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.

Some attorneys are, for instance, sharp dressers, every bit the models for the top designers that you might expect, with perfect hair and a packed brain to match, but not all attorneys look like they belong on the cast of some courtroom drama that moves through its story arc each week in 44 minutes flat.

Some attorneys are fast and slick and out to make a quick dollar — or a quick couple of thousand dollars — but not many.

And, yes, some attorneys are blindingly intelligent and able to rattle off laws, statutes, regulations and court cases long since decided as if it were their job because, well, it is.

Your attorney is not a heart surgeon, a rocket scientist or a neurophysicist. He or she 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.

“Clients aren’t going to necessarily tell us what they think is wrong unless we ask them,” says Carl Schuster, president and managing director, Ruden McClosky. “If we ask them, they’ll generally tell us.”

You might be in the midst of not passing along important information to your attorney — perhaps not for the first time — right now, right as you read this sentence. 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.

“The problems have been more severe and there’s been more need for preventative legal work,” says Bowman Brown, partner, and chairman of the executive committee and the financial services practice group, Shutts & Bowen LLP. “Certainly, we’ve been busier in the last couple of years than we’ve ever been, and we’ve had much, much busier years in the last couple of years. This year will be a record year with the way things are going in terms of activity.”

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

“If we turn the corner and things start to get better, I expect there to be a lot more transactional activity, a lot of merger and acquisition activity, a lot of businesses rebuilding or getting back on a growth track,” Brown says. “I think that will create an increase in activity.”

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 is 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 — though Miami and the rest of South Florida are expected to lag behind much of the rest of the nation — M&A activity will likely be prevalent by the time the calendar turns.

“Admittedly, there isn’t as much merger and acquisition activity going on now as there was before,” Schuster says. “I think the problem is businesses very often wait too long until they decide it’s time to sell or it’s time to merge. Very often, you see businesses closing down because they’re too deep into it already and they can’t get out, and no one at that point is interested in buying them or merging with them because it’s suffered such a big blow that it’s too late to do anything about it.”

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, 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.

Even if you have no interest in alternative fee structures and will renew your proverbial subscription to the hourly rate, at least starting a conversation with your attorney or legal team about some other option might not be a bad idea, especially with the economy and cash flow still in flux.

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.

Most attorneys say they like to talk with clients at least once per month, just a casual meeting for breakfast, lunch or coffee to sit down and talk about you and your company, especially if they work with you more as an adviser than as an auditor — though every relationship is different.

“You can really build good relationships in two ways,” says Andrew C. Hall, founding and managing partner, Hall, Lamb and Hall P.A. “The first way is to have effective communications. Companies should tell their lawyer not only what the problem is but also where they’d like to end up if they could.

“I need to know as much information as I can when I’m advising. I need to know the things that you don’t want to tell me. [Those are] the things that I probably need to know the most. You need to break down your fear barriers and tell your lawyer all the bad news right up front. The sooner you tell them, the less exp ensive the process is and the better the advice is, the better the performance is. Get the bad information out front, get the realistic goals set as quickly as you can and then communicate effectively with each other.”

And if you’re not pleased with the quality or the nature of the relationship 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.

“But a business should only change firms if it’s dissatisfied with the services being offered by its present law firm,” Schuster says. “I don’t think there would be any other reason to change. There may be certain situations where a firm’s rates are just so high in this economy that a business can’t afford them, and that’s one thing. But if rates really haven’t changed very much, the only reason to change would be that a business is dissatisfied with the services rendered.”

You might want to consider a change if you have just outgrown your firm and need a firm with a larger regional, national or international footprint.

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?

“Lawyers should do what we do best, which is not only give legal advice but also give strong recommendations as to how to implement that advice,” Hall says. “We tend to give neutral statements of law and let clients struggle with the decision that should follow from it on the basis that that is a business decision. I think our clients want a little more from us than that. They want the benefits of our years of experience, if we have them, in terms of what solution works best in practical terms.”

Because in a world and an industry filled with so much change during the last couple of years, something needs to stay the same.