College of DuPage trustees vote to hire in-house attorney

 
 
Updated 3/4/2016 6:55 AM

College of DuPage trustees have agreed to hire an in-house attorney later this year to provide on-the-spot legal advice and save the school money on legal fees.

The board voted 4-2 Thursday night to approve the creation of an "office of general counsel" by July 1 on the Glen Ellyn campus. Trustees also directed acting interim President Joseph Collins to set aside money in next year's budget for the future employee.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Board Vice Chairwoman Deanne Mazzochi, who first suggested hiring an in-house attorney months ago, said the idea makes sense for an institution as large as COD.

"There's a great opportunity here to have someone on site on a day-to-day basis who can address legal issues as they crop up," Mazzochi said. "You will have better continuity and accountability when it comes to legal matters."

Having an in-house attorney could also save the college money.

Mazzochi said COD has consistently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on outside legal counsel. "There's opportunities to save costs if you bring that in-house," she said.

Still, trustees Dianne McGuire and Joe Wozniak opposed the resolution to use an in-house attorney. Trustee Erin Birt was absent.

"I think it's premature," McGuire said. "I think we still need to think it through a little bit. We're in extraordinary circumstances right now. That won't be the case always."

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The amount of money COD is spending on legal fees has become a heated issue among board members in recent months. McGuire noted that three law firms billed the college for more than $2.4 million between May and December.

COD's legal expenses increased significantly last April when federal authorities launched an investigation of the school after it came under fire for its administrative practices.

Then, in May, a new majority that gained control of COD's elected board started pursuing a series of internal investigations that led to the firing of three top administrators, including former President Robert Breuder.

Officials say costs associated with the federal and internal investigations are the main reason the school's legal bills climbed to their current levels.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While McGuire says she wants the legal expenses to go down, she questioned whether hiring an in-house attorney will save a lot of money.

However, Trustee Charles Bernstein said he believes it makes economic sense to use in-house counsel.

"If we can incur an expense of $100 an hour for a certain amount of legal work, it is preferable to an expense of $200 and $250 an hour," Bernstein said.

Officials said the in-house attorney could handle various legal tasks now being done by outside lawyers, including work related to Freedom of Information Act requests, smaller claims filed against the college and general questions about employment law.

The in-house attorney also can coordinate the college's response to lawsuits and oversee any independent legal counsel COD retains for those cases. In addition, the individual could interpret regulations and issue certain legal opinions on college-related issues.

"That will be of tremendous value to the administration and to the board as well," Mazzochi said.

The in-house attorney will be hired by -- and serve at the pleasure of -- the board of trustees.

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