Lawyers Who Can Save You in a Bad Economy

Trusts and estates are the specialty of lawyer Judy Lee, of Goodsill Anderson Quill & Stifel.

Photo: Olivier Koning

With the unemployment rate near a 30-year high, tourism in the Islands declining markedly and owners struggling to hold onto their homes, it’s comforting to know that there are legal professionals you can turn to if you find yourself in trouble. These lawyers stand up for your rights, keep your business afloat, help plan for your future and mediate your marital problems. We talked to four on this year’s Best Lawyers List who can guide you through this rough economy. We hope you won’t need their services, but it never hurts to learn from the experts.

Receiving Your Benefits

Losing your job affects much more than your bank account, which is why it’s important to know what your rights are, and whether you were justly terminated and receiving the benefits you deserve. That’s where labor and employment lawyer David Simons comes in. While many in his specialty represent employers, Simons represents employees who have been—or may be—terminated.

“I sit down with them and analyze their situation and find out what really happened and try to understand it emotionally, business-wise and financially,” says Simons, who was licensed in 1977 and has his own practice.

Simons looks over his client’s employee history at the company—reprimands, leaves of absence, employer reviews, reason for termination as well as salary, including benefits, pensions and bonuses—to determine if the termination was handled according to the law. He even meets with the client’s spouse and family, as they are affected by the termination, too.

“You’re very emotional when these things happen, and you should be, but you’re also very subjective, you only see your point of view,” says Simons. “For both of those reasons it’s a good idea to get somebody from the outside who can at least look at the situation objectively with you.”

If you’re working now but worried, Simons recommends knowing where you stand as an employee. He works with clients who feel they might be terminated to analyze the situation and has ghostwritten letters highlighting an employee’s accomplishments to open up communication with their bosses. If an employee has already been let go, he makes sure their severance package is appropriate, and that they receive unemployment payment  (including COBRA insurance) or their pension and 401(K) funds. One thing he doesn’t do, however, is attempt to get the client’s job back. “It’s more efficient for everybody to have the person move on and find another job.”

Attorney Judy Lee likens financial planning to car insurance. “You get the insurance and pay for it every year and hope that you don’t get into an accident, but, if you do, you’re really happy you did pay for it and have it in place.”

If an employee was illegally terminated, Simons represents his client in court. However, wronged as someone may feel by a termination, many of Simons’ clients are legitimately let go, especially given the rough economy. “[I’m seeing] more people being separated from long-term jobs who have good track records,” says Simons.


Bankruptcy lawyer Don Gelber, who has been practicing law for more than  40 years.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Saving your Business

Business owners are also weathering the storm of a bad economy. Don Gelber, a bankruptcy and creditor-debtor-rights lawyer with Gelber Gelber & Ingersoll, works with clients filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to help resuscitate their business.

“Chapter 11 is aimed at giving a troubled company a chance to survive,” says Gelber. “It’s like putting the company in a financial emergency room.”

Gelber recommends filing for Chapter 11 before it’s too late. While most companies carry some debt, there are other indications that a business is floundering. Here are some red flags:

• Your company is unable to make its monthly loan payments.
• Core operational expenses have become more difficult to pay.
• Projected revenue is steadily declining.
• Employees are not being paid.

If any of these are true for your company, Gelber says it’s a good candidate for legal protection through Chapter 11. “The court puts the company on emergency life support by protecting it from actions that its existing creditors might try to take,” he says, for example, seizing bank accounts, foreclosing on property or trying to evict a company from its business premises.

Gelber also helps his clients put together a financial and operational strategy, so that the business can operate during the bankruptcy and successfully surface afterward.

Here are some ways that a business can modify its operations:

• Cut back on optional or discretionary expenses.
• Streamline product lines and locations.
• Lower the prices on the goods or services the company offers.

Protecting the Family Plan

One upside of a down economy—people are paying more attention to money. Judy Lee, of Goodsill Anderson Quill & Stifel, has noticed that more of her clients are putting together a budget or tracking financial statements. “This actually makes the time really ripe to do estate planning, because they have this information available,” says Lee, who has practiced trusts and estates for more than 20 years.

With the waning economy, people might see a decrease in the assets they can pass on, but Lee adds that changes can be made by amending a revocable living trust. “Where a lot of people have seen a number of their investments get reduced in value, it makes sense to be as efficient as possible to pass whatever you have remaining to your beneficiaries,” she says.

In fact, Lee recommends getting started on long-term financial planning whether it’s a booming economy or a devastating recession.

Divorce lawyer William Darrah works with couples whose marriages have fallen off the tracks. To unwind in his spare time, he builds model trains.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Money and Marriage

In addition to affecting your job status, business or investments, a rough economy can also wreak havoc on personal relationships, namely marriages. William Darrah—who has been practicing family law since 1976—helps divorce eight or nine couples a year, and says that finances are one of the top culprits leading to divorce.
Before he represents one of the spouses in a divorce case, Darrah counsels the two to make sure they have exhausted all other options. “My job is damage control. I think of myself as an alpine guide, and we just want to get off the mountain without getting hurt.”
After ruling out reconciliation as a solution, Darrah works with his clients to reach an agreement with which the couple can settle on. “I try to help people get through it as quickly as they can, because the longer it takes, the more it’s going to hurt.”
Another integral part of his work is public education. For the past eight years, Darrah has held free monthly seminars at the Hawaii Supreme Court, designed to help guide couples through money issues in a divorce.

95% of Hawaii's divorces are uncontested

Darrah has noticed that more of the 4,100 couples getting divorced on Oahu every year are electing not to get a lawyer. Instead, they use a mediator to come to an agreement and using the free self-help materials provided by the family court.
Despite his line of work, Darrah isn’t jaded. “I think we were built to marry, we’re happiest when we’re happily married.”