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The late Rodney Dangerfield had it wrong. It’s not homely Borscht Belt comedians who get “no respect,” it’s corporate law departments. How do they show they’re full of good managers, strategists, and litigators? How does a cost center demonstrate, in an era of increased litigation, that it’s really helping the bottom line? Last summer we decided that the best way to answer these questions was to pick a few key areas of law department management to benchmark, and then evaluate a group of companies (in this case the Fortune 500) on their recent achievements, or missteps, in those areas. The result is Corporate Counsel’s first Best Legal Department contest. In late 2005 we sent a lengthy questionnaire to the general counsel of the Fortune 500. More than 20 companies responded. Senior reporter David Hechler winnowed the entries in half. A team of six reporters and editors read each of the final ten applications and ranked their top choices. When we compared notes, there was one unanimous winner: Ford Motor Company. We also picked three runners-up (in no particular order): BellSouth Corporation, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, and Microsoft Corporation. (The package begins here.) What makes these winners so worthy of our respect? Hands-on Lawyering:At BellSouth, Microsoft, and Ford, their lawyers do more than just watch from the sidelines. BellSouth attorneys first-chair trials. In fact, four of the telecom’s seven litigators were partners at firms before coming in-house. “We’re not looking for lawyers who want to get out of firms because they want to get out of litigation,” general counsel Marc Gary told staff reporter Jill Nawrocki. Since 2003, Microsoft has settled 17 large lawsuits for a total of $7.3 billion. We were pleased at how intimately the in-house lawyers were involved in crafting these settlements. And at Ford, corporate counsel were the principal negotiators on the $5.6 billion sale of The Hertz Corporation, the second-largest leveraged buyout in history. Diversity:It’s not enough that 33 percent of DuPont’s 164 attorneys are women, or that 33 percent of the lawyers there are African American. It’s equally important to DuPont’s legal department that its 42 preferred outside law firms are diverse, too. Along with job fairs and conferences for its in-house and outside female and minority lawyers, the company has put its money where its mouth is. In December, DuPont, along with four other Fortune 500 companies, pledged at least $16 million of business to minority-owned law firms in 2006. Pro BonWhile all of the finalists had notable accomplishments in this area, BellSouth’s were the most original and comprehensive. It has a 29-member pro bono committee that devises projects for the legal team. The lawyers’ post-Katrina outreach efforts, and their role in the Wills for Heroes program–BellSouth attorneys help draft wills for Atlanta-area firefighters and police officers–were particularly unique. Teamwork:Ford stood out from the other contestants because of its impressive IP group, its novel in-house appellate practice, and its lawyers’ deft management of outside counsel. But, ultimately, Ford made the best case for us that, when it comes to teamwork–whether it’s with the company’s rank-and-file, engineers, or financial executives–its legal department is number one.

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