Say what you will about the legal profession, mighty CEOs no less than newly minted college graduates need educated fighters who dicker and bicker and shout and squabble so they don’t have to. The conventional wisdom is wise indeed: Nobody likes lawyers until they need one.
Odds are you are going to need one. Whether you’re working out a deal to lease new office space for your business or threatening legal action against your upstairs neighbor because an overflowing bathtub flooded your condo, you’ll eventually require expert legal assistance. In the office, at home, because of a sudden interruption to your everyday life, or because a chronic problem just keeps getting worse, you’ll want an attorney’s advice.
There is indeed a direct correlation between major life events and lawyers. In the world we all live in, our rites of passage are typically accompanied by legal issues—even where there is no evident “problem.” Employment lawyers are good folks to talk to if you’re getting a new job or being promoted. You’ll talk to trusts and estates lawyers if you make a million or a bankruptcy lawyer if you lose your shirt. Getting divorced obviously requires a lawyer but, in the age of the prenup, so too does getting married.
Even if you manage to avoid retaining and paying a lawyer directly, you’ll feel their influence. Attorneys have reviewed the contracts you’re offered, approved your employee manual, gone line-by-line over that 20-page real estate lease, or overseen financing for the new bridge you’ll drive across on your way to work.
It’s no wonder, then, that the practice of law itself has become highly specialized and that nearly every genus of daily life is inevitably enmeshed—for better or worse—in a legal web of some sort. Some attorneys, for instance, simply focus on real estate transactions, handling everything from financing and purchases and acquisitions to leasing and joint venture agreements, for everyone from big-time developers to individuals buying their first condo.
What can seem like a straightforward transaction, a basic sell-buy arrangement, can actually become fairly complicated as mortgage contingencies, engineering inspections, and the extent of any repairs is bargained over. Is that crystal chandelier in the dining room staying, or will it be replaced with a cheaper lighting fixture? Will the drapes remain? What if the sellers want to stay in the home for a few more months until their new place is ready? What happens if the bank is moving slowly in approving the buyer’s mortgage? What if lightning strikes and the place burns down before the purchaser has even moved in? Suddenly, a seemingly simple transaction becomes much more involved. Add to the mix the emotions of both buyer (perhaps investing her life savings) and seller (whose attachment to his about-to-be former home may lead to some foot-dragging), and tensions can escalate. Of course, with a good lawyer, many potential pitfalls can be avoided before they even rise to the level of being a problem. Much can be hammered out during the contract-negotiation phase, when buyer and seller flesh out the specifics of their agreement. “The contracts are there to protect your interests, not to waive them,” explains Samuel Zylberberg, a partner in the New York City office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
In a booming real estate market, there are plenty of deals for real estate lawyers to negotiate. But during a downturn, a real estate lawyer’s work becomes that much more important. “When the market is great, everyone keeps buying and selling and everyone is happy,” Zylberberg says. When the market shifts downward, however, “contracts get tested and loan agreements get tested because borrowers go into default,” he explains. Especially in those situations, it’s that much more important to have gotten good counsel in the first place.
Living—and Resting—in Peace
Domestic “deal making” is also a legal potpourri in any number of ways. “There’s been no slowdown in divorces,” says Eleanor Breitel Alter, a partner at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman in New York City. There are even a fair number of repeat clients and “some recidivism,” says Donald Frank, a partner in the New York City office of Blank Rome. Before walking up the aisle in the first place, some people prefer the safety of a prenuptial agreement to protect them from what they darkly suspect is inevitable. “I used to see prenuptial agreements in second marriages, but I’m seeing a lot more of them in first marriages as well,” observes Frank. Prenuptial agreements are increasingly popular among young professionals, Alter reports. Some people even want to do agreements in the middle of a marriage, she adds.
Partnership contracts are not just for the married and marriageable. “People sometimes want to have agreements if they are living together but aren’t married or can’t be married,” Alter explains. Gay couples, for instance, might “want to make arrangements that are binding with respect to children or finances,” she says.
