An attorney who works for a telecommunications cooperative in Hancock County has seen many changes since he was admitted to the Indiana Bar in June 1988.
After graduating from Ball State University and Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, Michael R. Burrow clerked for a federal magistrate in Indianapolis. He turned down offers at large firms in the city to work at a small firm – named Wolf & Burrow after he joined – in his hometown of Greenfield. But more than a decade ago his client, now known as Hancock Telecom, hired him to work full time for the company as counsel and in a management role.
It wasn’t an easy sell to leave private practice. He’d enjoyed taking on appellate cases and representing clients other than Hancock Telecom and knew he’d take a pay cut to leave. But part of the deal was he would bring with him his legal assistant, Kim Gerard, and that the company president at the time would agree to stay for at least five years, he said.
While Gerard is still a member of the legal department for Hancock Telecom and is also the benefits administrator, the president who hired Burrow in early 1999 left in September 2000.
However, Burrow said, Tim Hills, who has been president and CEO of Hancock Telecom and its subsidiaries since Jan. 29, 2001, has been an “incredible match” for him and the company.
Burrow, who served as interim president before Hills’s arrival, was eventually named the company’s vice president – a role he continues to have in addition to general counsel.
Since he started at Hancock Telecom in 1999, Burrow has witnessed changes in the telecommunications field. While wires for telephone service used to take up entire rooms at the company’s facilities, those rooms now house wires that provide access to high-speed Internet connections, receivers for satellite television feeds, and data storage components that contain important back up information for businesses – including law firms and hospitals – that were virtually unimaginable until recent years.
The company also serves businesses and residences outside of Hancock County from its Greenfield headquarters through the Indiana Fiber Network, which consists of 20 companies and more than 1,700 miles of fiber-optic cable, and Indiana Video Network, a partnership with other telephone companies that provide satellite television service to customers.
On a tour of the plant, it is easy to see Burrow’s interest and excitement for how much things have changed in the industry.
A tour also reveals to visitors the company has an internationally known spokescat: Garfield.
Burrow oversaw a contract for licensing rights for Hancock Telecom to use Garfield in company marketing when the company was struggling with its identity. Everyone recognized a blue stripe under the company’s name on logos, but the company realized it was growing and wanted something more marketable.
While working with marketing consultant Jill Snyder, who lives in Cumberland and has represented a number of Indianapolis-based technology firms, she suggested Garfield after she saw an original illustration of a cartoon telephone.
During the meeting with Garfield’s creator Jim Davis at his studio in Albany, about 15 miles outside of Muncie, Davis sketched a prototype of Garfield answering a phone. That prototype and countless other images of Garfield decorate Hancock Telecom’s offices, service vehicles, and even signs in the visitor parking lot.
“When we met with Jim Davis, he embraced the idea,” Burrow said, adding Davis understood the concept of a rural co-op telecommunications community because he grew up in a rural community himself.
“When we got a proposal a couple weeks later, it was very affordable,” Burrow added.
The company’s second three-year contract with Davis’ company, Paws, is about to expire, but Burrow said he expects it to be renewed as the current three-year contract didn’t have many changes from the first contract.
Another more recent change he is involved with is an ongoing merger between Hancock Telecom and the local electricity utility, also a cooperative, Central Indiana Power.
Because there was no existing statute regarding whether a rural co-op electrical utility could merge with a rural co-op telecommunications company, Burrows and attorney Larry Wallace of Parr Richey Obremskey Frandsen & Patterson in Indianapolis considered the issue. The two attorneys have worked together for 20 years on regulatory issues for Hancock Telecom.
“One of the very valuable things an in-house attorney brings to a business, and especially a fast growing business in a highly competitive and complex environment like telecommunications, is the early identification of potential legal issues that might not otherwise have been recognized soon enough by operations management,” Wallace said via e-mail. “My impression is (he) has been especially valuable to Hancock Telecom in this regard.”
Burrow added Douglas M. Kinser of Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman in Indianapolis helped to shepherd Senate Enrolled Act 126 through the legislature. SEA 126 goes into effect July 1, allowing the merger to happen.
Burrow said the merger would not eliminate jobs because the two co-ops provide different services. If anything, it will help the community because the electricity co-op has been using a customer service phone-line provider that’s based in another Midwestern state, while Hancock Telecom can offer the same service while keeping those payments in Greenfield. He said the companies plan to cross-train employees following the merger.
Because he is from Greenfield, on this merger and on other contracts he has worked, Burrow said he knows what others in the community want.
“Some lawyers might do a 50-page, bullet-proof contract, but knowing Hancock County, I know they would want everything to be simple, straightforward, and no more than two pages,” he said.
He said the company has never been sued over a contract that he’s aware of.
As for taking the general counsel job and giving up work in a firm, Burrow said, “It’s been rewarding beyond my expectations. That’s not to say there aren’t days that are stressful, but I still enjoy it.”
He also said he enjoys contributing to the company’s growth, which is part of a “virtuous circle” for the company and the community he calls home. As the company grows and provides more jobs, more people will move to Greenfield and the town will also grow.
“I like to think that a rising tide carries all ships,” he said.
Burrow said he’s also proud of a grant his client recently received to connect rural hospitals to fiber-optic data services, making it possible for rural hospitals to communicate better with other hospitals.
Wallace also acknowledged Burrow’s contributions to Hancock Telecom.
“Perhaps some ‘outside’ counsel feel threatened when a client brings another attorney in-house, but my experience, especially in working with Mike, is that needn’t be the case,” Wallace said. “… Mike has shown me that smaller businesses and the outside counsel they still rely on for many matters can benefit from having in-house counsel as much, and in many ways even more than large companies.”•