Monthly Archives: June 2008

A pro bono project

Each week I will highlight a different case or legal happening, and solicit your thoughts on the impact of it in the legal community.

The Northwest Side Housing Center’s Affordability Gap Loan program is a loan product that reduces the amount a family owes on their home by up to $50,000. The homeowner can finance out of a loan with predatory characteristics, and into a quality mortgage they can afford for the long term.

Eligible homeowner must live in zip codes 60634, 60707 (Chicago portion), 60639, 60641, 60647, 60651, and 60618; and meet certain income guidelines.

During the 15-year term of the Gap Loan, the homeowner makes no payments on that loan. After 15 years or upon sale of the home or refinance, the borrower is responsible for repaying the amount of the loan plus a percentage of the appreciation.

The housing center will work with qualified applicants to refinance by obtaining quality mortgages more suited to their incomes. The gap loan is used to make up the difference between the loans since the new mortgages tend to be for lesser amounts – based on what the applicant can truly afford as well as the reduced value of most homes.

The program will make more than $500,000 available to homeowners facing foreclosure, and whose original loans had predatory characteristics.

There is also an incentive for paying it off early in the first five years.  Housing counseling is also a key component of the program.

Chapman and Cutler partner John Hitt, who provided legal services on a pro bono basis to the housing center, said he helped structure the program and draft the loan documents.

The legal legwork turned out to be fairly complicated, Hitt said. They tried to find similar programs around the country, but could not find any.

Residents of Chicago’s Northwest Side has been especially hard hit by the housing melt-down, with more than 1,700 home foreclosures started since 2007, an increase by over 500 percent in the past 15 years, according to the law firm’s press release.

The first loan closed about a month ago, and everyone involved hopes the word will get out about the program so that others take advantage of it, and so other financial institutions are encouraged to participate, Hitt said.

“I think it’s particularly gratifying for a couple of reasons,” he said. “We’re trying to use this program to get funds to help keep people in their homes and help stabilize the neighborhood, and that is obviously a good thing.”

For more information about the Gap Loan Program, please contact Liz Caton at (773) 836-1179.

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Q & A with Gary I. Levenstein

Each week we will pose these three questions to different lawyers in the legal community.

This week we talk with Gary I. Levenstein, senior partner and executive committee member at Ungaretti & Harris. He chairs the corporate, securities, and finance group, and oversees the business practice. He has been practicing since 1976.

— What do you find most interesting about your practice?

I truly enjoy learning about various industries, understanding the business operations of clients, being an instrumental player in a transaction and working with intellectually stimulating clients and attorneys.

However, the most exciting part of the practice is recognizing an opportunity that may be of interest to one of my contacts and playing matchmaker. I spend a great deal of time and have made numerous introductions of buyers and sellers to one another, financing sources and borrowers to one another, investors and companies to one another, and advisors and clients to one another. This is done as a courtesy to our contacts, and results in legal work related to any transaction that may occur. In the event nothing results from the introductions, our contacts feel that we have thought about them, and brought them a viable opportunity. Any time that you can spend with a client and leave a positive impression is beneficial.

A good example of this activity took place last year. We represented a buyer of a casino and time-share project in the Caribbean. The financing was handled by a large investment bank from New York. While that deal was proceeding, another client needed financing to acquire a gaming license and convert a racetrack to a racino (race track/casino facility). We introduced the investment bank to the developer. The introduction resulted in a debt financing of over $500,000,000. Obviously, this was an interesting, fun, exciting, and profitable situation.

— What makes a good lawyer?

I have frequently said that a good lawyer is equal part technician, businessperson, psychologist, and actor.

These qualities apply in all areas of law. Strong skills are the foundation for any lawyer. It is best to combine that ability with business acumen so a client can receive creative, well-rounded consultation. Also, a party on the other side of a deal will realize that you understand the issues from all angles. This should expedite the negotiation, which will inure to the benefit of the client. In order to properly communicate advice or handle negotiations, you should be able to analyze and understand the personality and character of your client or the other party.

All good lawyers have some bravado. The ability to perform from time to time could be very helpful under certain circumstances. A good lawyer does not confuse taking the stage and displaying unbridled ego. A good adage to remember is that many lawyers can deliver the sizzle, many lawyers can deliver the steak, but the most successful lawyers deliver the sizzle with the steak.

— What is the biggest legal news right now and what is its impact?

The news in the legal community is the effect of the economy on the practice of law. The activity of the practice is directly related to the state of the economy.

