As economy picks up, Jackson firms are hopeful the worst is behind them

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By Tom Gantert

Legal News

Gilbert Carlson will sometimes strike up a conversation with defendants he meets in court in his role as assistant city attorney for the city of Jackson.

When he asks them if they're working, the answers are different from a year ago.

"Where I used to get, 'No. I'm not. I'm looking.' Now, I'm getting a more positive, 'Yes. I am,' " Carlson said.

Michigan's unemployment rate dropped in April to 8.3 percent after reaching as high as 14.2 percent in 2009 and hovering in double digits for all of 2010 and the nine months of 2011.

Jackson attorneys have weathered the state's worst recession in different ways. Several talked about how the last three years impacted their practice.

Wendell Jacobs, Jr., Jacobs & Engle

Jacobs sees more clients now with the ability to pay than in the past.

"People are seeking out legal advice more than what they have been," Jacobs said. "I do a lot of criminal work. People didn't have the money to come up with retainers. Now, it seems to be a little bit better than it was."

Jacobs said some people even went to court without lawyers, especially with alcohol-related driving offenses.

"They didn't have the money saved up or weren't working," he said.

Phil Curtis, Curtis & Curtis

Business sales and acquisition work at Curtis & Curtis has been down from 2008 to mid 2011, and there was also less work done with retirement plans.

Curtis said that decline, however, has been offset by legal work done by his clients in the manufacturing sector.

"Most of our business related in manufacturing is doing very well right now," he said. "We've been fortunate. What I've seen is that a lot of people that aren't necessarily in the specialty area of the law are probably having a more difficult time. With the specialty area, there isn't the competition."

The fiscal 2011-12 year was very good, Curtis said, adding: "I'm relatively optimistic about where we are headed."

Still, one attorney has left his law firm and the position hasn't been filled yet, he said.

Jerry Engle, Jacobs & Engle

Engle, who does criminal and civil law, including things such as land contracts and landlord tenant, said many people couldn't afford to pay for legal assistance in 2009 and 2010.

"The legal business was there; it was just people didn't have any money to pay for what they needed done," he said. "It is just a question of whether people can pay for it."

Engle said he is seeing more people ready to do legal work they had put aside.

"There has been a change in the ability to pay," he said. "People put off wills and estate planning. They put off divorces. You put off things you just don't absolutely have to do. That is changing."

Sean Carroll, Carroll Law

Carroll, who does a lot of family and criminal law, said his practice hasn't been impacted by the recession, although there is an issue with clients paying all of their legal costs.

Carroll said some clients can pay the retainer, but struggle with later expenses.

"The biggest problem you see is people's ability to pay their balances," Carroll said. "A lot of them don't have the ability to complete their balance."

Eric White, White, Hotchkiss & Falahee

The recession hasn't impacted his practice because it's so varied, said White.

The firm does criminal work, family law and also has many contracts with local municipalities.

White said his firm has contracts with about 10 townships in Jackson County that keep them busy. For some of the townships, the firm does all the legal work. For others, it just prosecutes criminal cases.

"There are certain court activities that go on with the government that requires legal work," White said.

Mark Hashley, Hashley Law

Hashley does a lot of bankruptcy work, so he said his work didn't let up during the recession.

He said he hasn't raised his rates since 2006, but the cost of gas has impacted his bottom line because he has to drive to Ann Arbor for many of his bankruptcy cases.

"Gas prices are up," Hashley said. "I haven't been able to pass that along to my clients. If I jacked the price up, I will lose even more clients. ... I do meet with a lot of people that want to do it and then I never seen them again. Either they found someone cheaper or they don't have the money and keep soldiering on."

Susan Dehncke, Brandt & Dehncke

Dehncke's firm focuses primarily on criminal law and family law. She says the recession didn't really have much of an impact on her business.

"We stayed very busy throughout the last several years," Dehncke said about the three-person firm. "We are a very established firm. Most of our work is referrals."

Published: Mon, May 21, 2012

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