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Name: Brackett B. Denniston III Title: Vice president, senior counsel for litigation and legal policy Age: 54 Company: Ranked No. 5 on the Fortune 500, General Electric Co. is a diversified conglomerate that manufactures a broad range of products, from aircraft engines to appliances; owns the NBC television network; and runs one of the largest financial services companies in the United States. GE has more than 300,000 employees in more than 30 countries, and its 2000 revenues topped $129 billion. Responsibilities: A few years ago, when Denniston was chief legal counsel to Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, his boss told him something that neatly defined his professional life. “Look,” Weld said as they sat in the governor’s office, interviewing prospective judges for the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, “you and I have the same problem. We hate to be bored.” These days, there would seem to be little risk of that. Denniston’s four lawyers and two paralegals have more than 100 pending cases with claims of $5 million or more. The current number is about average, which is why his lawyers “are among the busiest people you could find,” he says. “One of GE’s hallmarks is that we run thin.” The challenges for this small cadre are particularly acute because GE doesn’t simply farm out cases to outside counsel. “That is verboten at GE,” Denniston says. “We are very actively involved in our cases, which is why I say, ‘We partner’ ” with outside counsel. Denniston’s time is divided among three main areas of responsibility: the company’s five to 10 biggest cases; “breaking” cases with trials or hearings that he will sometimes “parachute into”; and the systems that manage litigation and corporate compliance. This last responsibility reveals something of GE’s corporate structure. Even though only four lawyers report directly to Denniston, as GE’s chief litigator, he is connected by dotted lines to the approximately 50 litigators who work for GE’s businesses, which means that he has some responsibility for their work as well. Three times a year, he connects the dots when he meets with the litigation practice group to review cases, share knowledge and integrate advances. As a founding member of the council that monitors GE’s alternative dispute resolution system, he also confers periodically with about 20 lawyers from GE’s larger businesses to discuss ADR and the company’s Six Sigma quality-control program. In 1999, Denniston was handed the additional responsibility of chairing the policy compliance board, charged with ensuring that GE employees conform not only to laws but to GE’s own ethical standards, which sometimes exceed them. Company guidelines prohibit employees from paying bribes, for example, even in countries where they are legal. Hudson River pollution: One of Denniston’s most visible cases involves the Hudson River and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The case, and GE’s response, have been large, but he insists his own role has been “modest.” He has helped raise a constitutional challenge to the Superfund statute, the law under which a 200-mile stretch of the river was classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site that needed to be cleaned. GE acknowledges that for 30 years two of its manufacturing plants legally dumped PCBs into the Hudson before the chemical was known to be a pollutant. In recent years, the company has spent around $200 million cleaning up, but it opposes the EPA’s proposal to dredge the river. Dredging, GE argues, would create more problems than it would solve. If the EPA’s final decision, expected in August, affirms its proposal, GE will be ordered to undertake the dredging at a cost of $460 million, according to agency estimates. In its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, GE argues that the Superfund statute violates the Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process by empowering the EPA to impose massive cleanup obligations on a company with no prior hearing before an independent tribunal. Dishwasher recall: Of course, not all of GE’s cases have the majestic sweep of the Hudson as backdrop. Denniston cites a dishwasher recall as an example of a case he parachuted into by increasing his involvement at critical junctures. In 1998, GE reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission that a switch on one of its older dishwashers had caused fires. The following year, Denniston says, GE agreed to offer owners a rebate toward the purchase of new dishwashers. Disappointed at the response rate, the commission pressed GE to add a repair option. Working primarily with Peter Winik in the Washington, D.C., office of Latham & Watkins, Denniston flew back and helped negotiate a second, and final, agreement. ADR: Denniston believes that the company’s use of ADR has saved “hundreds of millions of dollars.” The key, he explains, is screening cases from the start to determine whether they’re amenable to mediation. Some are not. GE is not likely to mediate allegations of libel or defamation aimed at NBC. “Those are matters of principle to us.” But in recent years, the company has used mediation to resolve disputes involving insurance coverage, employment, patents and commercial transactions. P.D. Villarreal, who chairs GE’s ADR program and works closely with Denniston, says that some of the best examples of dispute resolution are cases like the dishwasher recall, which didn’t escalate into a lawsuit because it was negotiated before it got that far. Another case that Denniston settled using ADR was a 1997 lawsuit that appeared headed for protracted litigation. As Villarreal describes it, the dispute was over an attempt to replace the steel flue pipes used in boilers with plastic ones, which eventually cracked. By the time this problem was diagnosed, several hundred thousand were already in homes. With numerous plaintiffs and defendants involved, if they had tried to “apportion blame in the legal sense,” Villarreal says, it would have taken years — further raising public safety concerns, not to mention costs. So Denniston and Vicki Bonnington, the head litigator at GE’s plastics business, pushed for mediation. What might have dragged on for years was concluded in months. The pipes were removed and, compared with the anticipated cost of litigation, Villarreal says that GE saved tens of millions of dollars. Outside counsel: Denniston chooses specific lawyers, not firms, most often for general legal work rather than for particular kinds of cases. Examples include Tom Dougherty of the Boston office of New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Mark Hansen of Washington, D.C.’s Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd & Evans; and Brad Brian of Los Angeles’ Munger, Tolles & Olson. Pet peeves: He says that he receives poorly researched and analyzed work from outside counsel — even those who would otherwise be regarded as “first-rate lawyers.” “It’s easily the most frustrating problem that I see,” he says. What makes this problem more than a mere annoyance is that if they’re not caught, these early misjudgments can lead to misguided actions. Route to the top: After graduating summa cum laude from Kenyon College, in Ohio, and magna cum laude from Harvard University Law School in 1973, Denniston worked as an associate and then partner at Boston’s Goodwin Procter from 1974 to 1982. He specialized in white-collar crime and financial litigation. From 1982 to 1986, he was chief of the major frauds unit when Weld was the U.S. Attorney in Boston. After a seven-year stint back at Goodwin Procter, he returned to public service in 1993, as then-Gov. Weld’s chief legal counsel. He was hired as GE’s chief litigator in September 1996. Family: Denniston and his wife, Kathy, have been married for 26 years. They have two daughters: Alexandra, 19, and Elizabeth, 14; and a son, Brackett IV, 18. Last books read:“Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War,” by Francis Parkman; and “Moby Dick,” by Herman Melville.

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