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The 70 attorneys at San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s law department feel under siege. They’ve got their regular caseload of more than 500 cases. Then there’s the California energy crisis and all the work — and the barrage of negative publicity — it’s bringing. On top of that, the flu and cold season is hammering the already beleagured staff. But nobody’s leaving. Competitive pay, good perks and interesting law explain why. “This is a time when big decisions are being made that will govern our energy future for the next five to 10 years, and there are a lot of important things at stake,” said U.C. Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law dean John Dwyer, an environmental lawyer. “It’s probably stressful, energizing and exciting to be a lawyer at the center of it.” Smack in the center of it is Robert Bordon, the deputy general counsel who runs daily operations at PG&E’s legal department while GC Roger Peters spends his time advising top executives or shuttling to Sacramento on legislative issues. (Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., the utility’s parent company, has its own GC, Bruce Worthington, and a staff of 10 lawyers.) As is the case for Peters and many of the utility’s other lawyers, PG&E is all Bordon has ever known. He started there fresh out of Boalt Hall in 1971 and worked his way through the litigation department to be the first named to the newly created position of deputy GC in 1988. These days, work is spilling into home life, with nights and weekends besieged by e-mails and phone calls. Bordon says that at times it feels like the finish line is nowhere in sight. “We’ve been in this sprint, and now we have to make this a long-distance race, but we’re still in a sprint,” says the 54-year-old Bordon. “We’re sprinting now in our 10th mile, and we have 100 miles to go … . It’s tough to keep doing this.” Right now, PG&E is in litigation or negotiations with a host of energy crisis players, including suppliers and the Independent System Operator, which operates, controls and manages the state’s power transmission lines. There are a total of 12 energy crisis-spawned suits, the highest profile of them being against the California Public Utilities Commission, which PG&E sued for the right to raise consumer electricity rates. “I spend 100 percent of my time on the energy crisis,” Bordon says. A calm, slow-moving man with a deadpan sense of humor, Bordon cut his teeth doing tort work for the company’s litigation group. The group spends about 90 percent of its time defending the company on a range of claims — almost all seeking damages for alleged accidents concerning PG&E products, property or equipment. Bordon was head of the litigation department in 1987, when Unocal Corp. filed a suit against PG&E that alleged a long list of violations concerning geyser steam fields that Unocal built for PG&E in Lake County, Calif. Bordon wanted to concentrate all of his effort on the Unocal suit. So then-GC Howard Golub — now in private practice in San Francisco — began outsourcing the company’s tort work to firms like San Francisco’s Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold; to private practitioners like Rita Gilmore and Paul Gutierrez; and to small firms in whatever region the matter may have arisen in. The suit settled in 1989 with Unocal paying an undisclosed sum to PG&E, and Bordon was able to turn his energy toward running the law department. He said he sought to “professionalize” its management system, giving more autonomy to his administrative staff — freeing him from some of the day-to-day details of running the office — and organizing his attorneys into more formalized practice areas. “PG&E runs a very big in-house law office, and it’s considered to be a very sophisticated office that handles a wide range of issues,” said Boalt dean Dwyer. “They run a full-service office there.” The system Bordon shaped more than 10 years ago is still in place. In it, the law department is divided into groups based on the company’s areas of activity: power generation, regulatory matters, human resources, energy purchase and distribution operations. A sixth group is dedicated to litigation. Each group has a chief counsel, and “section heads” that work under them. Bordon estimates that PG&E’s law department ships out a little less than 25 percent of its work to firms. The type of work that goes outside is most often litigation and regulatory work relating to the federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which PG&E leaves to firms in the Washington, D.C., area. At present, the lion’s share gets sent out to San Francisco Bay Area firms such as Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe and Cooley Godward. Most of the work those firms currently are handling has been generated by the energy crisis. A series of lawsuits concerning alleged chromium pollution in Southern California — and the impetus for the film “Erin Brockovich” — is being handled by Los Angeles’ Latham & Watkins. Heller partner Marie Fiala is taking the lead on the CPUC case. PG&E says it believes its solvency is dependent upon the company winning the right to raise electricity prices. Fiala said Bordon’s department has been under extreme duress since the energy crisis began, and that she’s impressed with the group’s cohesiveness in the face of what she sees as a daily battering by the media. She said news reports that advocate heavily for the taxpayer inadvertently demonize PG&E for seeking the rate relief she says the utility has been forced to require. “Talking about a ‘state bailout’ suggests that the utilities have created a problem and that the state is bailing them out,” said Fiala, who was a summer associate at PG&E along with Peters in the mid-1970s. “The folks there are dealing with it how folks deal with any emergency: You’re all in it together and you want to make it through to the other side,” Fiala said. Though the bulk of the lawyers in the department were recruited straight from law school, Bordon said he stopped that practice a few years back and since has sought lawyers with a few years of experience. “It’s easier to hire from firms,” he said. Bordon declined to disclose the salary paid to him and to Peters, and said PG&E stopped trying to keep pace with law firm salaries after the big pay hikes of last spring. Prior to that, he said, compensation for lawyers in their first seven years fell roughly in line with the firms. In the Bay Area in 1998, first-years at big firms were paid in the $105,000 range annually. “It used to be very competitive,” Bordon says. “Now it’s very competitive with small firms and certainly other corporations.” And while he says he usually gets a “substantial response” when he does hire, he conceded that “there’s probably not a lot of interest right now.” But lawyers in the department seem determined to ride out the storm, and say the pleasures of the job far outweigh the strain of the current rough patch. “A few months of challenging times doesn’t compare to a long, satisfying career, and I think folks are willing to see it through,” said Michelle Wilson, a lawyer who came to PG&E after graduating from Stanford Law School in 1986. Lawyers in the department are allowed to work part-time and can take advantage of the childcare center downstairs, telecommute, acquire stock options, and be eligible for bonuses as high as 60 percent of their annual salary. Wilson and Linda Agerter share the position of chief counsel of the utility operations law group, an arrangement that allowed both of them to work part-time up until when the energy crisis began. Prior to that, Wilson worked a four-day week and had taken a 10-month leave of absence so she could travel through Asia, Africa and South America. “I certainly don’t speak for the entire department, but I think my experiences give insight as to why there might be loyalty to the department,” said Wilson. “I think there’s a real respect for different lifestyles here.”

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