Domestic law doesn’t have to be contentious. Having a baby “is very often…the first impetus for doing a will,” says Jay Waxenberg, a partner in the New York City office of Proskauer Rose. Other major life events, such as marriage, a parent dying, a big inheritance, or simply buying a life insurance policy may also trigger the sudden desire to have a will, Waxenberg adds.
“There is not a lot of litigation compared to the number of people dying and the number of wills admitted to probate,” Waxenberg says. (Tell that to anyone who has bickered with siblings even when their parents have made very clear, very equal provisions.) At the same time, you “very often” do have “valuation issues when dividing up an estate equally,” Waxenberg adds. How do you value a family business, for example? Or a work of art? “This is a very people-oriented practice,” Waxenberg says of his line of work. Helping people determine when to give money to their children, at what ages, and how to structure the gift, is all part of his job.
Our rites of passage are typically accompanied by legal issues.
“You have to write your will assuming you are going to die tomorrow,” Waxenberg says. And don’t let it gather dust, he advises. Come back to it every now and then as circumstances change. Your sister-in-law, once a happy stay-at-home mom, might have gotten divorced and no longer be in a position to serve as guardian for your four kids. Your brother in California might be the most responsible candidate, but suppose your kids are still young teenagers when tragedy strikes. “Faced with the trauma of both parents dying, they’ll then be uprooted from their friends and shipped to the West Coast,” Waxenberg notes. That’s not a legal problem, he observes, but, then again, the best kind of lawyering looks beyond strictly legal considerations. Business lawyers help clients with their businesses. Personal lawyers help clients with their personal lives. For example, provisions on behalf of the guardian should sometimes also be inserted into a will, advises Gideon Rothschild, a partner at Moses & Singer in New York City. After all, someone taking on your kids might need a bigger house and a bit more money. What’s good for the guardian is good for the children.
“You don’t want to leave things to chance,” Rothschild adds. “You can name a backup guardian. Some parents like to name their own parents as guardian but at some point those grandparents may not be able to handle the job.” Naming an alternate is almost always a very good idea. “Trusts and estates law is more than just wills,” Rothschild says. Healthcare proxies, powers of attorney, guardianship proceedings, and setting up trusts are part of the mix. “We add significant value to the process,” Rothschild says, especially since part of his job is “to minimize the estate tax the heirs are going to have to pay.”
Uncle Sam, of course, isn’t the only threat to one’s assets. Nor is it just your heirs who might be bickering for bigger pieces of the pie. Lose a big lawsuit—say, if you’re a doctor nailed in a malpractice action—and your assets could be in jeopardy. Trusts and estates lawyers like Rothschild help protect your life’s earnings from any future creditors via offshore trusts and similar instruments.
Legal snafus can emerge while you’re still living, of course, and the workplace is a prime place for them. Tired of that guy in accounting asking you out on a date? Offended because the mailroom staff keeps telling dirty jokes within earshot? “Clients consult with us for a variety of reasons,” says Laurie Berke-Weiss, a partner at Berke-Weiss & Pechman in New York City. It doesn’t have to be as momentous as a wrongful discharge, or race and age discrimination. They might just have a mean boss and are looking for ways to make their lives less unpleasant, Berke-Weiss notes. Sexual harassment is likewise not always the overt scenario with a leering boss compelling sexual quid pro quos for job security or advancement. Far more mundane improprieties could get a second look from a lawyer’s eyes.
At the high end of employment law, you might need a lawyer to vet your contract. New York may be an at-will employment state, but top executives, high-profile editors in the publishing industry, and diverse Wall Street-types are often fortunate to have formal employment agreements in any event, according to Miriam Clark, a partner at Ritz & Clark in New York City.
An employee presented with a noncompete agreement might likewise want an attorney reviewing the arrangement. Noncompete agreements “seem to be more prevalent than in years past,” Berke-Weiss says. They might also be relatively clandestine as they are often buried in the employee handbook or stuck within a deferred compensation plan, Clark cautions.
