Lessons In In-House Litigation

When Dominick Cirelli made the move from an independent litigation firm to Coface’s legal department, he brought along his own tricks of the trade

(Jen Davis)

Transitioning from law firm litigation to an in-house litigation manager is a process Dominick Cirelli willingly took on when he joined Coface in 2003. Not only did it expand his base of legal knowledge at the trade credit insurer, but he also quickly learned how experience in one arena could help inform another.

“When you go in-house, you can take your experience of working on other clients’ cases and the issues they’ve addressed and deliver that insight to the decision-makers and stakeholders inside the company,” Cirelli explains. “With Coface, its outstanding reputation allows me, as a litigation manager, to provide the groundwork to manage the litigation so Coface can vigorously defend bigger cases.”

Founded in Paris in 1946, Coface provides trade-based credit insurance to businesses in one hundred countries—everything from smaller organizations all the way to Fortune 500 companies. In short, it offers solutions for protecting companies from the financial default of those with which it does business. Coface’s market penetration in North America is considerably lower than it is in Europe. Cirelli notes that the insurer “could have prevented some catastrophic loss” during the 2008–2009 US recession if it had wider recognition.

“Every company with an accounts receivable department—and that’s every company—would benefit from this product,” Cirelli says. “It’s a great risk mitigation strategy for an uncertain world.”

Dominick Cirelli’s Lessons in Litigation

1. Staying out of it is just as important as getting out of it

2. Focus on initiative over avoidance

3. Be adaptable

4. Find a great outside lawyer for consulting purposes

In the world of Coface’s legal department, proper litigation management is crucial. With that being a key aspect of Cirelli’s responsibilities, he gets the unique perspective of watching a case progress from start to finish, noting how each Coface department acted in the lead-up to litigation.

“You get to see how all the different roles interact with each other in a real, factual setting,” he says. “And I think any litigation manager would be smart to pass that knowledge they’ve gained back to the staff and management so they can see it and see how it all works together. And sometimes, how it doesn’t.”

Cirelli adds that there is one important lesson with regards to litigation: Staying out of it is as important as getting out of it. “There’s a rightful amount of respect that insurance stakeholders have for litigation,” Cirelli says. “I think Coface uses a lot of good common sense to avoid litigation, but once the nature of the word comes up, it creates a sense of fear. It can almost be a paralyzing thought, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

When it’s a fear of the unknown that triggers this paralysis, expertise from Cirelli is essential. As a former private practice litigator, he provides the decision-makers of Coface with “good, practical knowledge” on what to expect from litigation systems—everything from how long processes will take to realistic speculation on how the process could turn out. “Or, how you don’t know how things will turn out—another good piece of advice,” Cirelli adds.

With responsibilities that also include providing employment advice to HR, handling contractual arrangements, and advising on complicated claims, strategy plays a key role in Cirelli’s work. Even with the avoidance of litigation as the goal, he believes it’s vital to see the risk in question and know what strategy is being created to mitigate it. This is what leads to his next litigation tip: Focus on initiative over avoidance. The benefits are often better than those afforded by simple avoidance.

“If you’re really good at what you do, you’re going to get an opportunity with your stakeholders to take not just the initiative to get the information and make a risk analysis, but also to pattern a response to the risk and manage it that particular way.”

“If you’re really good at what you do, you’re going to get an opportunity with your stakeholders to take not just the initiative to get the information and make a risk analysis, but also to pattern a response to the risk and manage it that particular way,” he says.

Also helpful are “retrospectives” that he has with Coface business units after each case they encounter. “Working in-house allows me to see exactly how the team gets engaged,” says Cirelli, who embraces the idea of every opportunity as a learning experience. “And asking a group to problem-solve day-to-day is hard. But if you have them issue-spot, then bring in those who are trained to resolve disputes. It gives them the opportunity to feel like they have the support they need.”

It’s also another aspect of assessing and managing risk—two necessary but different components in litigation. The ability to manage, according to Cirelli, is what makes someone adaptable. And adaptability is his third tip for getting a leg up on litigation. Taking on new and different responsibilities is all part of it. But most ideal is being able to use various platforms to engage with individual employees and managers, “downloading” their knowledge and helpfulness in order to create a better general counsel. Finding a great outside lawyer for consulting purposes (“so very important to in-house counsel”), is also key.

“You really need someone who can give you a true perspective on the likelihood of success in a way that’s cogent—that you can grab and use to make an informed decision,” Cirelli explains.

All of this leads to another role Cirelli takes on: mentor. In fact, a former law clerk at the company, who was mentored by Cirelli, is now the company’s compliance director. Cirelli readily admits this is a point of pride for him. “Mentoring fits what I practice, which is to engage, have fun, and try to be helpful in the engagement of knowledge and training,” he says.

And the broader the shared base of knowledge among the various business units he serves at Coface, the better for all involved. “I think all companies, no matter what size, have some degree of silo,” Cirelli says. “This helps to break the silo.”


The Retrospectives

As deputy general counsel for Coface’s North America office, Dominick Cirelli takes great pride in something he calls retrospectives—the debriefing he does with the Coface teams once a case concludes. While he prefers to wait between the ending of a case and the beginning of the debriefing (especially if there is “some sting” with the outcome, he notes), he finds it helpful to engage and get perspective from the entire Coface team, in addition to those that gave rise to the litigation at hand.

“It’s not a finger-pointing exercise,” Cirelli says about the process. “It’s really about taking the initiative and looking at the preventative measures to consider in the future.”


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Cope Ehlers, PC:

“Given the changing, and potentially devastating, nature of the challenges businesses face today, the best in-house counsel must be exceptionally adaptable as well as consummate legal professionals in order to help their organizations achieve high levels of success. Dominick Cirelli has those qualities in abundance.”

—Carrie E. Cope, President