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What’s it like to be counsel to a company that is vilified on multiplex movie screens across the land? While the neighbors may be shocked by the David and Goliath tale ‘Erin Brockovich’ — in which a brassy legal assistant wrests a $333 million toxic tort settlement from big, bad Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — all things considered, say the PG & E lawyers, it’s a lovely place to work. Thirty-two of 105 PG & E lawyers responded to our survey. They report that their workplace is anything but toxic. Rather, collegiality, challenging work, and good pay combine to produce a benevolent atmosphere. Just ask senior counsel John Ford. In April he was in the midst of handling the sale of a relatively small subsidiary in San Francisco when he had a cycling accident that broke his clavicle and a bone in his left hand. From his home in Berkeley, where the 53-year-old was recuperating, Ford gushed about colleagues who were volunteering to work weekends to complete his deal. “When the chips are down, I think you can rely on everybody,” he says. And “that’s more important than any of the other stuff, because if you couldn’t count on these folks in times of adversity, [the rest] would be largely irrelevant.” Time and again, the lawyers who responded to the Quality of Life survey matter-of-factly described PG & E’s law department as blessed. “The stars just lined up right,” says Gary Encinas, chief counsel-corporate of PG & E Corp., the parent company. “I’ve got people who are choosing to stay here because they like working here. They can certainly go to Silicon Valley. Other transactional law firms have jobs open, and they’re begging.” PG & E says that it offers a competitive salary. And 34 percent of the respondents said that they were very happy with their pay. Heavyweight law firms recently pushed their first-year associate wages to a record-smashing base pay of $125,000 plus a variety of bonuses. Seventh- and eighth-year associates at major law firms in San Francisco report base salaries starting at around $205,000 and reaching as high as $260,000 with bonus included. An eighth-year PG & E attorney would make anywhere between $185,000 and $230,000 with bonus included, says Bruce Worthington, senior vice president and general counsel of the parent company. At PG & E, the base pay for in-house lawyers ranges from $100,000 to $250,000, with bonuses from 11 percent to 45 percent of base pay. Last year the law department got even more — 65 percent above their regular bonuses — because the company did so well. All the company’s lawyers also got PG & E stock: the lowest group gets 6,000-13,000 shares; the middle group gets 9,000-22,000 shares; and the upper echelon gets 60,000 shares. That means that with PG & E stock closing at, say, $26 on April 25, the top guns are getting $1.5 million in stock alone. “I’m very happy [here], and obviously the financial compensation is a part of that,” says attorney Robert Monti, 34. “You look at what your peers might be making somewhere else [in Silicon Valley with their stock options], but I look at my situation. I’m doing interesting work with a fine group of people.” Of course, 40 percent were less than thrilled with their compensation packages: 31 percent said that they were “not so satisfied” and 9 percent said that they were downright “dissatisfied.” The salary is low “compared to outside counsel of equal responsibility and experience,” says one lawyer. While no one returned the hefty bonuses, some lawyers would have preferred building the increases into their base pay. “The salaries are not keeping up with the market, and the company is making no effort to increase the salaries which have been essentially frozen except for small cost-of-living adjustments,” was how one phrased the discontent. There is little quarrel with the benefits, especially the company day care center, located in one of the company’s buildings on Beale Street in San Francisco. Worthington values the center as a retention tool. “We are keeping younger lawyers in the utility department because they know they have their child downstairs,” he says. There is a “caregiver” for about every three infants at the day care center, which is nearly filled to capacity with 66 children. Other reported pluses include attorneys getting out of the office by 6:30. Weekend work is rare. “We feel that we’re part of a team,” says Frances Chang, 35, who moved in-house after a brief stint with Pillsbury Madison & Sutro. “I go to people who are more senior for guidance, and there’s no real sense of hierarchy.” Ford agrees: “It’s not like senior people get to do all the interesting stuff and the junior lawyers do the non-interesting stuff. … It’s a good decent mix. … I like to work at a more egalitarian place,” he says. A few more lawyers would help, suggests Worthington. And Ford, when pressed to suggest some improvement, offered only that “communication can always be better” between the various divisions. But the overall picture is clear: The lawyers at PG & E seem remarkably happy. “I really can’t think of anything that could be improved,” says Chang. “Better coffee?” She laughs. “Actually, the coffee’s not bad.”

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