New DRI President Focuses on Next Generation: “Voice of the Defense Bar” readies new voices for future

Monday, December 5, 2016 - 06:20

Introduction: DRI, founded in 1960 as the Defense Research Institute, bills itself as the “leading organization of defense attorneys and in-house counsel” and the “Voice of the Defense Bar.” With 22,000-plus members, it serves as a hefty counterweight to the well-heeled plaintiff-side group, the American Association for Justice. Below, DRI’s new president, South Carolina trial attorney John Cuttino, talks about plans for the organization, the benefits of in-house membership, and grooming the next generation of defense bar leaders. His remarks have been edited for length and style.

MCC: Congratulations on being named DRI's president. When and how did you become involved with DRI?

Cuttino: I joined DRI in 1983, my first year of private practice. The firm that I was in was very supportive of DRI and asked me to join. Some years later, I attended my first DRI seminar and was impressed with the quality of the program and the quality of the lawyers I saw. I began to get more deeply involved.

MCC: Who are some of the key members of the leadership in DRI, and what kind of experiences and skills do they bring to the organization – including you?

Cuttino: It is our great fortune to have had the same executive director for 18 years, John R. Kouris, a lawyer who has overseen the growth of the organization with a very steady hand. That consistency is key.

Our leadership is comprised of volunteers – practicing lawyers, not employees of DRI, in private firms or, in some cases, corporate law departments. We have just concluded the presidency  of DRI’s  first in-house counsel , Laura Proctor of  Louisiana-Pacific Corporation. She had a very successful presidency, and her skill set and experience in-house were beneficial to our organization.

I took office October 22 and will serve for a year. Following me will be another practicing attorney from Columbia, South Carolina, John Kuppens, and following him will be a practicing attorney from Baltimore, Maryland, Toyja Kelley. Thereafter, a practicing attorney from St. Louis, Missouri, Phil Willman, will take the reins. All of these lawyers, from various parts of the country, bring their particular personal and professional skill sets to the job. We have men and women alike who have served as officers and directors as well as lawyers of diversity so it is a wide array of people who fill these leadership positions. I think that's part of the strength of the organization.

MCC: How can in-house counsel benefit from membership, and how can they benefit from the leadership opportunities that the organization provides?

Cuttino: We have a special membership category for in-house counsel. For well under $300 a year, they can be a member of DRI. There are additional benefits when they join our Corporate Counsel Committee, which they can do at no additional cost, including the opportunity to attend any DRI seminar in the country free of charge.  That's a value of between $700 and $1,000. That's part of our effort to encourage in-house counsel to participate.

The Corporate Counsel Committee is a major feature. It's a safe space with membership limited to corporate counsel. They can meet by themselves, exchange ideas, talk about concerns, and, frankly, not have to worry about clients, outside counsel or practicing lawyers being in the room. It's designed so they can have a free exchange of information, ideas and concerns about what they face as in-house counsel, including their management of outside counsel. They tell us it’s a very positive forum.

In terms of the leadership training, DRI provides that to all members. We have so many seminars, substantive law committees, and ways to get involved that anyone with the desire can run a small group, lead a task force, write an article. There are plenty of opportunities.

MCC: Collaboration is a word that is often used when discussing the relationship between in-house and outside counsel. How can DRI foster further collaboration between the two groups?

Cuttino: Our experience is that lawyers of all types benefit when they have the opportunity to sit down and talk to each other, even without an agenda, just to brainstorm. We try to provide opportunities for in-house counsel to interact with outside counsel in a way that helps both sides learn from each other. Sometimes these are conversations, sometimes they are seminars. We have partnered with in-house counsel on issues of interest to the profession such as court rule changes and class action issues. We engineer the participation of the in-house perspective every time we can when we're dealing with an issue.

MCC: Can you share with us some of DRI's priorities and hot topics for the organization and its members going into 2017? Do you have plans to launch any new events or educational or networking opportunities for your members?

Cuttino: DRI is a large organization of 22,000-plus members. At any given time, we have a multitude of activities going on. We have several continuing points of emphasis.

  • The DRI Center for Law and Public Policy is our “think tank” responsible for identifying and examining issues that are of interest to the defense bar such as non-lawyer ownership of law firms, multistate practice, legal services provided by non-lawyers, class action issues, and other things that have a national scope. We want to keep up the Center’s excellent work, including its status as one of the leading filers of amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Our relationship with the state organizations is important. Almost every state has one or more of its own defense bar-oriented organizations. While they are not technically part of DRI, we have very close relationships with those state organizations. The profession as a whole, and all non-profit organizations, have been under some financial strain for the last several years. That's led to a lot more cooperation between national organizations like DRI and these state organizations – sharing resources, sharing ideas – and we will continue to emphasize that.
  • We constantly emphasize membership. We have come through the financial turmoil of the last several years in excellent membership shape, with very few departures and very little decline in our numbers over the last five years. We are proud of that and continue to look for members in the newest generation of lawyers.
  • We are about to roll out a new website, which will be more user-friendly to our members and informative to the general public about what we do. That should be online in early 2017.
  • You will see us move towards more online learning opportunities. The model of folks going to a live seminar in a big city remains strong, but we also see a lot of opportunity for webcasts and things of that nature. The new generation of lawyers is very responsive to that.

MCC: Is there anything else you'd like to add about yourself and your vision for DRI?

Cuttino: It's a great honor to have been elected president of an organization of this stature. DRI has long been viewed as the pre-eminent defense bar organization in terms of size, strength and educational offerings. We are a voluntary membership organization. Folks don't have to join DRI, but they continue to show great interest in doing so because there's value for them. As the profession changes, DRI is changing with it. We think that our members are going to be particularly well-armed going forward. There have been a lot of changes in the last five years, and there will be a lot more in next five to seven years. We're proud of how we've been able to help prepare the next generation of lawyers to practice law effectively and enjoy rewarding legal careers.

John Cuttino, a trial attorney with 32 years of experience, is a shareholder in the Columbia, South Carolina, office of Gallivan, White & Boyd. He can be reached at jcuttino@gwblawfirm.com.