PUBLISHED:April 06, 2009

Richard Baer '83

Last June, Corporate Counsel Magazine named the in-house law department at Denver-based Qwest Communications International, led by Rich Baer, the “Best Legal Department of 2008.” In conferring the accolade, the editors cited a working culture that promotes work-life balance and job satisfaction for the staff lawyers, and the top quality of their work product over a wide range of issues. In particular, Corporate Counsel lauded their management and settlement of massive shareholder lawsuits arising from a corporate accounting scandal in 2001.

In an October interview, Baer modestly deflects a suggestion that his 95-member legal team is “the best,” but admits enormous pride in their work and ability.

“We hire very experienced lawyers and many of them come from large law firms, so they have good, sound training,” says Baer, who took over as Qwest’s general counsel in 2002 after serving as special counsel to the CEO. Baer now also serves as executive vice president, secretary, and chief administrative officer. He adds that he is particularly proud of his team’s “hands-on” nature.

“Each and every one, from our line-level lawyers all the way up to our most senior attorneys who are vice presidents and the principal supervisors of the department, doesn’t just supervise work but is involved in developing the work product,” he notes. “I think that’s fairly unique among law departments.” In fact, almost all contract negotiations, disclosure and corporate governance, trademark, and immigration work is done in-house.

Having taken over the legal department as Qwest faced a “perfect storm” of potentially devastating challenges, such as multi-billion dollar shareholder lawsuits and Department of Justice, SEC, congressional, and state-level investigations into potential corporate wrongdoing, Baer personally set the hands-on standard. Over approximately five years, he and a colleague directly negotiated the settlement of a massive class-action suit, as well as a number of separate lawsuits brought by large institutional investors.

Baer, who headed the litigation practice at Sherman and Howard in Denver before joining Qwest, knew it would be unusual for the plaintiffs’ lawyers to negotiate directly with in-house lawyers as opposed to going through “the typical drill” with an outside firm. He also wanted to “humanize” the company in light of the “unrelenting bad press” it was receiving, he says.

“We wanted [the plaintiffs] to understand that there were faces and human beings behind the company, because it was — and is — a very good company that has thousands of truly superlative employees. I think it worked. We were viewed somewhat differently by the plaintiffs’ lawyers over time and it was not just a run-of-the-mill case for them.”

In fact, he and colleague Stefan Stein reached a “very fair settlement” of the class action for a fraction of the damages claimed. They subsequently applied a similar strategy to the remaining shareholder lawsuits, which they managed to settle concurrently, despite having to undertake separate negotiations with six principal law firms overseen by three mediators around the country. “Getting all of those negotiations to conclude at the same time was the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do as a lawyer,” says Baer, with a laugh.

Baer forged his expertise in the telecommunications industry at Sherman and Howard, where he represented a number of telecoms. But he credits his first job as a Brooklyn prosecutor with fundamentally shaping his approach to litigation.

“Most people in big law firms rarely see the inside of a courtroom and if they do, it’s not with a jury present,” he says of his tenure as an assistant district attorney. “As a prosecutor, I was able to make all the mistakes a young trial lawyer tends to make and learn from every one of them. I learned what worked for me as a litigator.” A key lesson involved how best to position a case before a jury, he adds. “If you constantly look at how to prevail in front of a jury, it puts you in a good position to resolve it in advance of trial.”

As he worked to defend and resolve Qwest’s various lawsuits and investigations, Baer also worked to build a sustainable workplace for its lawyers who “were just working far too hard” when he started. He implemented flex-time, part-time, and telecommute options designed to improve work-life balance for his lawyers.

Baer, who has two daughters with his wife, Anne, a Duke grad whom he met on a blind date, says he understands the importance of giving his employees workplace flexibility.

“We don’t pay our lawyers what a partner might make at a major law firm,” he observes. “As a result, our contract with our lawyers has to be that we are not going to work them as hard. It’s really important for us to stay true to that in order for us to retain them.” Corporate Counsel Magazine noted that the department’s turnover rate is down to approximately 4 percent from almost 25 percent just a few years ago. Job satisfaction also stems from a policy of facilitating professional advancement and encouraging lawyers to gain new skills by circulating among specialty areas.

Baer also is continually adding to his own skill-set. As chief administrative officer, a position he added to his roster of responsibilities in August, Baer oversees Qwest’s risk management and compliance, insurance, securities, and environmental groups, and has taken responsibility for human resources, public relations, public policy, and federal and state governmental relations.

“I’m learning every day and, believe me, there’s a lot to learn,” he says. “I’m enjoying it. It’s very, very challenging and intellectually stimulating, and a great opportunity for me to further develop management and leadership skills.”