U pays many

by Josh Dickey

Andrew Tellijohn

With a docket averaging 230 cases and only 14 full-time attorneys on staff, the University’s Office of the General Counsel needs help picking up the slack. That job goes to several firms throughout the state. Expenditures have climbed steadily during the past four years. According to last year’s annual report, the University paid 37 firms about $2.05 million between July 1, 1996 and June 30, 1997 for legal representation. That’s 173 percent more than the $750,000 the University paid for outside legal costs in 1993-94.
William Donohue, deputy general counsel annual report 1996-97 for the University, said the ongoing, year-long lawsuit with the National Institutes of Health Tap caused most of the increase.
Attorneys from Dorsey & Whitney, Minnesota’s largest law firm, have handled much of the work in the NIH case since January. What started as a $100 million-lawsuit against the University has significantly decreased because some charges were dismissed.
The University paid the Minneapolis-based law firm Dorsey & Whitney more than $850,000 during 1996-97.
For cost reasons, general counsel officials say they would like to decrease their reliance on outside firms.
Lead general counsel Mark Rotenberg said working on cases in-house is always preferable to sening them out because it is cheaper.
“Lawyers inside always cost less,” he said. “When we use outside lawyers, it’s like buying retail.”
“We can produce an hour of legal work inside at a much cheaper rate than they can at virtually any firm that practices in the Twin Cities,” Donohue added.
Certain cases, especially those involving academic matters, are always handled internally, Donohue said. Tenure termination, he said, is always handled by the office.
“Some people leave by agreement, but tenure termination almost always brings a lawsuit,” Donohue said.
Officials said legal expertise affects what gets sent out of house.
“We’re not ever going to do patent cases inside,” Donohue said. “A lot of our expenses are there.”
Local employment attorney Judy Schermer said that from the standpoint of a plaintiffs’ lawyer, trying cases the University contracts to other firms is easier. Because there aren’t as many cost concerns when the internal staff is handling cases, she said the general counsel’s office doesn’t always handle issues promptly.
Schermer said this often forces cases into litigation when they could be handled in a more civilized manner. When a case is handed to another firm, cost issues push the school to act quickly.
“At least if they’re getting a bill from an outside law firm, conceivably someone is seeing what’s being spent,” Schermer said.