PG&E’s Mark Sweeney Finds Balance in Litigation

For twenty-five years, Mark Sweeney has litigated tough cases at Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) to create outcomes that serve the company, its customers, and the public

Mark Sweeney, Senior Counsel—Litigation, Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) Photo by Craig Isaacs

For as long as he can remember, Mark Sweeney has had a way with people. Well before law school, the future litigator realized he was wired to read a room—he listens closely and can suss out people’s intentions. Sweeney’s sweet spot, though, is around a negotiating table.

The senior counsel for litigation at Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) has never sought out managerial roles. In fact, when he was hired to run PG&E’s in-house claims department, heading up a team of forty people, he realized that wasn’t his niche. “I was spending more time managing and administrating than being a lawyer,” Sweeney says. “Thankfully, I was able to get onto the litigation team.”

And for the last quarter century, that is where Sweeney has been: on the front lines of power outage disputes, business interruptions, and shareholder protections. “My philosophy has always been if there’s something meaningful going on, I want to be involved,” Sweeney says. “That’s what feels the most important to me. I hope I’ve developed a reputation as someone who helps the company and helps those we serve.”

“Mark is an exceptional lawyer, a skilled negotiator, and a genuinely great guy,” says Sandra Smith Thayer, partner at Pasich. “I am always impressed by his calm, cool, confident demeanor, even under the most stressful conditions.”

What’s perhaps most telling about Sweeney is that after finding his niche, he’s done what many others in his space might actively avoid doing: he’s stayed. In fact, the litigator has endeavored to stay close to the most active parts of his practice, never stepping away from any challenge that comes his way.

Based in San Francisco, PG&E provides vital services that are put to use—and sometimes to the test—every day. The sporadic occurrence of earthquakes, seasonal wildfires, and even California’s diverse and varied landscapes all present unique challenges for the utilities provider.

“In our service territory, we have everything from coastal regions to inland valleys, from sprawling cityscapes to massive national forests,” Sweeney explains. “The way we maintain our facilities in these environments differs too. And maintaining inspections in these areas is very important but also challenging.”

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PG&E engineers constantly keep these landscapes in mind when designing and placing equipment. Sweeney and his team work with them to flag any potential problems and ensure public safety. In downtown San Francisco, for example, PG&E has road covers that contain underground gas and electric equipment.

“Sometimes people slip or trip on them,” Sweeney notes. “So the legal team will meet with the business and say, ‘These are some of the things that we’ve seen in our litigation profile and we’d like to talk to you about whether there’s something that can be done in the name of loss prevention to better protect the public.’”

Flagging small events like this helps PG&E avoid larger issues in the future. But naturally, not every accident is avoidable. And with clients coming from all walks of life, Sweeney’s ability to put himself in others’ shoes is essential to resolving any dispute.

“It’s a constant balancing of interests because when a lawsuit first comes in, I try to understand who brought this litigation: a small business, a major customer, an individual, a family, or even an industrial customer. I try to understand who they are and how they’ve been affected,” he says. “Then I start to assess what the financial exposure might be in any particular case. Ultimately, I’m looking for a settlement that is fair for the litigants, in the best interests of our shareholders and customers, and serves the broader public good.

“I always try to step in the other side’s shoes and really try to discern what’s important to them,” Sweeney continues. “They want to be heard. Sometimes they perceive us as this monolithic entity, so I try to understand what it is that they’re asking for to help drive us toward resolution.”

The lawyer’s knack for connecting with those on both sides of a negotiation is well known at PG&E. Over the last decade, Sweeney has continued to build a deep rapport with PG&E’s risk organization. “I’ve gotten very close to the financial risk organization within PG&E, which has allowed me to fill in gaps for underwriters and insurance companies on PG&E’s litigation process and lets prospective clients know just how proactively the litigation group operates,” Sweeney says.