Other workplace problems that arise might concern disability or leave issues. Wage-and-hour matters, which typically involve disputes about overtime work, are also increasingly prominent and are sometimes fairly complex if, for example, employees feel that their reclassification as supervisors is just a ploy to exempt the company from paying extra money for extra hours, according to Berke-Weiss.
“There’s been no slowdown in divorces.”
Privacy issues also come into play, usually because employees are unaware of how little privacy they have. “Employees don’t necessarily understand that the desk and the equipment belong to the employer,” Berke-Weiss says. That can be problematic in a variety of situations. For example, if you’re leaving the company for another job, you may have kept all sorts of personal information on your office computer’s hard drive. Those residues of personal life and personal opinion actually belong to the employer.
Separating from your employer, whether voluntarily or not, may involve additionally vexing legal concerns, not the least of which are trade secrets—which, quite understandably, employers will fight hard to protect. Fights can also break out over ownership of customer lists, Berke-Weiss notes. If you’ve been canned and offered severance and a separation agreement, you might want to have a lawyer look at the document before you sign it. Taking the short money now may disserve you and your family in the long run.
The most amicable conclusion to a job—like retirement—deserves full legal review as well. There are frequent pension-related problems that arise both during employment and afterward, advises Julian Birnbaum, a partner at Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard in New York City. A pension plan itself might be in jeopardy, or there may be some technical problems in how they’re set up or paid off. Pension plans are sometimes modified and “people want to make sure they are not losing benefits or being shortchanged in a conversion,” Birnbaum says. A labor and employment lawyer can decipher those changes.
Other lawyers focus on protecting their clients when their lives have gone dreadfully wrong. Bad things happen—a car accident, a physician who had a few martinis before surgery, a medication that causes deleterious health effects. The victims want justice and they want money.
“If something happened to them that was someone else’s fault and they got hurt, the first step is to ask a lawyer to determine whether there is a case,” says Walter Alton Jr. of Walter G. Alton, Jr. & Associates.
“The public has become more litigious because they are more aware,” Alton says. Paradoxically, people are now more cynical as a result of media coverage of high jury awards to plaintiffs who look just like them. Yet the vast majority of cases settle for relatively small figures early on, but press coverage of exceedingly generous awards skews perceptions. “That’s the kind of publicity that prejudices jurors,” Alton says.
You don’t want to leave things to chance.
Still, personal injury suits are fights that Alton relishes. “Helping injured people and their families is the best part of my job,” Alton says. “You can make a difference in their lives,” he says. “You can’t bring them back to the way they were, but you can correct a wrong to some degree,” Alton notes.
And that, after all, is what the adversarial system is supposed to do. Next: When You’ll Need a Lawyer as You Travel Life’s Path
Here are some of the reasons you might need a lawyer as you travel life’s path:
Even if you’re vowing to be married forever, consider the other implications of saying “I do.” A bit of legal advice could come in handy—as, of course, could a prenuptial agreement making arrangements should anything go wrong between you and your beloved.
Now might be a good time to update your will, arrange for a guardian for your children, and think about financial arrangements (college tuition, trust funds) for your family.
Getting a Good Job
If you’re fortunate enough to have an employment contract, have your lawyer peruse it. Make sure you’re getting the most you possibly can. What will happen if you’re fired? Is notice required? Severance?
Buying a Home
Make sure you understand just what you’re buying. Are you purchasing “as is,” or did the seller promise to make some improvements?
The better you’re doing, the more you might need the advice of a tax lawyer or trusts and estates counsel to maximize your earnings and minimize your legal vulnerability should things head south.
A bankruptcy lawyer might be needed in the worst-case scenario, but getting some sound legal advice before reaching the brink of financial ruin could mitigate some negative consequences.
Life’s Little Mishaps—Car Accidents, Slips-and-Falls
Accidents happen, and you—or someone who’s come into contact with you—might just be prompted to say, “I’ll sue!”
Even before calling it quits, you might obtain legal advice to protect yourself.
Okay, you won’t need a lawyer if you’re the deceased, but your family may need legal help in administering your estate and transferring your assets to your heirs.