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With a population shy of 6,500, the Oneida County town of Verona, N.Y., may seem an unlikely venue for a thriving national law office, even though its tentacles reach into such varied practice areas as intellectual property law, land use, gambling, entertainment law, communications and criminal defense. Never mind that it is the only legal department in the nation — the Oneida Indian Nation, that is. The nation, depending on which side gets the upper hand in an ongoing land dispute, covers as many as 300,000 acres in New York’s Oneida and Madison counties. But no matter how much space it takes up, the Oneida Nation in recent years has emerged as a predominant force in a once-thriving dairy farm community. As an economic engine in Central New York, the Oneida Nation employs nearly 5,000, has a $123 million payroll and is the largest employer in Oneida and Madison counties. It operates the Turning Stone Resort and Casino, along with five golf courses (three of them championship caliber), 21 restaurants, banquet facilities and a 5,000-seat entertainment center. It just signed a deal that will make one of its golf courses a stop on the PGA tour, and is beginning to lure major acts to its performing arts center. In addition, it publishes a newspaper, Indian Country Today, runs a 900-head Angus beef herd, and manages three marinas on Oneida Lake and a high-end RV park. It also has a record company, a firm that produces music videos and an art gallery. All of that business, not to mention seemingly endless land claim litigation, generates a lot of legal work, which in recent years the nation has largely doled out to national firms like Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Hughes Hubbard and Reed; and Zuckerman Spaeder. But now Nation Enterprises, run by Harvard Law School graduate and Oneida native Ray Halbritter, is looking to go in-house. “The legal department we need, as anyone in business knows, has to be as top-quality as we can create,” said Halbritter, whose official title is national representative and chief executive officer of Nation Enterprises. “The demands on our businesses, and the issues that face our nation, are critical to our future. We are looking to develop a top-flight legal team. It will be demanding work, but intriguing, with probably as varied a variety of legal issues that you will find anywhere. This is not for a low intensity person.” Halbritter’s managing partner, so to speak, is Peter Carmen, a former member of a prestigious regional firm in Syracuse, N.Y., Mackenzie Hughes. At the moment, Carmen has a stable of six lawyers — he is recruiting for more — and a staff of about 20 that also includes paralegals and archeologists. “Start with the premise that the nation representative, Ray Halbritter, is himself a very smart lawyer with exceptionally high standards for what he expects of his lawyers,” Carmen said. “Part of Mr. Halbritter’s philosophy is he doesn’t want lawyers who claim to specialize in Indian law, because they can come in with blinders. Instead, his direction has been made very clear: Find and recruit the brightest, hardest working lawyers we can find. They can learn Indian law, but they aren’t going to learn a work ethic and creativity.” PAYMENT IN CLOTH The Oneida Nation, a member of the Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-so-nee) or Iroquois Confederacy, dates to the early 1600s and holds the distinction of being the United States’ first ally. The Oneidas, joined by the Tuscaroras, were the only members of the Iroquois Confederacy to join the colonists in the Revolutionary War. They played a major role in the Battle of Oriskany and fought with the rebels in the Battle of Saratoga. In return, the new U.S. government assured the Oneida and Tuscarora nations that they would be “secured in the possession of the lands on which they are settled.” As part of the Treaty of Canandaigua, the first treaty signed by George Washington, the United States continues to make an annual annuity payment to the Oneida Nation. That payment comes in the form of a “treaty cloth,” portions of which are delivered to the Oneidas each year by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and diminishes annually. In the late 1800s, the Oneidas received over 1,000 yards of cloth. Now it gets about 150 yards a year. A copy of the Treaty of Canandaigua, in which the U.S. government pledges to “never claim … nor disturb” lands reserved to the Oneidas, hangs on the wall of every attorney on staff. Today, there are only about 1,000 Oneidas, with approximately 500 living in the ancestral lands (well under one percent of the local population). Unlike some tribes, membership in the Oneida Nation is restricted to those whose mother is Oneida and have at least 25 percent Oneida blood. In other words, the offspring of a full-blooded Oneida man and a Jewish woman — or even a non-Oneida Indian woman — are not Oneida. Members of the nation are entitled to substantial “public” benefits, including some social services (education, health care and housing) and legal assistance. For years, the nation has contracted with attorneys to provide its members with basic legal services — like drafting wills, handling real estate matters, filing bankruptcies, dealing with domestic matters and criminal issues — the way a general practice firm would represent its clients. It operates its own, independent court system, relying on retired Court of Appeals Judges Richard D. Simons and Stewart F. Hancock Jr. to preside. The nation has its own prosecutor, and a contract with a Pennsylvania prison that will hold its convicts for up to year. GENERAL COUNSEL’S OFFICE But the legal needs of the nation and its members shifted and grew increasingly complex after 1993, when the Oneidas built a bingo hall and casino on former farmland adjacent to the New York State Thruway. More and more, the nation farmed out its legal work to mega firms that were far removed, geographically as well as culturally, from Verona. Halbritter wants to bring the legal business, or most of it, back home. He brought in Carmen as general counsel. Carmen in turn lured two top deputies: Jaime Previte, deputy general counsel for business and government transactions; and Meghan Murphy Beakman, deputy general counsel for litigation and legislation. Carmen, who was first in his class at Syracuse University College of Law, had represented the nation for several years as outside counsel with Mackenzie Hughes. Murphy was law review editor at Syracuse before working for Bond, Schoeneck, & King. Previte, a graduate of Cornell University Law School, grew up in nearby Rome, N.Y., and never imagined she would come home after landing a job at White & Case, the global firm based in Manhattan. “My day is quite varied,” Previte said. “There are entertainment contracts, intellectual property issues, trademarks, software licensing, gaming issues, construction contracts. There are government issues, hospitality, general corporate law, financial, real estate and tax issues. You’d be pretty hard-pressed to find that variety elsewhere.” Carmen said that in his shop, there is extraordinary opportunity as well as responsibility. “Our lawyers are not just one layer in a several-layer practice,” Carmen said. “On the first day, they are on the front lines. There is no place to hide. If we are handling a contract for [recording artist] Mariah Carey to come here, you are responsible. It’s not like there are three layers of partners above you or three layers of associates below you.” Interestingly, none of the lawyers on staff are American Indian. Halbritter said relatively few study law. Four years ago, however, the Oneida Nation endowed a chair in American Indian studies at Harvard Law School, with a $3 million gift. Halbritter said he developed an interest in law in the 1970s, when his aunt and uncle were trapped in a burning building and local authorities refused to help. “We had some land and the police were oppressing some of our people, so we told them we didn’t want them on our property,” Halbritter recalled. “They said, ‘Then we won’t send anyone to help you.’ My aunt and uncle burned to death. I wanted to understand how, in this country, that could happen. I wanted to understand the laws and the legal system, so I was driven to law school to equip myself with this tragedy.” But Halbritter has never practiced. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1990, he turned down a clerkship at the New York Court of Appeals and instead went to work for his nation, as an administrator and advocate rather than an attorney. Now a major administrative prerogative is building a law department. “Outside counsel is necessary and will probably always be necessary for certain issues,” Halbritter said. “But in-house counsel will be closer to the ground and will know more about our issues because they will be right here every day. Having attorneys devoted solely to our issues is critically important.”

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