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1 Case, Hundreds of Lawyers

Attorneys general, private counsel and aides add up to a full-court press against Microsoft.

November 02, 2002|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

How many lawyers does it take to sue Microsoft Corp.?

You'd probably have to hire a lawyer to get an exact count. But an unofficial examination of some of the most significant filings in the 4-year-old antitrust case against the software giant reveals the number is easily in the hundreds.

More than 70 legal representatives are listed in just five of the documents filed since the Justice Department, 19 states and the District of Columbia sued Microsoft on May 18, 1998. And for almost every one of those names, there were several additional lawyers working behind the scenes.

"When you have a case with such an enormous amount of economic interests involved, you don't want anyone to ever say, 'You didn't fight tough enough,' " said Ernest Gellhorn, professor of antitrust law at George Mason University in Virginia. "So when things get difficult, you throw another lawyer in there."

In the initial filings, every state in the suit listed its attorney general as a lawyer of record, and each of them was backed by a taxpayer-funded staff. Some states hired private attorneys to help with the load. The federal government also posted its own squad of attorneys from the public and private sectors.

As time went on, several Microsoft rivals and other corporations joined the fray with in-house and outside counsel, along with lawyers representing nine media outlets. Consumers, acting for themselves, filed their own legal briefs.

Of course, Microsoft fielded its own small army of attorneys. A spokesman for the Redmond, Wash.-based company declined to estimate how many lawyers it employed.

"Eventually you reach the point of diminishing returns," Gellhorn said. "We're long past that."

The gargantuan task of keeping track of all these lawyers -- and coordinating all their work -- depends on one of the central issues of the court battle: technology.

"Much of it happens by e-mail," said Iowa Deputy Atty. Gen. Tam Ormiston.

The Iowa attorney general's office is leading the faction of nine states, including California, that balked at the settlement brokered by the Justice Department and pressed for tougher sanctions against Microsoft.

"We had to create an office without walls," he said.

In addition to Ormiston and Atty. Gen. Tom Miller, Iowa has only one other staff attorney on the case. Much of the state's heavy lifting is being done by high-powered Washington attorney Brendan Sullivan, best known for successfully defending former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros against conspiracy charges and keeping Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North out of prison over his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Sullivan was hired by California, which is paying his undisclosed fee. Sullivan's secretary wouldn't say how many lawyers at his white-shoe firm Williams & Connolly were working with him.

California itself has five staff lawyers from the attorney general's office on the case.

Corporate attorneys representing Sun Microsystems Inc., AOL Time Warner Inc., Apple Computer Inc. and other Microsoft rivals filed numerous briefs in support of the lawsuit. Attorneys for The Times, other newspapers and television networks chimed in to argue that federal laws passed a century ago granting the press access to depositions in antitrust cases still applied.

And then there were folks such as Robert Koenig.

The 56-year-old, who runs a travel Web site out of his home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., filed a brief arguing that Microsoft should be broken up to quash its anti-competitive behavior.

Although he is not an attorney, he used a free form he came across at a law school Web site and was done in two hours. In this case, technology worked to Microsoft's disadvantage.

"I'm just an average Joe, but I had something I wanted the judge to know," Koenig said. "Often, monopolists make their successes with brains and good luck, but then they take it too far. I love Microsoft products, but I said it would be better to break the company up."

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