San Diego’s in-house attorneys have a reputation as a diversified and highly talented group, including some who traverse the jungles of Cameroon to monitor ebony mills and those who negotiate a merger to create the largest health care district in the state.
The San Diego Business Journal and the Association of Corporate Counsel hosted a panel discussion September 11 featuring San Diego attorneys who work for local companies. The panel discussed the various work in-house lawyers do, how they do it, how they organize their work, and how they select outside counsel when they need help.
“It’s more about the attorney, than the hourly rate,” said Debora Buljat, associate general counsel for General Dynamics Nassco, when asked how she hires outside counsel. “I might not have said that five years ago.”
In addition to Buljat, panelists included Janine Sarti, general counsel for Palomar Health; Steven Spector, executive vice president, general counsel and secretary for Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc.; and Taylor Guitars’ team of Ethna Piazza, general counsel and CFO Barbara Wight. Randy Frisch, president and publisher of the San Diego Business Journal moderated. Eighty people attended, including members of prominent local legal firms and legal counsel from various high profile San Diego organizations.
The panelists agreed a good working relationship, and understanding of the business the firm operates are critical considerations for hiring outside counsel. “If you want to do business with us, it’s good to understand the company,” said Taylor Guitars’ Piazza. “We need advice that applies to us, not health care or biotech.”
Arena’s Spector agreed, “It’s best when there’s a relationship and it’s the relationship with the individual partner, not necessarily the firm.” Too many layers can alienate a corporate client.
Costs are still a factor to be considered, however. “Looking for the best value for the organization is how I can be a good steward to Palomar Health and to the community,” Palomar Health’s Sarti said. “I spent $300,000 last year on outside counsel, and I hope to reduce that this year.”
As would be expected, litigation and merger and acquisition are often outsourced to outside counsel. Taylor Guitars “is an interesting industry from a legal perspective — we have a significant market share. We have a number of patents and have defended them aggressively around the world,” said Wight, Taylor’s CFO and the only non-lawyer on the panel. Spector noted that Arena “does a great deal in-house, but supplements with outside counsel when needed for public offerings and litigation. We use 50 different firm providers — local and international.”
Similarly, Nassco used outside
lawyers for its two recent major acquisitions, said Buljat.
Other topics reviewed included the utilization of metrics for evaluation; sourcing for legally managing intellectual property issues; insurance provider relationships; and the effect of competition under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for companies working on an international level. Palomar Health’s Sarti, who works with an engaged board, as well as top management, stressed that regular evaluation and benchmarking is essential to provide a clear picture of legal activities and accomplishments. “It is my way of showing (the board) they have value for their spend.”
Using Local Attorneys
All panelists voiced a desire to work with local San Diego attorneys when possible. “Judges like to see San Diego lawyers in front of them,” General Dynamics Nassco’s Buljat said.
The event was held downtown at Donovan’s Prime Seafood, 333 Fifth Ave., in the Gaslamp Quarter. The popular award-winning restaurant is part of the locally based Donovan’s Steak and Chop House group, begun in 1999 in La Jolla. It was recently acknowledged as the “2012 Open Table Diners Choice Award for Special Occasion.”