Lawyer takes leading role for a city, county

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In-House Counsel

You might describe attorney Chris W. Cotterill as a rising star in the Hoosier legal community.

At age 33 and less than a decade out of law school, he's gone from working as an associate at a private law firm, then serving as general counsel for a key state technology department, to becoming Indianapolis and Marion County's top in-house lawyer and now chief of staff for the city's mayor.

This is all within seven years of graduating in 2002 from what's now Indiana University Maurer School of Law - Bloomington.

While he's technically stepped out of the Office of Corporation Counsel and being the city-county's top lawyer after almost two years, Cotterill remains a key advisor for Mayor Greg Ballard and now considers himself a different kind of in-house counsel for the state's largest city.

"You can take the lawyer out of the courtroom, but you can't take the lawyer out of the person," he said. "This is very different from that of the corporate counsel, in that you're not handling litigation or discussing the latest Supreme Court decision, but you're using your skills as a lawyer to find common ground and be strategic."

Cotterill took over as chief of staff in December following the resignation of Paul Okeson, a non-lawyer who left to take another job. Cotterill describes his role in this job as providing counsel to the mayor and other administration officials. His duties come on the heels of his job as corporation counsel, where from January 2008 to December 2009 he was able to eliminate a backlog of about 200 discrimination claims and a severalyear-old backlog of civil-code violations, as well as reducing overhead expenses to shift more funds to increase the number of cases prosecuted against those civil-code violators. He also spearheaded Ballard's ethics-reform package that put higher ethical standards in place for officials, appointees, and employees.

For example, Cotterill said he coordinated the city's attorneys for the most efficiency. Prior to his arrival, every public records request required a review from city legal. Roughly 90 percent of those didn't need a specific review and could be handled administratively, Cotterill said, so he worked to de-lawyer that process.

Deputy chief counsel Samantha Karn succeeded Cotterill as corporation counsel and said her predecessor really paved the way for a more efficient legal department for Indianapolis.

Prior to joining Ballard's team, Cotterill served since early 2005 as general counsel for the Indiana Office of Technology. As part of that role, he managed the state government's official Web site at www. IN.govand that meant overseeing an annual budget of $150 million. Before that, he was a part of Gov. Mitch Daniels transition team, drafting many of the governor's initial executive orders and providing legal support on various topics.

The Indianapolis native graduated from Wabash College in 1999 and after graduating from law school in Bloomington in 2002 he became a Barnes & Thornburg associate handling commercial litigation defense.

Many of those same roles are what he's dealing with now as chief of staff, a position that doesn't require a law degree, but Cotterill said it only benefits him in handling those responsibilities.

"In my current role, I'm a corporation lawyer serving in a government position that doesn't require one to be a lawyer but can only be enhanced by having a lawyer in this role," he said.

He's using his legal experience and inhouse counsel background to navigate issues such as mass transit, hospital ownership, private taxing, and government referendums and reorganization.

"The law for me is much of what government is about, and I love it," he said. "You bring a lawyer's training to this job in looking at all of these topics. They all trigger legal issues, and it's about me knowing those legal issues are there and trying to get the right people to understand what's going on at a deeper level."

Rafael Sanchez, a partner at Bingham McHale in Indianapolis who went to law school with Cotterill, said his close friend and colleague had a lasting impact on the city's legal department and that continues in his current role.

"Government is a business and you have to treat it that way, and his in-house experience is pretty unique for a chief of staff," Sanchez said. "He's seen the bad side of the law - the litigation side - and he's seen the consequences of that angle and can now help make better legal decisions as counsel for Mayor Ballard. Putting all the litigation and business sides together, that's a perfect combination for running a city. Chris is the calm within the storm and has a genuine feel for getting the job done, in the legal world or not."

Noting that he's biased about his law school classmate, Sanchez wondered where Cotterill might end up after this - such as a bid for mayor someday. Whatever happens, he sees a bright future for his colleague.

While Cotterill isn't yet planning what his future holds, he knows he's been lucky in his first decade since graduating from college and law school. He doesn't expect that he'll ever return to a law firm environment simply because of the executive management roles he's held and his passion for serving in government.

"I really didn't think I'd be in government this long, but it's been really rewarding. I'm a part of making life better for people, and that's why I do it and enjoy it," Cotterill said. "You can make government sing for you, and it's a great, great thing. Government can't solve everything, but with the problems that we should approach, we can be very effective and that's the fun challenge."


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.