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said its top attorney William Neukom will step down at the end of its current fiscal year.

The announcement comes weeks after the company reached a tentative agreement in its landmark antitrust battle with the U.S. government and a day after floating a proposal to settle more than 100 private lawsuits.

The silver-coiffed, bow-tied lawyer started handling legal matters for the firm 22 years ago, and was a top lieutenant to Chairman Bill Gates as the software empire navigated its way through its antitrust travails. Neukom, 60, was a partner in Gates' father's law firm before joining Microsoft full time in 1985.

Brad Smith, who has served as Microsoft's deputy general counsel for worldwide sales for the past five years, was named to succeed Neukom, who will stay on at the company until the end of July 2002, when its fiscal year ends.