James Schadel, Burns White general counsel
James Schadel, Burns White general counsel ()

With an eye on expansion, Burns White recently joined the ranks of midsize firms with a designated general counsel position.

The firm announced that partner James Schadel would serve as general counsel, with Amanda Sargent as associate general counsel. The change came on the heels of a number of lateral hires, and just before the firm opened a new office to accommodate growth in the Pittsburgh region.

Schadel joined Burns White in 2015 and primarily represents lawyers and other professionals. He said he knows a number of other midsize firms that have a designated general counsel. At 140 lawyers, he said, Burns White is in the size range where it becomes necessary to dedicate a lawyer in-house to represent the firm and advise on legal or ethical issues.

Burns White joined Legal affiliate The National Law Journal’s most recent list of the largest 350 law firms by head count in 2015 with 115 lawyers. After that, the firm made several additions to its litigation bench through lateral hires in 2016, and hired 14 associates in three offices toward the end of last year.

“With the number of people we have there are more inquiries regarding ethical issues and employment matters,” Schadel said.

Many of those issues have long existed at midsize firms, managing partner David B. White said, but they have become more complicated or more numerous as the firm grows.

“Prior to us appointing Jim, we handled it internally. I dealt with most of it myself,” White said. “We just needed to get somebody who could pay attention to any of those issues.”

So far, White said, the firm has consulted its general counsel on vendor agreements, motions for disqualification or even firm policy on traveling with iPads and laptops, which may contain confidential information.

“There are a lot more requirements law firms have to adhere to that they didn’t before,” White said.

Consultant James Jones of Legal Management Resources, which operates roundtables for law firm general counsel, said the position has become more common at midsize firms. He said large law firms began to designate internal counsel for ethics and legal issues about 15 years ago, and midsize firms began to catch on about 10 years ago.

“In my experience, when a firm gets to be about 90, 100 lawyers, that’s typically a time when they begin to see that it makes sense to centralize these risk management functions,” Jones said. “It’s just gotten too complicated.”

Even some firms with 30 to 40 lawyers have chosen general counsel if they serve clients in complicated or regulated industries, he said.

The roles themselves have evolved too, Jones said. General counsel at law firms aren’t just helping with ethical issues and implementing model rules, but they’re helping negotiate firm mergers or refinancing, he said.

“These folks are beginning to look like real general counsel,” Jones said.