Soon after he was nominated and confirmed as the state's new Attorney General in April, Joe Foster called an old friend and associate at the McLane law firm, Greg Smith.
Smith, who had served as Attorney General from 1981 to 1984, had 55 attorneys in the Department of Justice during his tenure, Foster learned. "That's two more than are there today," he told a small group comprised mostly of attorneys from the state's leading law firms.
Foster was addressing a Thursday morning breakfast forum hosted by the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, the statewide chamber of commerce. He urged the group to get behind his plans to make what he called the peoples' law firm "the best law firm in the state."
"The Legislature has been a little too tight with the Department of Justice budget," he said. With 53 lawyers, the department is smaller than it was in the early 1980s, when the state had a much smaller population and enjoyed greater immunity against lawsuits.
With better funding, Foster said the state could actually save money the Department of Justice has had to spend on outside attorneys, and could recoup more money in settlements.
"Even though outside counsel does a great job, we could spend less if we had more money for staff," he said. "I hope the business community will support efforts to help the department grow."
Given the flood of litigation the state has had to deal with in the past year, Foster said the Department of Justice has had to triage matters, putting a priority on major criminal cases and defending the state and its agencies against lawsuits.
As a result, important legal mandates have gone untended, Foster said, citing a cutback on public integrity investigations and efforts to train elected officials on their responsibilities under the state's right to know law. The wait for approval on new condominium agreements, which was once 30 to 60 days, is now six months or longer.
"The logjam has had a direct, adverse impact on the business community," said attorney John Funk of Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrel in Concord.
"We have to have the bodies to do it," Foster responded.
Turnover in the department is higher than it should be he said, as lawyers are not only leaving for private practice but being "poached" by other state agencies, he said, adding, "I have a great team in place," he said, "but I want to make it even better."
Foster, 53, had been with the McLane law firm for nearly 29 years, specializing in business and bankruptcy law. A Democrat, he is a former chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, former Senate Majority Leader and a former member of the House.