“Our business is about providing safe gas and electric service to millions of customers in northern California,” the lawyer notes. “My job isn’t about going into court and fighting with our customers. The company generally wants us to resolve litigation fairly and amicably. These aren’t random lawsuits; these are customers who have an ongoing relationship with us. We’re here to try to make things better.”

“My philosophy has always been if there’s something meaningful going on, I want to be involved.”

Sweeney’s love for being where the action is also extends to the rest of his life. He loves hockey—he started playing on ponds in Michigan, hockey stick in hand, and still plays in a recreational league. With other legal team colleagues, he is also a volunteer for PG&E’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The matrix organization is activated in times of emergency, most recently for COVID-19, and is staffed by people from all over PG&E. “I like to dive into the middle of things, so I volunteered right away,” Sweeney says.

The lawyer has been on call when the company had to proactively power down parts of its power grid to mitigate the possibility of more wildfires breaking out. He was also on call during the first two weeks of the pandemic. None of this is in his job description, but for Sweeney, it’s part of a higher duty to serve that others at his company have also embraced.

The uncertainty of 2020 has been difficult for every industry, and PG&E is no different. “We’ve just come out of Chapter 11, and we have to reestablish ourselves in terms of making sure we’re on secure financial footing,” Sweeney explains. And the unique challenges of climate change are particularly relevant to a company that provides gas and electricity among miles and miles of dry brush.

As PG&E pushes into the future, it plans to try to stay one step ahead of the unpredictability climate change brings, strength testing gas pipelines in case of earthquakes and enhancing vegetation management procedures to avoid feeding wildfires. “[Climate change] is a reality that is happening,” Sweeney says, “and other lawyers and businesses really need to recognize how it’s going to impact their own lives.”

Although combating an issue so huge seems like an especially daunting task, Sweeney says it’s just part of the job. And with his people-centric senses leading his litigation strategy, he won’t let this challenge be the first he shies away from. Instead, he’s diving in headfirst to help solve it.

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Expertise Spotlight

For more than two centuries, Cravath has been known as one of the world’s preeminent law firms. Each of our practice areas is highly regarded, and our lawyers are widely recognized for their best-in-class legal work. Our representation of significant global companies and financial institutions, some of which have retained the firm from their inception, has enabled us to develop an extremely broad-based practice. We are not, and do not strive to be, the largest law firm measured by number of offices or lawyers, but rather to be the firm of choice for clients with respect to their most challenging legal issues, business transactions, and critical disputes.

Cravath is one of the few true partnerships among the top law firms of the world, and we are structured to ensure that all clients receive the benefit of the firm’s overall knowledge and experience. Our lawyers advocate for our clients’ objectives in a highly commercial and pragmatic way to help them identify and implement workable business solutions. We further believe that excellence and diversity go hand in hand, and that clients are best served by teams of outstanding lawyers from diverse backgrounds with different perspectives, experiences, and insights.

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Expertise Spotlight

Pasich is proud to have partnered with Mark Sweeney and the entire PG&E legal team over the past five years. Recognized as one of the preeminent insurance recovery firms in California, Pasich focuses exclusively on high-value, complex insurance recovery and insurance broker malpractice claims and litigation. Our clients will attest to our team’s depth and breadth of knowledge. Known throughout the industry for being fearless in taking on difficult cases, we provide innovative solutions tailored to the client’s unique situation. The team’s analytical rigor enables us to develop factual arguments based on the nuances of policy language when insurers deny claims.

While the firm is experienced in all areas of insurance coverage, Pasich is best known in certain core areas, including coverage for wildfires and other natural disasters, directors and officers insurance, employment (wage and hour coverage disputes, COVID-19 business interruption claims), entertainment and sports insurance coverage, and insurance broker liability.

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Steptoe & Johnson LLP:

“Mark excels at analyzing and navigating complex cases to successful resolutions by combining his superb judgment and business savvy. He also is a master strategist and negotiator. Partnering with Mark is a true pleasure.”

–Laurie Edelstein, Partner