Local attorneys weather the economic downturn

BY LARRY LEVIN

PUBLISHER/CEO

If Shakespeare were alive in the midst of this recession, perhaps he’d revise his oft-uttered line from Henry VI, Part 2 to,”The first thing we do, let’s fire all the lawyers.”

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One of the strong appeals of the law as a career is its professional nature, the ability to hang a shingle despite the twists and turns of the economy. Yet if the current downturn has proven one thing, it’s that no one is immune.

The ribbing that attorneys suffer in the realm of public opinion pales in comparison to some of the challenges now faced within the profession. According to United States Department of Labor estimates, about 20,000 lawyers were unemployed last year, and about 3,000 lost their jobs in the first quarter of 2009.

Many firms that grew by leaps and bounds in the go-go years have let attorneys go, while others have tried to balance their financial needs with the long-term retention of legal talent. On the East Coast, some firms, instead of laying off lawyers outright, are paying them less to temporarily work for public interest organizations.

Yet drilling down, the details are not universally sour when it comes to the legal profession today. While many practice areas have suffered tremendously — real estate, mergers and acquisitions, and other disciplines related to economic growth — some areas are robust, sadly due to their nexus with misfortune.

“There are a lot of different dynamics at play in this kind of economy,” says Gerry Greiman, a litigation partner at the law firm of Spencer Fane Britt & Browne LLP. When it comes to filing lawsuits, “some clients are less willing or able to spend discretionary funds on litigation.”

Greiman, newly installed as the President of the Jewish Community Relations Council, sees companies cutting back across the board on everything, and legal work is no exception. But in some circumstances, the frustrations of the downturn can ignite a desire to proceed with a claim. “Another perspective is that, some (clients) feel that they’ve been wronged or at a loss, and are most anxious to pursue” their actions, Greiman said.

Another mixed bag is the trusts and estate planning profession. “With many closely-held businesses, this is a perfect time to do planning,” says Steve Gorin, a partner at Thompson Coburn LLP, a Fellow in the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and a leader in many local and national estate planning groups. “Values are down, interest rates are way down, companies can set up a trust and sell business interests over to the trust.”

On the other hand, says Gorin, whose family are members at Congregation Shaare Emeth, with the increase of the federal estate tax threshold to $6 million, and asset values dropping precipitously, affluent individuals who might have raced to the estate attorney have slowed their pace to a crawl, if not an utter standstill.

One area of practice with some staying power during the recession is intellectual property. “(It) appears to be relatively stable because in a bad economy and a good economy, brands, patents and copyrights are all things that become very important as leading assets to distinguish you from competition,” says Alan Nemes, a partner at Husch Blackwell Sanders LLP.

Yet Nemes, whose family belongs to Bais Abraham Congregation, points out that while his practice is fairly stable, trademark and patent filings are down overall from a year ago. Still, there may be one surprising outcome of the downturn. “I am reading in the local and national press about people being laid off from large companies who have a lot of experience,” says Nemes. “They are creating new companies and they will as part of their business strategy try to protect their intellectual property. So there may be a silver lining.”

David Lander, also a partner at the Thompson Coburn firm, has seen a swelling of his practice, given that his work comprises helping both businesses in trouble and those who are creditors of such businesses.

“So many more businesses are in financial troubles from where they were a few years ago,” says Lander, who is a member of both Central Reform Congregation and Shaare Emeth. It is kind of an awesome responsibility to be a lawyer with expertise in that area.

“The notion is to dispense that expertise in a way that’s helpful,” says Lander. “What we can do for a company in trouble or a company owed money by a business in trouble, is to help them to understand their legal rights. There’s a lot of counseling that goes with that, which we try to do in a humane way.”

While Lander deals with struggling businesses, Dan Glazier’s work has for almost three decades concerned the perils of the individual and family poor. Glazier is the Executive Director and General Counsel of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM), a position that Lander also held earlier in his career.

LSEM is the kind of public service organization that Spencer Fane attorney Gerry Greiman notes “depends on contributions, and (such groups) are really feeling the effects of the economy.”

“We are seeing that there are foundations that don’t have funds to be able to offer many things that we have gotten in the past,” says Glazier. “But we have actively sought and received grants we haven’t gotten before. We received one from the Herbert Mildred and Julian Simon Foundation, to be helpful to senior citizens when they are harassed on their debts.”

Glazier, who belongs to Central Reform Congregation, indicates funding for LSEM will increase in some areas, notably with newfound support in Washington for the Legal Services Corporation, which funds legal aid across the country. But interest on attorney trust funds, which in Missouri by statute is invested in part to help support legal services for the indigent, is substantially lower, and attendance at the agency’s Justice for All Ball was down this year, reflecting the general trend of lower donations.

The lack of support is particularly challenging given the immense need for legal assistance. “We are seeing 50 percent more calls for foreclosure problems, a 30 percent increase in consumer debt calls, and thirdly, (an increase in) domestic violence.

“We’re seeing folks who were never touched by poverty before experiencing first hand what they’ve read about.”

With the financial difficulties of firms, with the challenges of finding work in the legal sector and with the task of helping individuals and businesses with enormous issues, it is indeed a challenging time to be an attorney.

But as Glazier notes regarding LSEM, “the tough times remind me of how glad I am we are there to provide the services we can. I wish we could provide even more services and how critical it is that when decisions are made regarding community and country, the needs of the poor are kept paramount.”

Is now the right time to enter the practice of law? David Lander, who gets called by many to ask about the choice, says if your heart is in it, absolutely. While the economy “has to be factored in in terms of short term displacement, if the law is personally important to you, you should do it.”