……AND THEN AGAIN by Tamara Pettit

…………Let  me preface my remarks by saying I love attorneys.  No, I really do.  My late husband, Bill Kiefer, was an esteemed attorney who saved Weirton Steel and Bethany College’ s bacon on many occasions and was invaluable on many fronts.   My son, Doug, is an attorney in San Diego with PettitKohn.(Yes, his name’s on the door and on the building as well.) My granddaughter, Katie Pettit, is an attorney in Los Angeles.  My Dad, John D. Herron, said in LIFE Magazine in 1973, that his dream was always to be an attorney, but being a Justice of the Peace and City Judge, was as close to the law as he could get with a high school education.  All of the above, both dead and alive, would be giving me the fisheye right now for writing about attorneys.

…….I am an advocate for the school Board having an attorney at the meetings. Heck, I am an advocate for city councils and county commissioners having attorneys at their meetings.  They are dealing with complicated issues and the implications of one misstep can be massive.  That’s why I advocated for the use of a local attorney as the Hancock County Board of Education did in the past.  The local attorney can make sure Roberts’ Rules are followed; the open meetings rules aren’t broken, etc.    If there is an extremely complicated issue to come before the Board, the local attorney can then recommend the services of another firm with specific expertise. Brooke County Attorney David Cross applied for the position when the newly elected board indicated they wanted to change counsel.

……The Board, instead opted to contract with the law firm of BowlesRice, which has offices in Charleston, Morgantown, Martinsburg and Parkersburg. The rates vary by expertise and standing of the attorney and through the freedom of information act I looked at the last six-month’s invoices.   K. Croyle, a partner out of Morgantown bills at $395/hour; Howard E, Seufer, partner and head of their education division out of Charleston, bills at $460 hour.

……To my knowledge, past practice was that the person contacting legal counsel was the superintendent, not the board president, but  that seems to have changed since Chris Gillette took over as Board President. Gillette has contacted legal counsel 20 times in six months..  Attorneys bill in 15-minute increments and the clock starts ticking when the conversation begins.  The only other Board member to contact the attorney was Larry Shaw who placed one call.

…..Howard Seufer, a partner out of the Charleston office made the trip for a Board meeting in May and in June.  Here’s the bad news:  the price tag for Seufer’s May trip was $4,142.00  The good news is that the firm discounted his charge to $2,070.00,  There is also a charge of $261.41 to a vendor which I assume is the cost of his lodging that night.  I was unable to get the cost of his most recent trip in June and I also know one Board member was unaware he was even coming. or why he was there.

……According to BowlesRice website, the firm represent all 55 counties in West Virginia. They give presentations on school law and are known for being the premier education law firm, but when you are at the top of West Virginia does it make sense to pay an attorney’s rates to drive 3 ½ hours to attend a meeting?  The great technology we used during COVID could be put to use by the attorney attending by zoom meeting from Charleston and Morgantown.

…….Don’t get me wrong a good attorney is worth every penny and can pro-actively keep you out of trouble and save you money.  But, you have to be judicious in their use.     I learned my lesson many years ago when I had called my son at work in San Diego.   I had the impression he was anxious to get me  off the phone and my feelings were getting hurt.  I said “Doug, are you in a hurry to get off the phone with your Mom?”  To which he succinctly replied “billable hours, Mom.  Billable hours.”

……And, one last thought.  We once had a sticky, public relations issue at Mountaineer that was threatening to blow up  and the opinion was expressed that we should contact a public relations person from Pittsburgh or Washington to  handle it.  I replied that the idea that expertise must  increase with the distance the professional is from the location wasn’t logical. I handled the issue.

…….Have a happy 4th of July.   I’m going to give thanks that I live in a country where we have a free press and I can write a column like this.