AG Adam Laxalt: changes designed to make AG best law firm in state

When a constitutional office has a change of administration, it often seems like there’s a shake-up in the staff.

To those on the outside, that’s what appeared to be happening after Adam Laxalt took office as Nevada’s new Attorney General.

And a review of the transfers and terminations in the office appeared to confirm that, showing 74 different staff changes, 26 of them involving the 133 attorneys, in the first six months of Laxalt’s tenure.

In raw terms, that would be an overall 21 percent turnover in the total 350 staff, 18 percent among the lawyers.

But what looked like a scene from Exodus turned out to be more like musical chairs as Laxalt and his top lieutenants moved people around and worked to reorganize the office.

In the end, the majority of those changes turned out to be existing staff moving up or to another position within the Attorney General’s office. Most of the rest were veteran lawyers taking a private or local government post that paid a lot more money. Among the actual departures, only a couple of people listed “change of administration” as the reason for leaving.

Laxalt said in an interview this week that internal changes were made to fix what he saw as bottlenecks in the chain of command that was the core reason why agencies complained the AG’s office was not fast enough or efficient enough in providing service to them.

He said the problem was the top manager had 13 or so division heads and senior deputies reporting directly to him, creating a log jam.

Laxalt said that’s why he convinced the Legislature to create five Bureau Chiefs instead of just one. In addition, he created two Special Assistant Attorney General posts.

Splitting the different divisions among those bureaus reduced the number of division chiefs reporting directly to each boss to just three.

In addition, he said there were a number of lateral moves and promotions putting lawyers into different assignments.

“We’ve done a fair amount of internal promotion,” Laxalt said.

The new structure, he said, is designed to make the office proactive instead of reactive. In the past, he said too often a major case didn’t get looked at by management until many strategic decisions had already been made. Now, Laxalt said, those bosses will get involved in cases much earlier in a system based on “trial teams” with senior deputy attorneys general as managers and mentors to younger, less experienced deputies.

Those Bureau Chiefs and new division chiefs include four existing lawyers promoted to the posts and a couple of former employees who agreed to return.

Ann McDermott was promoted to Chief of Litigation and Jeffrey Segal as Chief of Criminal Justice. Wayne Howle was promoted to chief of the Division of Gaming, Business and Industry and Sam Kern as head of the Fraud Division.

Greg Zunino rejoins the AG’s office as Chief of Government Affairs. Michael Mersch rejoins the office as General Counsel.

Brin Gibson was hired away from the firm of Lionel Sawyer & Collins to head the Bureau of Gaming, Business and Industry.

Finally, he brought in Nic Danna to head the Office of Military Legal Assistance and named Patty Cafferata to head the Office of Neighborhood Protection.

He said the Bureau Chiefs and new division heads, “will have a big impact on this office” and, in the long run, save the state money.

People leaving for more money, Laxalt said, is still the most serious staffing problem. In the first seven months, he said he lost six senior DAGs and seven other deputies, mostly to private industry and local government for more money.

One reason, he said, is the economy is recovering. In the depths of the recession, Laxalt said deputies were inclined to stay in the AG’s office where it was safe. Now, with the economy better, some of those senior lawyers are taking their skills elsewhere for better financial opportunities.

“This office is still not competitive in lawyer salaries,” he said.

In all, he lost 14 lawyers — several of them to retirement including veteran Chief Deputy Attorney General Marta Adams who left last month.

“My goal is to make this the best law firm in the state,” he said. “We’ve made great strides in ensuring everything that comes out of this office is top notch. You can feel the difference now.”

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