A city long known for thoroughbreds, bourbon and heavy manufacturing, Louisville, Ky., has evolved into a major transportation nerve center (United Parcel Service Inc. is now the city’s biggest employer), a major hospital and health care services hub (Humana Inc.’s home base) and home to the biggest fast-food conglomerate in the world, Yum! Brands Inc.

That diversification didn’t protect Louisville’s law firms from the recession, which cut deeply into mergers and acquisitions and real estate work, according to managing partner William Hollander of 200-year-old Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs. But it has positioned local firms for a nice recovery, he said, particularly as major worldwide clients get more creative about regionalizing their legal spend.

The six-city, 200-attorney firm recently joined AdvanceLaw, a national service linking Fortune 500 law departments to regional firms flexible about alternative fee arrangements. "We’ve moved up with a number of [out-of-area] clients that have decided to use us as lead counsel. Cost structures here are lower, and we’re willing to be more innovative" with regard to staff and fees.

John Crockett III, chairman of Frost Brown Todd, a century-old litigation firm with more than 450 attorneys in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia, sees business improving. "We’ve got reasons to be optimistic," Crockett said. "Deal flow is starting to pick up and there’s been money sitting on the sidelines."

Hollander is watching expansion of Louisville’s health care industry in particular, pointing out that long-term care and retirement living companies like Signature Healthcare LLC and Atria Senior Living Inc. are expanding.

The market has gone through consolidation in recent years, including the merger of Greenebaum Doll & McDonald with Indianapolis-based Bingham McHale last year. — Lisa Holton