Biggest Legal Trends
The economy is among factors that have significant legal implications for businesses and consumers, local attorneys say
Marta Meyers, a partner at Boardman & Clark, LLP who practices family law, consulted her fellow partners. “Family law is very specialized, so what’s a trend for us might not be one overall,” she says.
Meyers and her colleagues identified the recession and still-challenging economy as the biggest trend. “It really required a lot of businesses to sharpen their practices,” she adds. “Things like getting credit and raising capital are harder. People are a little more sophisticated, and they need to be.”
In this economy, businesspeople and consumers are trying to inform themselves about the law to keep costs down—which the internet makes much easier than in the past. “It’s a good thing, but there’s a lot of generic information and misinformation out there,” says Meyers.
“People can be pennywise and pound foolish,” she warns. “Without legal counsel they can be in for all kinds of vulnerabilities and liabilities we could help them avoid. Our team has specialized knowledge; whether it’s in banking, family law, trust and estate planning, we’re on top of what’s happening in the industry and can help people understand and put it in context and get rid of misinformation.”
Regulations can differ from county to county. “Knowing those differences and who the attorneys and judges are can have a huge impact on the outcome of an individual case,” Meyers says. “When in doubt, call an attorney. For businesses, don’t wait until you have a problem. Get things taken care of on the front end.”
Michael True, an attorney with Murphy Desmond S.C., who also practices family law, is seeing an unfortunate law-related consequence of the tough economy. “There’s a definite trend toward individuals proceeding without representation, or where one party gets an attorney and the other proceeds pro se [(without representation]),” he says.
“In family law there are forms available for just about anything people want to do, from divorces to child custody issues,” he adds. “But there are financial complexities lawyers can easily handle that people proceeding pro se wouldn’t think about or catch.”
He’s had clients representing themselves get to the point where they didn’t know what to do, and then they hired an attorney. “They thought it would save money, but it doesn’t,” he says. “The attorney has to review what’s been done so far, and that takes time.”
Often people come in shortly before a contested hearing. “There’s not a lot of time to get ready, and if they’d hired an attorney in the beginning, they could have potentially avoided the hearing entirely,” says True. “It ends up costing more.”
He and his team are reaching out to the community, educating people about the importance of getting representation early on. “And people don’t have to go with the first attorney they call; it’s wise to meet with two or three,” he suggests. “Some charge for the initial consultation and some don’t.”
“Determining who to retain is a big decision,” True continues. “If you don’t mesh with your attorney it will make things more difficult. You may even have to switch attorneys during a divorce or other case, which adds to your costs.”
Don’t forget that attorneys can be great resources for finding other professionals, he advises. “Whether it’s a financial advisor or a mental health professional, we can match clients up with someone who can help
Todd Martin, managing shareholder at the Madison office of Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C., works in the insurance and employee benefits area. He’s observed considerable change in the legal landscape related to regulations.
“Whether you work in real estate, banking, securities—so many industries are highly regulated—and of course there’s health care reform and all its implications,” he says. “For small businesses there have been challenges and changes in employment law.”
New regulations always engender periods of uncertainty. “With health care reform, there are many questions about how the law will be applied, and on the political side, we’re not sure how it will be implemented,” says Martin. “Businesses are evaluating what they’ll do, and they should be working with legal counsel to figure out what it will mean for them.”
Reinhart provides updates about regulations to clients and businesses in Madison and beyond through seminars, e-newsletters, blogs and personal discussions. “A lot of the advising I’m doing now is: Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, and here are the possibilities,” Martin says.
Businesses need to educate themselves about regulations, he believes. “In larger businesses, certainly highly regulated ones like insurance and health care, the concept of having a compliance and risk management program is very well developed,” he says.
“Even at the small business level, companies should think through the concepts—what are the new regulations and what are the risks that apply to us?—and making sure they have the knowledge to address them,” says Martin.
“One of the biggest challenges for small businesses is knowing what questions to ask,” he adds. “It requires knowledge about trends, and working with counselors is one thing, but you also need internal knowledge.”
When Martin worked as an attorney for a very large company, its legal advisors were part of the business process. “We were brought in very early, and the management team would say, ‘We’re thinking of heading down this path; what are the implications?’”
It’s a good way to work whether you’re a large or a small company. “If you don’t have inside counsel, that type of call to your attorney is fairly inexpensive,” says Martin. “And it’s a call that could save you a lot in
— Judy Dahl