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May 28, 1998

Cochran wants to expand counsel office, reduce use of outside firms

Pitt's Office of General Counsel employs six full-time lawyers but needs to hire three more to handle a growing workload, according to Assistant Chancellor Jerome Cochran, who has been directing the office since March.

In updating the University Senate budget policies committee (BPC) this month on the office's activities, Cochran said he will seek permission to hire attorneys with expertise in:

* Technology development. "We're seeing a virtual explosion in the area of developing University-owned intellectual property, thanks to the efforts being coordinated through Art Boni's office" of Technology Management, Cochran said. The related legal work, he pointed out, "goes well beyond routine things like patent applications. As we enter into more business relationships with corporate partners, we need to protect the University against product liability litigation."

* Contract negotiations with campus vendors. "We need someone whose main responsibility would be negotiating our food service and beverage contracts, among others. It's a very time-consuming process," Cochran said.

* Health law. After the planned administrative and financial split between Pitt and UPMC Health System takes effect, the office of UPMC Vice President and Counsel George Huber no longer will do legal work for the University's six health sciences schools. "The sheer load of legal work related to those schools' activities will necessitate hiring somebody with experience in health law," Cochran said.

Pitt's administration tends to fluctuate between periods of hiring more in-house lawyers and relying on outside counsel, Cochran said. But he maintained that skilled, full-time University attorneys are more cost-effective.

It costs the University about $150,000 per year in salary and fringe benefits to hire an in-house lawyer and his or her support staff, Cochran estimated. Hiring outside legal firms at hourly rates of $160-$170 to do the same amount of work costs about $250,000, he said.

"We're doing more and more inside work as the abilities of our legal staff improve," Cochran said.

To offset the expense of hiring new staff, Cochran hopes to begin charging some Pitt offices for legal services. "We won't be charging schools, only non-academic units," he emphasized. "For example, if the Office of Technology Management is using a lot of legal staff time, with the ultimate goal of generating licensing fees and so forth, I'm proposing that the cost of those legal services should come off the top of the profits for those [technology-related] activities." Chancellor Mark Norden-berg (who, like Cochran, is a lawyer by training) added direction of the office to Cochran's growing job portfolio March 1 after accepting Lewis Popper's resignation as general counsel, Pitt's chief in-house lawyer. Popper continues to do legal work for Pitt but plans to leave the University in August.

Cochran said he didn't get a pay raise to take on Popper's duties ‹ "so that's a cost-savings right there," he told BPC.

Cochran also said he doesn't know how long he'll remain as head of the general counsel's office. "The chancellor and I have not discussed the long-term direction of the office, or when and if we'll recruit a new general counsel," he said.

Nordenberg told the University Times he'll make a decision about the general counsel's office this summer.

Pitt lawyers defended the University against 10 federal and state civil court cases during 1997, Cochran told BPC. "That doesn't include other legal issues too numerous to mention, cases that never made it to the stage of people filing complaints." Cochran said he confers with Pitt senior administrators and trustees in reaching some out-of-court settlements, and general counsel office attorneys may use their own judgment in settling "nuisance" cases involving payments of $5,000 or less. But otherwise, Cochran said, "I'm ultimately responsible for deciding at what amount we will settle." Settling out of court "is not a science, but it can be an art," Cochran said.

"When you face a choice between spending $150,000 in legal fees to prove a claim is false or settling for $60,000 or $70,000 even though the litigant has no case, it's a good business decision to settle out of court," he said.

Pitt is vulnerable to lawsuits, Cochran acknowledged. "With an institution of this size, engaged in the things it's engaged in, especially in the medical area ‹ developing new drugs and so on ‹ the potential for litigation against the University is virtually unlimited.

"Every time a job position is eliminated [at Pitt], there's a risk of litigation," he noted. "Almost everybody these days is in some protected class and could make a discrimination claim based on gender, age, race or disability." Fortunately for Pitt, western Pennsylvania juries usually don't award outlandish damages to successful litigants, Cochran said.

"The culture of this region doesn't tend to support giving people something for nothing, the way juries have been known to do in Philadelphia or New York or California," he said.

‹ Bruce Steele

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