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Question: What do you get when you cross a cat herder with a triage nurse? Answer: a law firm general counsel. Well, at least according to Gene Pratter, general counsel at Philadelphia’s Duane Morris. A decade ago, say Pratter and others with the title, there was only a handful of law firm GCs. Although there’s no official head count available, the growth in firms with general counsel in the past three years has been “astronomical,” says Blane Prescott, a partner with Newtown Square, Pa.-based legal consultant Altman Weil Inc. “A number of firms have said: ‘Gee whiz, we’re businesses, too, and it might be worthwhile to have a general counsel just like any other business,’” says Prescott. He estimates that about 25 percent of his clients now employ a GC, up from almost none two years ago. The law firm GC ranks may soon swell further, thanks to recent hikes in the cost of professional liability insurance. According to Roberta Jenkins, an account executive with Philadelphia-based broker USI Colburn Insurance Service, premiums have gone up by 30 percent to 50 percent in the past year, thanks to the recession and the huge cost of Sept. 11 for reinsurers. And it’s not just a matter of rising rates, but also of shrinking availability. “Where a firm has had a big claim or has frequent claims, the mainstream carriers are declining to offer coverage,” she warns. All of which is prompting firms to re-examine how they handle conflicts, potential liability and ethics. Harry Cornett, GC at Cleveland-based Arter & Hadden, speculates that that will mean more law firm GCs. “More than Enron, the hardening of the insurance market and the cost of malpractice insurance today mean that firms want to make sure that they’re not doing things that are going to expose them,” he says. Pratter has handled liability and ethics issues for Duane Morris ever since chairing its ethics and professional responsibility committee in the mid-1980s. The firm has tripled in size since she got the GC title in 1999, and the post now demands about 70 percent of her time. Pratter, who says she loves the job, doesn’t handle everything herself but acts as a clearinghouse (that’s the part that she likens to triage). According to Joel Henning, senior vice president of Chicago-based legal consultant Hildebrandt International Inc., Pratter’s job description is typical. “Those things used to be handled by a committee or a guru, but there’s definitely a trend toward having a GC handle them now.” Some firms have an ethics partner, conflicts partner or loss-prevention partner instead, he says, but adds that he’s seen a tenfold increase in law firm GCs over the past decade. Consolidating a firm’s legal issues also means greater consistency and efficiency. “The advantage is that you have somebody who develops expertise in those areas,” says Stephen Good, managing partner at Dallas’ Gardere Wynne Sewell, which has a part-time GC. “When a problem arises, you have somebody who’s dealt with it before.” So, do law firm GCs get any of the vaunted lifestyle benefits of going in-house? Not hardly. “A wag might say my job is like herding cats,” jokes Pratter. “But I’m very fond of my colleagues, so I don’t mind.”

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