Center of attention Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

There are so many stereotypes about attorneys. Some of them are true, of course, but most of them are not.

For instance, your attorney is not a heart surgeon, a rocket scientist or a neurophysicist. They might as well be, though, to handle the level of work and degree of difficulty required during the last couple of years. After all, you have probably rarely called your attorney for something casual during these strapped economic times. Calls always seem to be reserved for something expensive and stressful that has to be handled correctly.

“There has been a true shift in how clients use and compensate lawyers,” says George C. Gaskin, member, Taylor English Duma LLP. “I would like to think the days of lawyers being paid $700 or $800 an hour to get work done is going to change. I think that’s what the world is coming to — companies are going to push back on paying for real expensive lawyers; they’re going to push back on paying for very young lawyers.

“People will want to use those resources differently.”

You might be doing exactly that right now. A majority of attorneys say this is an opportune time to think — then think again — about your business strategy and to examine the economic landscape, because there are opportunities available right now, even in slower industries, that will not be available for long. If you can afford to, this is the time to move. And if you have a good attorney on your team of advisers — no stereotypes here — you already have about as good an ally as possible to help steer you forward.

Remember the past

The last couple of years have provided you with a new set of challenges. Perhaps you needed to lay off a percentage of your employees, close a branch of your business or just do more every day with an already overworked, if not smaller, staff. Odds are your attorney was with you during many of those moments — because even if you didn’t work more with your attorney in order to save legal fees, you probably called and talked more often.

That is, at least, what many attorneys are saying.

“Clients have used their attorneys less often, and often to their detriment, which is why clients should communicate on a regular basis with their attorneys” says Linda A. Klein, managing shareholder, Georgia offices, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC. “Law firms have reacted by creating specialized industry service teams to assist clients in reacting quickly to their industry-specific changes.”

The amount of work and communication required of some attorneys will also likely increase through 2010 and during at least the early months of 2011.

Until then, the existing bump in bankruptcy, commercial litigation and corporate reorganization — sure signs of an economy that has seen better days, months and years — will likely continue.

And valuations are still historically low — though not as far in the cellar as they were during much of 2009 — which means now is still a good time to examine and consider estate and succession planning. What will your business do after you’re out of the top spot? Who will own the business? Who will be in charge? And were you able to take advantage of a down market to pass it along at a better rate?

There are plenty of other things you should consider with your attorney before the economy starts to bump up a little more.

Look ahead and plan

Did you manage to obtain any sort of credit during the last two years? If so, congratulations. That’s quite an accomplishment. If not, no worries, because not many other companies did either. That said, some good news for the coming year is that credit is expected to be more available in 2011 than it has been in several years.

More credit is just one of the major points of interest for attorneys during the next six to 12 months. Because of those increased lines of credit, much of the next year will likely include a focus on mergers and acquisitions. Some attorneys say that M&A activity increased during the first half of 2010 before slowing some during the last four months, but no matter your city or region — and Atlanta and the rest of Georgia are expected to be no different — M&A activity will likely be prevalent by the time the calendar turns.

“M&A dried up for a number of years for the bigger firms, simply because there was no money to do financing,” Gaskin says. “But I do expect M&A to come back in 2011, because I keep hearing there’s a lot of money out there in chasing deals, and I have to believe that, because of the economy, you have some people who are positioned to be sold for a nice price, perhaps even for a premium. Activity is [already] picking up.”

Alternative fee structures and arrangements — or at least discussions about them — are also expected to increase in 2011. Some firms have provided them for years as an option, while others have added them only during the last couple of years as clients asked for them, but there does seem to be a split between clients who are more open to alternative fee structures and those who hold tight to the hourly rate.

Ensure your value

How can you be certain that you will receive as much value as possible from your partnership with your attorney? Communication, of course — the seemingly simple center of every conversation and great relationship remains the top priority. If you do not talk regularly with your attorney or if you rarely, if ever, ask questions or send recent documents and forms, you need to communicate more.

“You need to be touching base with each client at least once a month, just to see what’s going on,” Gaskin says. “I do have a handful of clients that generate a lot of work, and I check in with them at least that often, sometimes as often as a couple of times a day.”

And if you are not pleased with the quality or the nature of the relationship that you have with your attorney, for any of a number of reasons, the time to consider a move might be now. Rates are historically low, and this is perhaps the best buyer’s market of any of our lifetimes.

You might also consider asking your attorney about any changes in rules and regulations for 2011 and beyond. Asking whether the firm offers any corporate education that you and your employees might be able to put to use would also be a good idea. And asking for a review of your corporate structure, especially for possible inefficiencies, would not be a bad use of time or money. What are your employees earning? What are your executives earning? What else are you paying for? And is it really worth the cost?

“You have to try to run your business and grow your business,” Gaskin says. “You have to think about taking the right steps and doing the right things and making sure that everything in the back office is running the way it should.”