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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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