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School officials propose 6-firm legal-services 'pool'

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

During the Clayton County Board of Education's work session on Monday, school officials floated the idea of moving the district to a legal-services system, in which work would be handled by six law firms, rather than having one lead, legal-services provider.

In the past, the district's legal counsel -- whether it was an outside law firm, or an in-house general counsel -- oversaw all legal services for the district. That person, or firm, would call in supplemental providers, as necessary, to handle extra work.

In a presentation to the school board, School System Deputy Superintendent Stefanie Phillips said the district would use a firm from the pool as needed, based on the situation the school system was facing at the time. Areas to be covered ranged from construction law, to non-profit organizations, to tax anticipation notes, to litigation, to copyright issues.

Phillips said supplemental law firms are not likely to be needed by the district under the proposed legal-services plan. "The recommendation going to the board is that we use a pool of attorneys to handle our legal services," Phillips said. "That's so one attorney is not providing all of our legal services, and the district is not receiving only one legal opinion."

The firms in the proposed pool are: Marietta-based Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers; Jonesboro-based Fincher, Denmark and Williams; and the Atlanta-based law firms of Alexander & Associates; Carlock, Copeland and Stair; Hollowell, Foster and Gepp, and The Weatherly Law Firm.

Based on per-hour legal fees provided to the school board members in their board packets, if the single most expensive attorney, or partner, from each firm were working for the district at the same time, the school system would be paying $1,365 for one hour of attorneys' time alone.

That figure does not include fees for paralegals, which could run between $65-$145 per hour, copying fees, which would cost between 10 cents and 30 cents per copy of a page, or faxing fees that range between 50 cents and $1 per page. Alexander & Associates also cited a $125 per hour fee for a law clerk.

The district has already spent $106,024 on legal services during fiscal year 2010, and is expected to spend another $219,000 on those services during the remainder of the fiscal year, according to a copy of the executive summary provided to school board members.

Phillips said none of the firms in the pool will be kept on retainer, however, and not all of the firms will be working for the district at the same time. In the case where multiple firms have expertise in an area, the district would use the cheapest firm, she said.

"It's kind of like if you go shopping at multiple stores," Phillips said. "You just decide which one you want to patronize, based on what they have to offer."

Phillips told school board members the district put out a Request For Qualifications (RFQ) for legal-consultant services in August. All six firms responded, and a district evaluation committee determined all are capable of providing legal services to the district.

A copy of the evaluation results show "Satisfactory" ratings were given to Alexander & Associates (score: 77); Hollowell, Foster & Gepp (score: 77), and the Weatherly Law Firm (score: 77). The results also show an "Excellent" rating was given to Carlock, Copeland and Stair (score: 87), and Fincher, Denmark, and Williams (score: 89), while an "Outstanding" rating was given to Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers (score: 95).

No information was provided about how the firms were graded, however, causing school board member, Jessie Goree, to voice some concern about the proposal.

"It would be nice to see what they were graded on," Goree said. "Before I vote on anything, I would need to see the rubric that was used."

Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers is currently the district's lead legal-services provider. One of Fincher, Denmark and Williams' partners, Winston Denmark, is serving as legal counsel for the school board's ethics commission.

Phillips said Hollowell, Foster and Gepp has also done some work for the district as a supplemental legal-services provider on litigation cases in the past. She said she believed attorneys from Alexander and Associates, and Carlock, Copeland and Stair had also done some work for the district in the past, but she could not specify the nature of that work.

Glenn Brock, a partner from Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers, and the district's main source of legal advice, said he was not familiar with the details of the proposed legal-services pool, because he was not consulted about it, other than his firm responding to the legal-services RFQ.

School board members expressed mixed feelings about the proposal. "I'm not a big fan of providing legal services by committee," said board member, Charlton Bivins. "This district has traditionally used one legal-services provider, and I'm inclined to think that's the way we ought to continue going."

However, School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said she supports the proposal. "I think it's an excellent idea," she said. "It's a way for people with expertise in certain areas to serve the district when their expertise is needed."

During the work session, Anderson also announced a time change for the school board's Nov. 2 business meeting. It will begin at 5:30 p.m., with the board going into executive session for an hour to discuss personnel matters, she said.

During the meeting, the board will vote on the legal-services proposal, as well as whether high school graduation cermonies will, again, be held at the Georgia Dome, and authorization for Brock to begin drafting a resolution pertaining to the de-annexation of 155 acres of school system property in the City of Riverdale.