Lafayette School Board may decide to keep private general counsel as it continues to look for ways to cut legal costs _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Dawn Morris, District 7, and Britt Latiolais, District 5, lean in for a closer look at the schematic design for the new South Lafayette High School on Wednesday during a presentation by Eric Crozier, with Abell+Crozier+Davis Architects, and Michelle Dudley, with Pfluger Architects, that showed the result of the collaboration between staff, business, and community representatives to create the design.

After much talk about curbing its legal expenses, the Lafayette Parish School Board appears now to be favoring keeping its general counsel.

Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, with law offices in Baton Rouge and Monroe, has served as the board’s interim general counsel since early 2014. Previously, the firm served as the board’s special counsel, though it picked up many day-to-day legal issues on behalf of central office staff.

A resolution proposed by board member Jeremy Hidalgo would name the firm the board’s general counsel, removing the term “interim,” said Dawn Morris, board vice president and Executive Committee member.

Earlier this year, the board’s Executive Committee discussed potential ways to cut legal costs — which mounted over prior years due to increased litigation, including lawsuits brought by former Superintendent Pat Cooper.

The board dissolved its relationship with the District Attorney’s Office in late 2013, though an assistant district attorney continued to provide legal advice at no cost to the School Board through spring 2014, when Hammonds & Sills took over as interim general counsel.

Restoring the relationship with the District Attorney’s Office was one option briefly explored by the Executive Committee. District Attorney Keith Stutes attended a committee meeting earlier this year and informed the board that because it had dissolved its prior relationship with the District Attorney’s Office, his office could now charge for its services, if the board opted to use the office for general counsel. Stutes further advised the board that he had no assistant district attorneys on staff with expertise in school law and it would be in the board’s best interest to choose counsel with such experience.

Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice represents a majority of the school districts in the state.

Discussions to cut legal costs will continue, and some adjustments already have been made, such as general counsel no longer attending every School Board meeting, Morris said.

“We have not had general counsel at all of our meetings, unless requested because of a particular issue on the agenda,” she said.

Morris said the board is also still researching ways to cut other legal expenses, such as representation for worker’s compensation and general liability claims. The School Board hires special counsel to handle such matters.

The board’s Executive Committee previously has discussed ways to cut costs in those areas. Those discussions led to one firm, Borne, Wilkes, Rabalais & Smith, reducing its fees below the allowable rates set by the state Attorney General’s Office. The state allows rates between $125 an hour and $225 per hour, depending on the attorney’s level of experience. The firm set its reduced hourly attorney rates between $85 an hour and $160 an hour.

Earlier this year, the Executive Committee also discussed hiring a staff attorney, but that idea didn’t gain traction.

The board will consider the general counsel resolution at its Nov. 2 meeting.

The resolution seeks to continue the board’s 2014 contract with Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice. That contract capped rates at $175 an hour for more experienced attorneys, which is below the allowable maximum rate of $225 an hour.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.