What Every Corporate Counsel Should Know About DRI

Thursday, April 19, 2012 - 11:13

The Editor interviews DRI President Henry M. Sneath, Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. in Pittsburgh, PA.

Editor: Henry, tell us about your practice and your history with DRI.

Sneath: I specialize mainly in commercial and intellectual property litigation, including patent, trademark, copyright and trade secret litigation, along with products-liability and insurance coverage cases. My history with DRI goes back about 20 years. I started out as a member of its commercial litigation committee – eventually serving as chair – and about seven years ago, I was elected to the DRI board. I have now served for four years as an officer of DRI, and I’m currently its president.

Editor: Are you also involved in other defense counsel organizations?

Sneath: I’m an active member of the Pennsylvania Defense Institute – which is my home state’s organization of defense and corporate counsel – as well as various bar associations, the International Association of Defense Counsel (IADC) and the Association of Defense Trial Attorneys (ADTA). Our firm is a member of Lawyers for Civil Justice (LCJ), and I serve on LCJ’s board by virtue of my role at DRI.

Editor: Under your leadership, DRI has recently established the Center for Law & Public Policy. How will this new aspect of the organization better serve the corporate community and DRI members?

Sneath: DRI has worked very hard in recent years to become more deeply involved in the national debate on both legal and public policy issues. The thinking behind forming the Center was that, as an organization of 22,000 lawyers and many corporations, DRI owed its members the ability to assert ourselves with a national voice and to become a go-to source for comment on important issues of the day.

We found that news organizations didn’t know us very well and tended to disregard our members’ views, so it was important to attract and educate the media. We established the Center to develop a think-tank approach to our presentations, lend more credibility to our views and generate productive media attention, and we are seeing tangible results from these efforts. The Center has several subcommittees including the amicus curiae and public policy committees, which will work hard to project DRI’s viewpoint and the viewpoint of its corporate constituencies to the media and research institutions.

DRI does not take what might be called political positions, but we regularly take strong positions on legal matters – for instance, when we file amicus curiae briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court and elsewhere.

We also feel a responsibility to comment on public policy issues, particularly those involving important legal issues, and we have established a list of qualified spokespeople for that purpose. We are part of a service that allows us to know when legal or public policy issues are receiving media attention, at which point we can automatically notify the media that we have substantive comments.  Our comments either reflect DRI positions on an issue or, if it has not taken a position, a fair and balanced perspective on the issue.

Typical of such high-profile issues are recent U.S. Supreme Court hearings on the Affordable Care Act. DRI provided spokespeople to explain to the media the legal arguments being presented to the Court, but we did not take a position for or against the Act. DRI can play an important role, not only with regard to those hearings, but also more broadly on a variety of issues going forward, and we will perform these activities under the umbrella of the DRI Center for Law & Public Policy.

Editor: DRI has had one of the country’s most active and successful amicus programs. To what do you attribute its success?

Sneath: DRI has ramped up its amicus curiae program in the last few years. In 2011, we considered about 50 requests from corporate members and from outside counsel members representing clients in disputes, and ultimately, we filed 18 briefs. Impressively, 15 of those were filed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which is an extraordinary accomplishment of which we are very proud. As a result, court watchers and the Supreme Court bar consider DRI as a go-to organization for amicus briefs on important issues that are coming before the Supreme Court.

Sometimes we work jointly with other organizations, but our regular practice is to do amicus briefs on our own focusing mostly on national issues and occasionally engaging with state-specific issues. For example, a local bar or defense organization may want to take a position on a state issue that we anticipate might become a trend or spill over to other states. Here, we might entertain doing an amicus brief, either solo or in collaboration with another organization.

The strengthened amicus program is part of a concerted effort to raise DRI’s profile as an organization, and it represents a true member benefit for our in-house and outside counsel members, who want to be a part of an organization that is relevant, current and seen as an important voice for viewpoints that deserve to be heard.   

Editor: Corporate counsel members can now attend DRI’s highly acclaimed substantive law seminars tuition free. What are the main features of this program, and how would you rate its success? How can more corporate counsel learn about the availability of such programs?

Sneath: Any DRI member can take a non-member corporate counsel to a seminar one time as a guest, which can serve as a meaningful introduction to our organization. Corporate counsel who then join DRI enjoy unlimited access to seminars for the rest of their careers without any extra charge for the seminars, provided, of course, that they maintain their DRI membership.

