Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read March 2021 — The Queen City’s legal sector anticipates an uptick in litigation as soon as courts reopen, parallel to a bankruptcy surge as companies run out of recovery options and start looking at the Chapter 11 card. Marty White, managing partner at Johnston Allison & Hord, shares his perspectives on Charlotte’s legal sector.
What were Johnston Allison & Hord’s primary 2020 takeaways?
Most importantly, we were pleased that we had no interruption in client service. We were able to provide high level legal services to our clients in whatever form was needed. For example, under North Carolina law, wills still require a wet-ink signature. We developed a protocol where the client could pull up into our parking lot and stay in their car. We would bring witnesses and a notary to them, get the will signed and off they go. As you might imagine, particularly with the older population, once COVID really set in, there was a move afoot to get estate planning finalized.
We had an extremely successful year revenue-wise. We actually added to our attorney headcount in 2020. We were also proud of the fact that we were able to return to our office as early as June 2020. Our building on Morehead Street has four stories and we’re the only tenant, so we were able to control our environment. We still have not allowed visitors or vendors yet. We have not had any outbreaks to date.
How did the courts adjust to this daunting transition?
The courts have done the best they can, particularly given the limited budgets for court systems. Our firm is a civil litigation firm, meaning we mostly represent corporations and persons who are in disputes over money. We aren’t involved in either the criminal law or the family law subsectors. The civil sector has been slow to open back up in the courts. We’re having motions and hearings by Zoom but there haven’t been any civil trials since March 2020. As a firm and a litigation group, we have a backlog of trials waiting to happen. Whenever that spigot gets turned back on, we’re going to be quite busy.
How did demand for your services evolve throughout 2020?
We were fortunate in that none of our significant clients or even sectors were severely impacted. Our business is just a reflection of our clients’ businesses. For instance, we do a significant amount of commercial construction-related work, whether that is helping with contracts or dealing with disputes. Construction was deemed an essential industry right from the get-go, so our construction clients never slowed down. The presidential election inspired another rush of clients concerned about what may or may not happen with the gift and the estate tax exclusion. We really have not seen a slowdown but, again, that’s only because our clients have not experienced that either.
How did COVID change the dynamics of business interruption coverage and insurance?
Like so many firms, we’re carefully watching that to see what happens. We’re most interested to see if the government decides to step in because you can imagine the insurance industry is going to take a pretty hard line on any such claims. If there is ever a breach in that wall, it’s going to be a flood. At the same time, there are clearly businesses out there that were interrupted, that suffered losses as a result of the pandemic. We have yet to see if that answer is going to come from the courts or if there’s going to be government intervention, but we’re carefully monitoring all developments.
What is your near-term outlook for the firm?
We expect a big uptick in litigation once the courts are able to open consistently and get trials going. The unknown is when we can reliably expect to get back into court. We anticipate that will take place in the latter half of 2021. The other big growth area we are looking at is bankruptcy because many sectors of the economy have been affected by the pandemic. Conventional wisdom is that we’re going to see the floodgates open, particularly when some of the governmental protections expire. We’re strategically set up to handle that. We have a creditors rights group, including a young attorney who just finished a clerkship in the bankruptcy court. We feel poised to take advantage of that market.
For more information, visit: https://www.jahlaw.com/