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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

At Dorsey corporate symposium -- a whiff of tort reform with the torte

I was just at the Dorsey & Whitney Corporate Counsel Symposium at the City Center Marriott in downtown Minneapolis. (Or, perhaps I should just say Dorsey, since Whitney is getting pretty small on the firm's logo. Gotta' love branding.)

As usual, Dorsey put together quite a nice (and well-attended) program for corporate lawyers. Approximately 550 people -- which managing partner Marianne Short said was a record number -- attended a luncheon today at which former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (pictured) was the keynote speaker.

Rubin expressed a lot of trepidation about the precarious state of the economy, including concerns spawned by SIVs (complex investment vehicles), the mortgage meltdown, pressures from globalization, the trade imbalance, the weak dollar -- and enough other factors to scare you more than any Halloween ghost story. However, Rubin still believes we are probably heading for a soft landing rather than a crash, which was good news to the corporate lawyers munching on the chicken, ravioli and chocolate cake.

Immediately prior to the speech, I had the opportunity to participate in a round table discussion between Rubin and local journalists. During this session, Rubin cited as one threat to the national economy "an excess in litigation." My ears immediately perked up at this, and I asked Rubin to elaborate.

Rubin responded that, in his estimation, businesses have to spend too much time thinking about and fending off litigation. In other words, from a cost/ benefit standpoint, there is too much costly litigation without a concurrent benefit. In response to my follow-up question, he acknowledged that he is a proponent of tort reform, but punted as to what kind it should be, professing no special expertise on that issue.

Rubin was no doubt being modest. He is a very sharp guy with a law degree from Yale and a sterling financial-world pedigree that includes serving as chairman of Goldman Sachs. And, oh yes, he was Secretary of the U.S. Treasury! I am sure he has some idea of what kind of litigation he would like to see "reformed." In any case, when Rubin used the "excess in litigation" phrase in passing again during his keynote address, it went unchallenged during the subsequent Q&A. No doubt the words were greeted with receptive ears among the corporate lawyers gathered at the Dorsey symposium. It would have been another case entirely if Rubin had used the phrase before a group of trial lawyers from the Minnesota Association for Justice. Of course, most financial-world bigwigs wouldn't go into a meeting like that -- not without a very large stick, anyway.

Regardless of where you stand on tort reform, it would be hard to view that symposium as anything but a success. Kudos to Dorsey on another job well done.

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