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Six years ago, UtiliCorp United abolished its 15-lawyer legal department in favor of outsourcing its corporate work to Kansas City’s Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin. But after a five-year, $5 billion international acquisition spree, the Missouri-based company has come full circle, deciding that it needs a legal department after all. And it didn’t look far. The company hired the entire department — its principal outside counsel dealmaker, 39-year-old Leslie Parrette, and six of his associates — away from Blackwell Sanders. UtiliCorp remains Blackwell’s largest client, according to Ralph Wrobley, the senior partner at the 320-lawyer firm who oversees the account. “The $2 million that we lost is a small percentage of the total legal bill,” he says. UtiliCorp will still account for almost 10 percent of the firm’s revenues, senior vice president and general counsel Parrette says. Among the firm’s other clients are subsidiaries of Monsanto Company. Although UtiliCorp has never had a general counsel, it did have about 15 lawyers in-house six years ago, says Wrobley. Back then he convinced management to outsource the work, which was getting increasingly complex due to international acquisitions. Although the arrangement was working well, he says, “it was getting to the point where an in-house staff made sense.” That way, Parrette says, lawyers could be called into deal meetings at an earlier stage. Plus, he says, the company has grown and can justify having M&A specialists on board. UtiliCorp has transformed itself from a “one-horse utility east of Kansas City” into a multinational energy provider with $18 billion in annual sales, says Wrobley. The company now has some 4 million customers in the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Parrette, who had chaired Blackwell Sanders’ international practice group since 1995, was the natural choice for Utilicorp’s GC. While at the firm, he’d brought the company into New Zealand, then Australia, and now Canada. The M&A attorneys whom he brought with him to the company had worked on many of these deals. Brogan Sullivan is the most senior of the group with six years of practice; Gregory Schlicht is in his fourth year; and Marshall Allshouse, Brad Bacon, and Tom LaBarge are all first-year lawyers. Yabo Lin, also in his fourth year, acts as liaison between the firm and the corporation. He has offices at UtiliCorp, but also took over Parrette’s position as chair of the firm’s international practice group. Utilicorp’s new legal team is joining a place rich with Blackwell Sanders alum, starting with Robert Green, the 38-year-old president and COO. He runs the company with his brother, Richard Green, who serves as chairman and chief executive officer. Robert Green crossed over to the utility industry in 1989 and worked his way up the ranks from assistant division counsel for Missouri Public Service Company (the main operating division of UtiliCorp) to president of UtiliCorp, a position he has held since 1996. He also was appointed chairman of the company’s Aquila Energy trading subsidiary last year. It was the Greens’ vision that set the agenda for the company’s growth, says Wrobley. And that trend will continue, according to Parrette: “We are expanding very rapidly into foreign countries and outside the traditional utility area.” The next target for expansion is telecommunications. “There’s a tremendous need for bandwidth and high-speed Internet connections, and there’s just not enough infrastructure,” Parrette explains. “Utility companies realize they have these expansive networks that they can lay fiber optics on.” The company plans to continue gobbling up other companies — work that will be mostly handled in-house from now on. Blackwell Sanders will be doing a fair amount of labor and employment work for the company, as well as real estate transactions and litigation, says Parrette. Blackwell seems happy enough with the new arrangement: “Les and I go back 10 years,” Wrobley says. “He’s as loyal to me as I am to him.”

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