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Government business Featured

5:32am EDT July 28, 2003
With 365 attorneys, the state's attorney general's office is one of the largest law firms in the state. And Attorney General Jim Petro says he runs the office that way.

"We have seven divisions and division chiefs, which operate very much like professional services groups," Petro says. "It's a model similar to what you'd find in a large law firm and a firm's executive committee."

Despite its size, Petro stays involved in the day-to-day operations thanks to effective communication with the division chiefs.

"The best-managed businesses have the best organizational structure," Petro says. "And communication is key."

Petro, who served eight years as auditor of state before being elected attorney general last November, draws on 21 years of private sector experience in law and other businesses when it comes to organizing and improving efficiencies in the office.

"When you have an efficient structure, it gives you time for innovation," he says.

That allows the attorney general's office to be proactive. For example, it has developed model contracts for some government branches it serves that improve the enforceability of the contracts.

"And we do it all without charging billable time," Petro says. "Although some of our clients do pay for the services they receive."

But the attorney general's office has to take a broader view of the cases it handles.

"In some circumstances, we tell the client that we can't take the line of action they are requesting because it wouldn't be in the best interest of the people of Ohio," says Petro. "We represent the people of Ohio, so we have to be independent."

Petro talked with Smart Business about the challenges he faces as attorney general.

How is leading the attorney general's office like running a business?
I took this office with an eye toward reshaping it. In doing that, I'm drawing from my experience as a lawyer for 21 years.

I was a partner in a 150-lawyer firm as well as an owner of small businesses. I had a restaurant with 60 employees. So I see opportunities to change the structure and improve efficiency in every office I've served.

On the organizational side, we're not dissimilar to a firm. We developed divisions and I have direct reports responsible to each division, very much like a professional services group.

We are like a well-run firm with lines of authority and accountability. Our division chiefs operate like the executive committee that you'd see in a large company and law firm. We understand that our success is measured by our client service and meeting the needs of our clients, so my goal was to respond to our clients as timely as possible and broaden our services where see we can help.

We have multiple funding sources and some of our clients do pay for the services they receive. Even our billing system has similarities to a law firm's, and we do have a bottom line; we have to meet our budget. We have an extra large investigative component. We assist investigators with crime scene support and lab work.

We have the biggest crime lab in the state. We do DNA testing for local agencies.

How is it different?
All of our lawyers make less than in private firms. And we have an advocacy responsibility that private firms don't. We have to be setting a standard or example for other attorneys in the state and demonstrate integrity in all that we do.

We look at our cases more broadly than the client's interest. We represent the people of Ohio and we look at how cases impact the people of the state. But operationally, we are very similar to a law firm.

With so many divisions, employees and offices, how do you stay on top of the operation?
I get daily input from my senior team and we meet regularly -- weekly on routine business and daily on important issues. I become engaged in case matters and help develop our strategy.

Communication is key. The bulk of things that should come to my attention do -- and quickly -- and I help fashion remedies. I have more private sector experience than most elected officials, which allows me to take a more involved role in cases and strategy and helps with quick decision-making.

What are your biggest challenges as attorney general?
Retaining a high degree of timeliness. Things can lag before a decision is made. We try to keep things moving quickly.

For example, one of our tasks is collection work for various state agencies like workers' compensation premiums, OSU hospital billings and overdue income taxes. Since we've developed protocols for collections, we're collecting $600,000 more per week than historically in that office.

We focus on strict timelines, quick decision-making and action, proactive stances. As a result, we get a matter closed faster and move on. One function of the office is to publish the attorney general's legal opinion.

It used to take a year to get an opinion rendered. We are now doing it in 90 days, and I hope to bring that down to 60.

What do you like most about your job?
I like getting involved in case strategy. Where the state has a case to pursue, like consumer fraud, I like getting a deeper understanding of the applicable laws and being involved in strategy sessions.

Having private practice experience gives me a comfort level. The attorneys look at me like, 'You've done this before,' and I have, so they listen to my advice. It's nice.

How does the state's shrinking budget affect your office?
Our budget has been cut dramatically, and I haven't welcomed all of the cuts, but I have welcomed the reduced overhead. We are operating more efficiently.

My view was to shrink the size of the organization and operating costs. We have 50 fewer employees and 35 fewer automobiles now. I hope to see in my four-year term a $4 million savings. Part of our savings was achieved in space consolidation.

How does being an elected official affect your ability to accomplish your goals?
I feel like a lot can be accomplished in eight years, the term limit of the office. Even in a large law firm, you don't often find a managing partner that serves in that capacity for too much longer than that.

I take pride in the office, and as long as I'm in charge, I'll continue to provide leadership with the themes of innovation, integrity and efficient operations in mind. You can effect change in my office more than a firm, because our clients are all-powerful -- the people.

I understand my obligation to a broad client base, and we advocate changes in the law to serve those clients. Others can't do as much as we can. How to reach: Ohio Attorney General, (614) 466-4320 or www.ag.state.oh.us