Hit hard by the recession in 2008, Atlanta’s economy is on the rebound — but slowly. Jobs are expected to grow by 1.5 percent this year, according to the Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Center. At the same time, the real estate market, which suffered a particularly brutal punch during the downturn, is showing signs of strength. The forecasting center, which anticipates the city will recover through an unhurried climb, has predicted that housing permits during 2013 will increase by 9.9 percent.
That would be good news for Atlanta’s legal community. While many lawyers, especially at larger firms, have kept above water with work doled out by the city’s biggest companies — including The Coca-Cola Co., Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc. — an improving economy would bring more legal work from startups and midsized companies.
The Atlanta metro area’s population is about 5.4 million people, and the city proper has about 432,400. To get a sense of Atlanta’s legal market, consider this: It ranks eighth among U.S. cities in terms of attorney employment — about 3,000 — at the nation’s 250 biggest firms, according to The National Law Journal‘s annual survey of the nation’s largest law firms. Among those NLJ 250 firms, 44 have Atlanta locations, and the percentage of lawyers from those firms working in Atlanta is 2.4 percent. The average headcount in the Atlanta offices of NLJ 250 firms is 68.
For a perspective on how the city’s legal sector has weathered the recession and is positioned for a regrowth, the NLJ spoke with Linda Klein, managing shareholder in the Atlanta office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.
Klein, who in 1997 became the first woman president of the State Bar of Georgia, practiced at Atlanta’s Gambrell & Stolz when it merged with Baker Donelson in 2007. She has worked in Atlanta for her entire legal career, since 1983. The remarks that follow have been edited for length and clarity.
NLJ: How would you describe the economic picture in Atlanta right now?
Linda Klein: Not as robust as it had been, but it’s definitely coming back.
NLJ: What does that mean in terms of legal work?
Klein: The corporate mergers-and-acquisitions lawyers were slow in the Atlanta region. That work was fueled by real estate development before the recession. We used to say the official bird of Atlanta was the crane. But it’s coming back.
NLJ: Besides real estate, what else do you see as a positive development for the region?
Klein: It’s pretty amazing. I see articles and various publications that talk about manufacturing moving back from China to the southern United States. Kia Motors has a Georgia plant and Chattanooga [Tenn.] now has Volkswagen [manufacturing]. There’s plenty of labor and employment law that comes with those kinds of employers. The real estate lawyers and bond lawyers are busy whenever a job like that comes to town. It also means state and local government work.
NLJ: What other kinds of legal work do you see in the future for Atlanta lawyers?
Klein: International business is growing. The Atlanta airport is a major hub. You can fly just about anywhere in the world from here. The work is inbound as well as outbound. Also, people keep saying intellectual property litigation is slowing down. We haven’t seen that at all.
NLJ: What kind of IP work is hot?
Klein: Pharmaceutical-industry stuff. There’s also entertainment work — sports figures and the record industry.
NLJ: What kept the Atlanta office of Baker Donelson busy through the tough times?
Klein: Our mortgage litigation service team has been busy representing lenders. The work comes from a combination of issues brought by plaintiffs against the mortgage companies. Twenty-one lawyers are in the practice group.
NLJ: Besides Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and UPS, what other big companies in Atlanta do law firms rely on?
Klein: We have 14 Fortune 500 companies. There’s Turner Broadcasting, The Home Depot, Cox Communications.
NLJ: How would you describe the way these companies distribute their legal spend?
Klein: I’d say they spread it around, but there are companies that have long-term relationships with some firms, like Coca-Cola and SunTrust [Bank] with King & Spalding.
NLJ: Speaking of King & Spalding, what other law firms do you consider part of Atlanta’s history?
Klein: Rogers & Hardin; Parker Hudson Rainer & Dobbs; Bondurant Mixson & Elmore. There was Powell Goldstein, but Bryan Cave took over that firm [in 2009]; Alston & Bird; Kilpatrick [Townsend &] Stockton.
NLJ: Have you feared losing clients to big firms moving into Atlanta?
Klein: There was DLA Piper [in 2006], but the New York firms never came to Atlanta the way they went to Dallas and Houston and the Florida market.
NLJ: Why not?
Klein: The market hasn’t supported hourly rates of those firms.
NLJ: If I were a young lawyer and wanted to practice in Atlanta, what area of the law would you recommend I focus on?
Klein: Anything that has to do with finance.
NLJ: So, you mean banks?
Klein: Anything that has to do with financial institutions. Most of it is on the liability side, and lending has started up again.
NLJ: What problems linger from the downturn in the region’s economy?
Klein: We have 70 percent of lawyers [in Georgia] in the metro Atlanta area, and 70 percent of poverty is outside metro Atlanta. We’ve got a problem. We have all our lawyers in Atlanta and all the pro bono need outside of Atlanta.
We can’t get lawyers to the places where they’re needed. Layer on top of that the problem we have with all these young lawyers being underemployed.
Leigh Jones can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.