A strong economy will result in hiring and competition for talented attorneys. A weak economy may cause the elimination of certain positions and restructuring of firms. Firm management must deal with this delicate balance. If management is too quick or too slow to react, a financial issue and a morale problem can occur. A firm does not want to alienate its lawyers or cause alarm.

On the other hand, if things don’t change, then the firm moves backward. There are several keys for law firms to use in order to handle difficult economic times other than attempting to increase revenue and cut expenses. It is important for the leadership to strongly encourage attorneys to push work down to the lowest levels when appropriate and spread it among the lawyers as evenly as possible. This will keep most of the lawyers reasonably active so they do not become dispirited.

Senior people should spend their time marketing, recruiting lateral candidates, giving speeches, writing articles, and training. Firms can use this period to alter their strategy and target industries that remain vibrant and have sustainability during these periods. It is not easy to remain upbeat but the economy will ultimately recover and the firm could emerge in a strong position.

Schiff Hardin receives award

 Each week I highlight a different case or legal happening, and solicit your thoughts on the impact of it in the legal community.

Schiff Hardin received the “Lend a Hand” award from the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, Inc. on June 11 at the BWLA’s 2008 Board of Directors Installation and Awards Reception.

Schiff Hardin received the award for its support of the BWLA this year. In addition to being the sole platinum sponsor of the BWLA’s 2008 spring luncheon, the firm also provided graphic design support for events and hosted the BWLA’s scholarship board meetings.

Schiff Hardin partner Tracy A. Campbell and Schiff Hardin associate Marla Shade Harris were installed as a board member and recording secretary of the BWLA, respectively, at the installation ceremony. Schiff Hardin partner Patricia Brown Holmes is a past president of the BWLA.

Campbell said Schiff Hardin has always been supportive of the BWLA, and it’s become a natural alliance.

The organization started out as a way to help African-American lawyers connect to discuss issues, and find support professionally and personally, she said. It has evolved to also include a greater outreach, and tries to give back to the Chicago community.

“The larger Chicago community, in general, knows more about the organization and knows more about black lawyers,” she said. “[The organization] works in almost every legal realm, from large firms to small firms to public interest. We are sort of everywhere. While it is important for us to achieve personal success, it is also important to give back to the community.”

A Life Sciences Practice Group

Each week I will highlight a different case or legal happening, and solicit your thoughts on the impact of it in the legal community.

Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg recently launched its new Life Sciences Practice Group, which serves those clients within the life sciences and high technology industry. The practice group works with these clients from discovery and development onward through clinical testing and regulatory approval to sales and marketing.

Partner Diane J. Romza-Kutz is chair of the new practice group.

Members of the practice group counsel the firm’s life sciences clients in the areas of corporate, finance, intellectual property protection, clinical development, federal regulatory pre- and post-approval issues, compliance, commercialization, and risk management (including litigation).

The life sciences industries the firm serves include the following: pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical devices, biologics, veterinarian medicine, food, dietary supplements, over-the-counter medicines, cosmetics, and animal feed.

Romza-Kutz, who made the move to the firm in mid-February, said creating this practice group allowed the firm to put different pieces together to create an even better service for clients.

“The life science industry continues to grow at a pretty rapid pace, and will continue to grow going forward,” she said. “A true life sciences practice is one that really covers the gamut.”

Romza-Kutz said she enjoys watching a product go from its research and clinical stages to fruition, and likes knowing that it will benefit others.

“It is exciting to watch the interplay in the industry, the alliances that form, the relationships and joint ventures that form in the industry,” she said. “The industry continues to morph. You have to always monitor it. It is always a challenge to stay up on the changes in the industry.”

Q & A with Anita Wilson

Each week we will pose these three questions to different lawyers in the legal community.

This week we talk with Anita J. Wilson, who has been practicing since 1996, and is vice president and chief employment counsel for TreeHouse Foods in Westchester, Ill.

— What do you find the most interesting about your practice?

Labor and employment law is dynamic. It’s always changing and developing.  I can’t remember the last “exciting” estates and trusts case, but there are always new laws and case law developments in labor and employment. These laws and cases are not just interesting from a pedagogical perspective — they have real social and political impact.

For example, look at the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. where the Court ruled that an equal pay claim under Title VII must be filed within 180 days of the specific action that set the discriminatory pay, regardless of its ongoing and continuing discriminatory impact on the employee. That case causes a real shift in how employees and employers look at their pay and really causes one to question the essence of pay discrimination and how it manifests. That’s fascinating and just doesn’t get any better than that.