Also, corporate counsel who join DRI automatically qualify to become members of our corporate counsel committee, which is very popular and enables them to come together, attend specialized programs and discuss issues on their own without outside counsel being involved. At our seminars and annual meetings, we host a breakfast for corporate counsel, special breakout meetings and, in some cases, actual breakout seminar sessions that are led by and directed only to corporate counsel.

Thus, we have focused on the specific needs of corporate counsel by taking a two-pronged approach that also respects budget restraints in a difficult economy: unlimited free and dedicated seminars and networking opportunities with their peers for at least some portion of the time that they spend attending these programs.

Editor: Are your corporate counsel members litigators or do they also include nonlitigators? 

Sneath: We have both. We include corporate counsel who have a litigation background as well as those who have a corporate background but, by virtue of their position and title, are dealing with litigation issues every day. They come to our programs to gain an appreciation for issues beyond their corporate practice that may have become part of their job in-house.

Litigation has become so extraordinarily expensive and complex that a general counsel has no choice but to get involved regardless of his or her background. This is a significant trend that involves major decisions on e-discovery, litigation costs/budgeting and bet-the-company cases, and our corporate counsel members count on DRI for education about the litigation process.

Editor: As a founding defense bar organization of Lawyers for Civil Justice (along with IADC & FDCC), DRI has supported positive changes to the Federal Rules of Evidence and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as well as needed changes in state court rules and legislation. How will such changes benefit DRI’s corporate and individual members?

Sneath: Through LCJ, DRI has worked over the years on a number of issues identified by LCJ and its members as critical to the litigation process and as subject to being abused, thereby skewing the playing field. LCJ’s activities include testifying at rules committee hearings and conferences, writing white papers and lobbying for changes in the rules including those pertaining to summary judgment and e-discovery.

Nobody has argued for skewing the process in favor of defense interests, but simply for creating a level playing field that applies the rules fairly to all parties. LCJ has a number of projects in the works based on this approach. It gets involved in the debate, which naturally includes consulting and lobbying work with decision makers. That is LCJ’s basic mission, which, as a founding member, DRI very much supports on behalf of our members.

Editor: LCJ has a program whereby defense counsel throughout the country are working with local judicial rules committees to try to get changes in those rules that would reduce the burdens of e-discovery. How is DRI contributing to that effort?

Sneath: DRI provides LCJ with a network of lawyers and local defense organizations from all over the country to assist with its projects, a good example of which is LCJ’s focus on getting states to adopt e-discovery reforms. Many states are still uncharted e-discovery territory for litigators, and LCJ, DRI, IADC and FDCC are working very hard to improve rules processes in such states. We also have our own e-discovery committee at DRI and various other committees that, in their own right, address these issues and participate in the national debate.

DRI is reaching out to its members and state and local defense groups, seeking assistance with determining whether a given state has e-discovery rules, the nature of those rules and whether or not there is any movement in that state toward adopting or reforming e-discovery rules. Depending on the answers to those questions, LCJ wants to be involved in shaping that debate.

Editor: How can DRI and its corporate partners collaborate to improve the civil justice system?

Sneath: There are certainly issues on which many people can agree, such as the need to properly staff the courts, adequate judicial compensation and ensuring the independence of the judiciary. There are certain issues that almost everybody can rally behind. Corporate counsel and DRI are interacting more than ever to jointly try to shape and have an impact on the public debate.

Our very strong, stand-alone corporate counsel committee is now part of the fabric of DRI, generating its own proposals and programs and engaging in debate on the issues. These members then ask DRI to publicize those issues and to work on them, either itself or through LCJ or any number of other organizations with which DRI has a collaborative relationship.

In the broadest sense, DRI is working very much in concert with its corporate counsel members and partners so that their viewpoint is reflected in DRI activities; we are more focused on this today than ever before.

Editor: How do you balance the demands of your busy practice with those of DRI?

Sneath: I get up very early, go to bed very late and work just about everywhere: on planes, in hotels, in restaurants – everywhere I find myself. I’m thrilled to do it.

DRI is a very rewarding organization and an incredible experience in my professional life. I marvel at the fact that I can travel around the country and find DRI members from both the law firm and the corporate communities with whom I have an instant connection. Although it makes for long days and working weekends, it’s only for a short period of time in my life that I can contribute as much to a great organization. I enjoy every minute of it.

For further information, please visit http://www.dri.org/.