Qwest GC Favors Innovative Communication
The National Law Journal
by Richard Acello
March 02, 2010
ON A QWEST
Rich Baer is chief legal officer at Denver-based Qwest Communications International, the nation's third-largest telecommunications company. Within Qwest's 14-state local service territory, it provides residential customers with internet, digital home phone, and wireless services. As telecommunications services become commodities, providers are coming under pressure to distinguish themselves. Qwest sees innovation as the way to do that, Baer said.
As with many technology firms, the recession has crimped Qwest's growth -- the company lost 15 percent of its work force through the third quarter of 2009. Qwest reported revenues last year of about $13 billion and employs some 31,000 people.
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
Baer manages a staff of more than 80 attorneys and 130 support staff. The practice is divided into specialty departments headed by attorney vice presidents including Steve Brilz, handling securities and corporate governance; Andy Crain, regulatory law; Mike Gieger, commercial law; Laurie Korneffel, litigation and employment law; and Jim Zerefos, strategic transactions.
Qwest outsources about half of its work
to about 350 firms -- half the number it used before Baer took
over. Principal litigation counsel are Brownstein Hyatt Farber
Schreck and Sherman & Howard, both of
Baer's hiring criteria include what a firm has accomplished in the past for Qwest; the value it provides for the service rendered; familiarity with the company and industry; the diversity of its attorneys; and its "courage." Qwest fully supports pro bono efforts -- more than 40 percent of its attorneys and staff worked on pro bono and diversity matters during 2009, Baer said. "In addition, many of our attorneys are involved in organizations, such as the Colorado Legal Aid Foundation, which also provide meaningful support for those with limited access to justice."
Baer created an internal committee to promote diversity within his department. In 2009, Qwest shared with Google the Minority Corporate Counsel Association Employer of Choice Award for the Western Region. Qwest has signed the Georgetown University Law Center Pro Bono Institute's Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge and the Diversity Call to Action.
In addition to his duties as general counsel, Baer oversees corporate communications, government relations and public policy, human resources, corporate social responsibility, and risk management and compliance. He reports to Qwest CEO Ed Mueller.
Baer places a premium on communication. "I have found that employees vary as to how they like to communicate. As a result, I try to provide as many different communication channels as possible. I hold well over 100 one-on-one and small group meetings a year to discuss morale and how we can do things better. I also encourage other forms of communications, and we have even set up an anonymous electronic suggestion box. This way, I can have a better sense of what's going on in the organization and anticipate issues."
Baer has confronted grave legal problems since joining the company, including the federal prosecution of Qwest's former chief executive officer, Joe Nacchio, for insider trading and making false financial reports. Nacchio was convicted on 19 of 42 counts; the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction and sentence in February 2009. The company admitted overstating revenue by $2.9 billion and agreed to pay the government $250 million to settle civil fraud charges. In separate litigation, Baer's team negotiated $810 million in settlements against $40 billion in investor claims. Corporate Counsel, a National Law Journal affiliate, cited Baer's finesse of the episode in naming Qwest's the nation's best legal department in 2008.
Nacchio had attempted to assert a defense that the government targeted him because Qwest -- unlike its competitors -- refused to go along with the National Security Agency's request to monitor its customers' communications without a warrant. Congress eventually voted to immunize telecommunications companies against any liability for privacy violations involving cooperation with the snooping, which the government said was directed at terrorism suspects. Baer said that he couldn't discuss national security-related matters.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Baer received a Bachelor of Arts in
He went to work trying homicide cases in
the Brooklyn, N.Y., district attorney's office and in 1988 moved
to the firm now called Katten Muchin Rosenman, in
Qwest was a client and recruited Baer as deputy general counsel in 2001. He was appointed general counsel in 2002 and chief administrative officer in 2008.
A native of Sea Cliff, N.Y., Baer enjoys keeping up with the latest technology. His wife, Anne, is a homemaker; they have two children, Jane, 15, and Carson, 13. His community activities include service on the boards of the Colorado Legal Aid Foundation, the National Jewish Medical Center, and the Colorado Campaign for Inclusive Excellence. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. appointed Baer as co-chairman of his technology transition team and chairman of the Colorado Workforce Development Council.