— What makes a good lawyer?

First and foremost, a good lawyer really enjoys the practice and profession of the law. Secondly, a person who is detail-oriented but also has the ability to see the big picture makes a good lawyer. And a good lawyer is solution- rather than activity-oriented. The best lawyers I know don’t think in terms of motions and what to file — they think in terms of problems and focus relentlessly on how to solve them.

— What is the biggest legal news right now, and what is its impact?

I think the 2008 presidential election is the biggest legal news right now. The next president will probably appoint the next one or two justices on the Supreme Court. The appointment battle alone will be impactful.

Green Marketing

Each week we talk about a different legal happening or interesting topic that impacts Chicago lawyers.

Goldberg Kohn’s Climate Change and Resource Conservation Group and Edelman’s CSR and Sustainability Group will present, “The Dos and Don’ts of Green Marketing: What You MUST Know Before Advertising that Your Company is Green.”

Many businesses feel the need to emphasize the environmental benefits of their products and services, according to Goldberg Kohn. Terms like green, eco-friendly, sustainable, or carbon-neutral may appear in a company’s advertising, but it must be ensured that the company understands the rules that apply to “green” marketing claims.

Michael Manuel, a principal and head of the firm’s Climate Change and Resource Conservation Group, said people treat this topic more seriously, and a growing awareness exists that businesses must be careful about what they claim.

“If you are trying to promote yourself as doing something that people perceive is beneficial, you have to back it up,” Manuel said. “People are looking closely at the claims, and [green marketing] is getting more scrutiny.”

Gerald Jenkins, a principal and member of the firm’s climate group, said the seminar will provide people with a tool kit that gives them guidelines about how to answer questions about what they can or cannot say concerning green marketing.

State and local laws, and the Federal Trade Commission, which has held several recent town meetings on this topic, have established rules on this area, Jenkins said. And the FTC plans to provide more extensive guidelines on green marketing.

The seminar, he said, “will give people a feel about what we think the FTC is going to do.”

It will give people a feel for the landscape of what can be said and the possible risks involved, Jenkins said. Some companies address this topic more than others, he said. People involved in the marketing of products are often very interested.

“We will give people not only the legal requirements, but also some practical and reputational [advice],” he said. “Something you might do may be technically legal, but it might embarrass you later.”

For information on registering for “The Dos and Don’ts of Green Marketing: What You MUST Know Before Advertising that Your Company is Green,” contact Paulette Yanow at paulette.yanow@goldbergkohn.com.

Jenner & Block pro bono work

Each week we profile an interesting legal happening or interesting lawyer in the legal community.

A Jenner & Block pro bono team was recently honored with a proclamation by Downers Grove Mayor Ronald L. Sandack for its efforts in helping preserve the Blodgett House in Downers Grove, which was an active stopover point on the Underground Railroad and helped a number of slaves find their way to freedom.

According to the proclamation, “the years leading up to the American Civil War, the Blodgett House was the home of local pioneer family Israel and Avis Blodgett and a well-documented station on the Underground Railroad — the route leading from slavery to freedom.”

Partners Barbara M. Flom, Ronald B. Grais, and Michelle M. McAtee, associate Kris Tina Carlston, and former associate Jose R. Rivera provided pro bono legal advice to the Downers Grove Heritage Preservation Corporation, a non-profit formed to preserve the Blodgett House, which was built in 1846 and remains one of the oldest houses in the village.

The house is being moved on a site within a public park, and the organization plans to convert the space into a cultural, educational, and historic museum focusing on the home’s role in the Underground Railroad. The legal team helped form and tax-qualify the organization, secured the donation of the house, and arranged for its transfer to public land.

“It’s really very much like setting up a small business,” Flom said. “There is a lot of very basic pro bono transactional work to be found. But oftentimes it’s narrower than it could be and less interesting than it could be. Unless you have solid support from your firm, it is very easy for the individual lawyer to say, ‘I can’t make the investment because I don’t have the luxury to spend a few hundred hours’ … There are interesting projects, but sometimes you have to be open to taking on more than just a narrowly defined role.”

In this situation, Flom said, the people involved in this project contacted her. She worked with them in the past, and has built a strong history with them.

“As you become more involved, you become aware of other issue, other aspects of the project where you can provide some benefit,” she said.