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Legal: Finding Effective Representation

A top lawyer knows your business as well as you

By Mark Green

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With economic indicators rising, Kentucky law firms anticipate strong demand in 2024 and advise clients looking for representation to find a legal partner who understands their business as well as they do.

This approach “is one of the reasons I’ve been very lucky in my career,” said Doug Barr, managing partner at Stoll Keenon Ogden (SKO), whose practice has specialized in complex litigation.

“Part of the reason I’ve had success is because I’ve told clients this, and it’s true, ‘I worry more about their matters than they do,’ Barr said. “When they go to sleep at night, they should know their lawyer is worried about whatever it is they’ve entrusted to him.”

That quality is what SKO also looks for when hiring.

“The most important legal skill is curiosity and the desire to be a great lawyer for your clients,” Barr said.

Long one of Kentucky’s largest firms with 170 attorneys in 40-plus practices, SKO sees the economy in 2024 continuing to improve, with more employment and more manufacturing jobs in Kentucky, which will bring client inquiries regarding all the things associated with economic growth, Barr added.

If interest rates go down, as anticipated, Barr expects to see a rise in inquiries related to contracts, employment, business, financing and various areas of real estate.

“Everybody is waiting around for the rates to go down and it looks like they’re going to,” Barr said.

A deep understanding of clients’ business is the most important element of satisfying their needs efficiently, said Brian Johnson, the Lexington-based group chair in the South litigation practice for Dickinson-Wright, a Detroit-based firm with 475 lawyers in 19 offices.

“We know our clients’ businesses in depth, including in areas that we’re not actively representing them on at the moment,” Johnson said. “The reason for that is things happen really quickly now. If a client has an issue pop up in an area that we’re not directly involved with, we still want to be able to jump in and address that for them.”

The efficiency that results is a quality the 13-person Lexington office prides itself on, he said.

“We’ve been pretty successful in expanding our work for clients to a regional or national basis by doing good work for them here,” Johnson said. “Costs are certainly much better than they would get from Chicago and New York law firms.”

Clients always want quality legal skills but also efficiency, he said, so they understand that from a cost perspective, they benefit from a team of a few younger attorneys working with an experienced colleague.

From startups and mom-and-pop businesses to Fortune 100 members, Johnson said there is demand for intellectual property work that ranges from traditional protections to emerging areas arising from artificial intelligence.

There is also an increase in litigation. The upturn in cases going to trial—“that’s not just here in Lexington, we’re seeing that everywhere”—is a product of backlogs that grew when the COVID pandemic had many face-to-face courthouse activities restricted, he said.

Fundamentals remain important

An effective modern law practice still requires mastery of traditional fundamentals.

“The ability to work as a member of a team is an underrated and highly valuable skill, especially in a field such as law, where it is easy to fall into an every-person-for-themselves mindset,” said James H. Frazier III, managing member of McBrayer. “This is a holdover from traditional ways of practice that have been part of the industry for generations. What a team effort does in a law practice, however, is to delegate each piece of a matter to the right attorney, so each matter is handled efficiently and at a reasonable cost.”

Grahmn N. Morgan, Lexington office managing partner for Cincinnati-based Dinsmore, echoed the efficiency theme in business-related practice.

“With more than 120 attorneys in our Kentucky offices and 750-plus across the country, Dinsmore has a wide reach and can assure our clients the attorneys working on their cases have the right legal and industry experience to resolve their matter as efficiently as possible,” Morgan said.

Dinsmore ensures its attorneys meet with one another regularly to discuss what they are working on, locally and in distant departments, he said, so they have the insight “to be able to immediately point a potential client to someone in the firm whose experience is suited to solving that client’s problem.”

Morgan recommends clients confirm attorneys working on their matter have the legal and industry skill required to address their issues. The knowledge and work to litigate a contract dispute, acquire or sell corporate assets, or negotiate a deal can vary greatly depending on whether the client is an individual, large corporation, farm or hospital.

Business man and lawyer looking to the business contract and learn for sign contract paper

“Seek out attorneys who ‘speak your language’ and understand the nature of your business, not just how to answer a complaint or fill out a form,” he said.

