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Your client asks you if it can do something that veers close to the line ethically. You don’t want to offend the client, you don’t want to lose the business, but you also don’t want to get snared in scandal. Who you gonna call? The principals of Gavel Consulting Group hope you’ll call them for help. Gavel is a startup firm marketing itself on the strength of six big-name former federal judges — including Kenneth Starr and former FBI Directors Louis Freeh, William Sessions, and William Webster — who have agreed to work with the company. The former judges won’t be giving up their day jobs at major law firms and corporations. But if they have no conflicts, they will be available as independent contractors to offer strategic legal advice to corporations, law firms and even pro bono clients such as foreign governments. “Our only product is judgment, independent judgment,” says retired military appeals judge Eugene Sullivan, who founded the group in February along with retired U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin, one-time enforcement chief for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Sporkin is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “Look at what’s going on in the headlines recently on corporate America,” says Sullivan. “Wouldn’t it have been great if they had talked to a couple of federal judges beforehand to prevent them from doing these boneheaded things?” It was the recent spate of scandals that got Sullivan and Sporkin talking about how to bring the experience of judges to bear on corporate and attorney decision-making — before a crisis hits. “This is a very scary time for CEOs and corporations,” says Sullivan, a former general counsel to the Air Force who retired last year from a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. “We can be an insurance policy. We can give them a peek at what might happen if what they do goes before a judge, and they might decide not to do it in the first place.” In addition to Sullivan and Sporkin, the members of the group’s board of consultants include three former judges who went on to direct the Federal Bureau of Investigation: Freeh, now senior vice president at the MBNA Corp., Sessions, now a partner in Holland & Knight’s D.C. office; and Webster, senior partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy’s D.C. office. Former judge, solicitor general and independent counsel Starr is a partner in Kirkland & Ellis’ D.C. office. Sullivan says that because of Freeh’s corporate position, he would only be available for pro bono projects. The consulting group is in its early stages, and for now is operating out of Sullivan’s Bethesda, Md., home, with a rough-cut Web site, www.gavelconsultinggroup.com. Already, though, Sullivan has consulted with an Illinois corporation on an international trademark dispute. Sullivan accompanied the CEO to Ireland, offering advice on the strength of the infringement claim and on how to proceed. The group may soon be helping to train judges for an Asian nation, and later this month Sullivan and Sporkin will be presiding over a moot court of sorts to help a corporation test its strategy for a pending civil trial. “We’ve seen hundreds of trials and appeals, and we can tell them what will fly and what won’t,” says Sullivan, 61. Ordinarily, he says, law firms will stage moot courts by filling the “bench” with partners and friends who may not be willing or prepared to give truly independent advice. “We won’t hesitate to tell it like it is,” he notes. In the same way, both in-house and outside counsel for corporations may feel too close to their clients to tell them what they don’t want to hear. Says Sullivan: “So many of the litigation decisions are being made by lawyers with inherent self-interest in the case. Sometimes what they are about to do is not a good idea.” The consulting group, by contrast, will “come in for a flat fee, look at the situation and make suggestions — settle or sue — and we’re done,” Sullivan says. To preserve their independence, the participants have agreed that when they are advising clients for the Gavel group, they will not steer related legal business to their own firms. Sullivan thinks the potential market for his group’s services is large, and the future pool of consultants is also considerable: “There are a lot of retired judges who would like to get to be judges again.” He thinks the company is unique and unlike other firms that offer the services of former judges for arbitration and mediation. Judicial ethics expert Steven Lubet, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, sees no ethical problems with the new consulting firm. “There is no limit on what a fully retired judge can do,” he says, and nothing wrong with former judges holding themselves out as having “power and abilities far beyond those of mortal man.” He does note, however, that an American Bar Association ethics opinion discourages former judges from using the title “judge” in their later law or business capacities. Lubet even thinks enterprises like Gavel will benefit the judiciary in the long run by encouraging turnover. “This gives judges the opportunity to use their judicial experience for post-service financial gain.”

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