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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. What is the one thing the Hoosier legal status quo hates more than a whistleblower? A lawyer whistleblower taking on the system man to man. That must never be rewarded, must always, always, always be punished, lest the whole rotten tree be felled.

  2. I want to post this to keep this tread alive and hope more of David's former clients might come forward. In my case, this coward of a man represented me from June 2014 for a couple of months before I fired him. I knew something was wrong when he blatantly lied about what he had advised me in my contentious and unfortunate divorce trial. His impact on the proceedings cast a very long shadow and continues to impact me after a lengthy 19 month divorce. I would join a class action suit.

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  4. Dear Fan, let me help you correct the title to your post. "ACLU is [Left] most of the time" will render it accurate. Just google it if you doubt that I am, err, "right" about this: "By the mid-1930s, Roger Nash Baldwin had carved out a well-established reputation as America’s foremost civil libertarian. He was, at the same time, one of the nation’s leading figures in left-of-center circles. Founder and long time director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Baldwin was a firm Popular Fronter who believed that forces on the left side of the political spectrum should unite to ward off the threat posed by right-wing aggressors and to advance progressive causes. Baldwin’s expansive civil liberties perspective, coupled with his determined belief in the need for sweeping socioeconomic change, sometimes resulted in contradictory and controversial pronouncements. That made him something of a lightning rod for those who painted the ACLU with a red brush." http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/roger-baldwin-2/ "[George Soros underwrites the ACLU' which It supports open borders, has rushed to the defense of suspected terrorists and their abettors, and appointed former New Left terrorist Bernardine Dohrn to its Advisory Board." http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/viewSubCategory.asp?id=1237 "The creation of non-profit law firms ushered in an era of progressive public interest firms modeled after already established like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ("NAACP") and the American Civil Liberties Union ("ACLU") to advance progressive causes from the environmental protection to consumer advocacy." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cause_lawyering

  5. Mr. Foltz: Your comment that the ACLU is "one of the most wicked and evil organizations in existence today" clearly shows you have no real understanding of what the ACLU does for Americans. The fact that the state is paying out so much in legal fees to the ACLU is clear evidence the ACLU is doing something right, defending all of us from laws that are unconstitutional. The ACLU is the single largest advocacy group for the US Constitution. Every single citizen of the United States owes some level of debt to the ACLU for defending our rights.

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