“That means always looking beyond the asset acquisition or current piece of litigation to consider how what we are doing for clients impacts those clients’ larger goals,” Morgan said.

Communication is key

Ellen A. Kennedy, a bankruptcy, corporate and equine partner attorney with Dinsmore, said data security has become a big priority for clients because legal relationships often include very sensitive personal and business information.

Dinsmore is constantly upgrading and monitoring its systems to ensure all the data it manages is protected, she said. Clients are increasingly interested in real-time access to information on their cases and Dinsmore offers a number of platforms in which clients can access case-related documents whenever they like.

“At the beginning of an engagement, we ask a lot of questions about how our clients prefer to get information and how often they want to receive updates on our work,” Kennedy said, noting that good communication is perhaps the most essential skill in creating effective legal relationships.

“The request I get from clients is that we be highly communicative and that we are very transparent with the cost and what we’re actually doing, so they can understand it as best they can and plan for us,” said Zach Bahorik, partner at Frost Brown Todd and co-lead of Venture Law team, based in Cincinnati.

For the startups and early-stage companies that the Venture team deals with, Bahorik said, the essential message is “that we will get to know your business inside out and we are here to be an advisor for you.”

The efficiency of legal services is perhaps most important for fledgling operations, whose resources tend to be limited and must be maximized.

After the initial idea stage—which can benefit from legal input but does not require it—the second phase is early-stage formation.

“In that stage, you certainly do need legal, but in a very limited fashion,” Bahorik explained. “You don’t need all the legal things at once. Companies at that stage have pretty strict budgets. They don’t have a fully formed product probably. They almost certainly don’t have revenues.

“You want to target and be surgical with the way you approach their legal needs as opposed to throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s about identifying top priorities, doing those in the most efficient way possible, and then mapping out for them, ‘Here are the things you’re going to need leading up to and getting to the revenue stage, which is the next stage.’”

What to ask an attorney 

When selecting a legal team, Bahorik says the vetting process is relatively basic: Look for someone who has experience doing the type of work you need, understands your goals, and is able to be a strategic partner.

Most attorneys can prepare documents, but a good fit is somebody who can strategically talk you through how to get from A to B and then what legal work needs to be done to get there.

“That’s the vibe that they should be getting from their counsel,” Bahorik said. “The client should feel the attorney can put themselves in your shoes and help chart a path, answering questions like: What should I be looking at here? What should I be seeing down the road that I can’t see because I’ve just never been there before?”

When working with entrepreneurs who are starting a company, Bahorik said the two main areas attorneys must focus on are intellectual property and correctly establishing the kind of business structure needed.

“In determining whether we are the ‘right fit’ with a prospective client, we think it’s important to discuss the prospective clients’ ultimate objective and then collaborate to develop the best strategy to achieve that objective,” said Brian Wells, partner and an executive committee member in the Lexington office of Wyatt Tarrant & Combs. “We find that creating alignment on strategy leads to a successful attorney-client relationship more often than not.”

The 125-plus attorneys at Wyatt’s five offices cover the gamut of business practice: contracts, dispute resolution, employment, intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcy, startups, finance and more.

“In 2024, the firm is getting lots of questions about artificial intelligence, data privacy and security, and the Corporate Transparency Act,” Wells said. “And real

estate transactions continue to be a strength for our firm. We’re hoping inflation will continue to cool, which should ultimately reduce interest rates and increase deal flow, in both the corporate and real estate markets.”

“As the economic conditions hold,” said Frazier, the McBrayer managing member, “we’re seeing upward trends in most every area of practice concerning business, from corporate transactions to employment law to litigation. We are seeing excellent growth in our economic development practice, which is picking up tremendous steam in assisting with site selection, incentives and more for several projects throughout the state.”

Seeing growing opportunity, McBrayer recently opened a new office in Frankfort, which will focus heavily on clients interacting with state government and its agencies, from regulatory and licensing issues to investigations and state constitutional challenges, “all of which we believe will see an increase in the coming years,” Frazier said.

“What clients want is a positive outcome coupled with great value,” he said. “We have the experience and the bench to provide services from our most experienced practitioners, but we use a team system to ensure that clients are getting the best service at the best price. It is this collaborative model that drives our client economics—great work, great value.”