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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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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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