-house, and they didn’t want their courtroom skills to atrophy. “My lawyers are in the courts every day,” Gary says. When the department turns to outside counsel, it continues to take innovative steps to keep costs down. Sometimes it works with contract lawyers hired directly from outside firms. Occasionally, it requests that junior-level attorneys (who are paired with experienced in-house counsel) work on BellSouth cases. “We’re very direct with who we want on our matters,” says Laura Coleman, associate general counsel of litigation, labor, and compliance. “It kind of hurts the outside counsel business model.” BellSouth’s iconoclastic approach extends to its pro bono efforts, too, which is one of the reasons why it is a finalist. Pro bono work “gives lawyers a real sense of contributing to the community,” says Gary. More than 80 percent of the legal department’s 185 employees, including the top brass, have participated. It’s no ad hoc affair. A 29-member pro bono committee gathers input from the department, then develops projects for the legal team. That’s led to endeavors like Wills for Heroes, which was started in 2003. BellSouth attorneys help draft wills for Atlanta-area firefighters and police officers with the assistance of Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough. In addition, BellSouth lawyers recently paired with attorneys at Powell Goldstein to prepare and process immigration visa applications in Project Liberty. There are service projects for the nonlawyers on staff, too. “[Other companies] tend to limit pro bono programs to [strictly] legal services,” managing counsel Thompson Rawls says. “We see expansions of community service as part of [pro bono].” There’s a lunch-hour reading program with local schools, and a charity run, too. Last year, staff and lawyers alike participated in Hurricane Katrina outreach. Attorneys offered legal guidance to hurricane victims, while nonlawyers gathered emergency supplies to send to the stricken area. “Part of [the company's] mission statement is community involvement,” says Gary. “We want to make it so broad that everyone finds something.” Company: BellSouth Corporation
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