As BigLaw has boomed, a new kind of legal professional has emerged: the conflicts specialist. Conflicts departments keep an eye on potential ethical risks for large firms with long lists of clients. That’s no easy task at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, which boasts over 600 attorneys spanning three continents. That’s where Josef Bischetsrieder comes in.
Based out of Denver, Bischetsrieder is Kilpatrick Townsend’s conflicts team manager and oversees a team of nine across the country to make sure attorneys are aware of any potential ethical snags bringing on new clients or working on certain matters.
“At face value, the concept is simple and when the analysis is complete, the resolution is simple,” explained Bischetsrieder. “But it’s that part between the bookends that I enjoy the most: How can I figure this out? How quickly can I figure it out? And how can I assist their lawyers in making informed decisions?”
Since he started working in conflicts, Bischetsrieder said the need for conflict specialists has grown as has the complexity of the work.
Bischetsrieder got his start in the legal industry in an unexpected setting 20 years ago: an art gallery in San Francisco.
A California native, Bischetsrieder has a bachelor’s degree in political science and government from California State University, Fullerton and a master’s in public administration from Golden Gate University. Bischetsrieder moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles during a crash in the tech sector after working as an insurance claims adjuster. With employment scarce, he volunteered for a charity as a part-time art gallery curator which merged his interest in art (Bischetsrieder’s father was a photographer, as were several other relatives) with an opportunity to network.
Through the gallery, Bischetsrieder met an attorney who introduced him to conflicts work and said he hasn’t strayed from BigLaw since.
“The practice of law is an art. Language itself as an art. And I like the arts but I’m not much for painting,” added Bischetsrieder.
Bischetsrieder joined Kilpatrick Townsend in 2009 and now oversees a small team of conflicts specialists fielding requests from the firm’s 21 locations across the U.S., and in China, Japan and Sweden.
Kilpatrick Townsend’s conflicts team is responsible for investigating and issuing opinions on possible conflicts of interests for the firm when taking on new clients or working on certain matters. Requests come from all practice areas and require conflicts specialists to be detail-oriented, thorough and turn around investigations quickly.
And as the law firm has grown over the last years, Bischetsrieder said so have the conflicts analysis needs.
“Our client needs have really ramped up and then law firms are of course competitive in the recruiting space,” said Bischetsrieder, who added that when representing clients in industries like technology, the firm needs to be especially sure there isn’t conflict around intellectual property and new tech. “Client needs are the real big driver though and sometimes it’s a little bit of a puzzle to try to figure out what exactly the firm is looking for and what exactly a recruiter is looking for, and we have to check it all.”
Colleagues say Bischetsrieder leads Kilpatrick Townsend’s team with efficiency and has an eye for detail.
“He sets a standard throughout his team that guarantees exceptional detail oriented focus, where few, if any, mistakes are acceptable,” wrote Jon Pushkin in Bischetsrieder’s nomination. “Josef’s ability [to] maintain this highly detailed day-to-day involvement while also engaging with other critical challenges like evaluating newer conflicts technologies and materially participating in the design and rollout phases of these technologies and workflow changes sets him apart from others.”
While Bischetsrieder said he didn’t expect to end up in conflicts, the law always interested him. And in his current role, he’s able to live out part of a childhood dream to be a detective: untangling a mystery, investigating leads and coming out on the other side with an answer to a complex question.
Bischetsrieder has been with Kilpatrick Townsend for almost 14 years but transferred to the firm’s Denver office about 10 years ago. Since coming to Colorado, he’s embraced all the mountains have to offer, snowboarding whenever he’s able to, running the Colfax marathon and cycling.
Bischetsrieder said when it comes to leading his team, he always encourages them to stay focused and tries to build close relationships through mentorship and training. “Really, a strong team is everything,” said Bischetsrieder, adding he’s grateful to have received and been able to pass along professional mentorship at Kilpatrick Townsend.
“I’m proud that Kilpatrick really gave me a great opportunity so long ago, and I’m really proud of my growth, but certainly not without their support,” said Bischetsrieder. “It is an important role for any law firm. And to serve as an integral part of it is always something I’m really happy with.”
Moving away from a top-down approach when it comes to assessing conflicts is becoming increasingly common in the BigLaw world and has led many firms to create departments, like Bischetsrieder’s, to look into potential ethical pitfalls.
A survey by operation software company Intapp found attorneys at firms are reporting less initial conflicts analysis work while conflicts professionals are reporting more. The survey found that from 2018 through 2020, law firms reported conflicts professionals are taking on a larger amount of responsibility for analyzing initial conflicts.
And catching conflicts is important, since failing to do so could lead to malpractice allegations or a damaged reputation for a firm.
Conflicts of interest allegations were the top-source of legal malpractice claims in 2021, according to a survey published by insurance broker Ames & Gough with data from 11 insurers of 80% of AM Law 100 firms.
And in recent years, several BigLaw firms have found themselves in hot water over conflicts of interest claims. Dentons LLP, which considers itself the “world’s largest law firm,” lost an appeal last year in the Ohio Supreme Court for a $32 million malpractice award stemming from a Swiss verein cross-office conflict of interest representing a client in a patent infringement case.