Relationships and Expertise Equal Better Client Outcomes
There are two professionals every business owner eventually needs: an accountant and a lawyer.
For entrepreneurs just starting or already running a small business, many may wonder if they need a business lawyer. Those beginning with little extra capital to spare may think to hire an attorney experienced with business matters only when they are confronting a legal issue.
Instead, it’s helpful to think of retaining the services of a trusted legal adviser as a cost of doing business that can save money and help your business over time.
The four business law attorneys profiled agreed prevention is the best way to avoid paying considerable attorney costs at a later point in your business, especially if a legal mistake results in additional costs and consequences. A consultation arrangement with a business attorney can provide the business owner with legal guidance on almost every aspect of their enterprise, from basic zoning compliance and copyright and trademark advice to formal business incorporation, lawsuits and liability.
An Enduring Legacy of Integrity
Langley & Banack, Incorporated
Attorneys and Counselors at Law
745 E Mulberry Avenue, Ste 900
After growing up in a mill town in northern Maine, practical considerations drove Catherine Stone to pursue a career in law. Following a long career as a judge, she retired for six weeks before returning to the law firm where she tried her first big case — Langley & Banack.
“I served as a briefing attorney at the Fourth Court of Appeals for a one-year term upon graduating from law school at St. Mary’s — law school is what brought me to San Antonio,” Stone said. “I met my husband going to college in Massachusetts; it was my Texan husband who brought me to Texas.”
Once she finished law school, there was no question for Stone of leaving San Antonio. She loved its diversity, the military presence, its vibrant culture and the friendliness of its people. After working as a lawyer for almost 12 years, she served on the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio for nearly 21 years, the last six years as chief justice. She judged civil and criminal cases appealed from lower courts in South Texas and the Hill Country.
Back at private practice at Langley & Banack, Stone heads its appellate practice group, in which she practices in many areas of law, including business law. As both an appellate lawyer and an appellate judge, she draws upon her varied legal experiences.
“As a judge, I enjoyed the mix of the academic study of law and the practical application of law in various cases I judged,” Stone said. “As an appellate judge, you rule on everything, from criminal cases to business cases large and small, so there is great exposure to businss in that regard.”
After decades in San Antonio, Stone uses her extensive knowledge of how businesses both large and small navigate the legal landscape in her practice. “I’ve learned so much every single day, I feel that my work as a lawyer is not unlike my work as a judge,” she said. “I see the human element driving all aspects of business law, since it’s always about the people behind all businesses, regardless of a company’s size.”
Talking to the retired judge, one quickly realizes Stone considers her ability to help others challenge injustice as one of the privileges of possessing a law degree. Over her long legal career, Stone has developed a reputation as a fair professional practicing law with integrity.
“I give people the benefit of the doubt—it’s the best I can give you as a client,” she said.
It’s no surprise the first piece of advice Stone offers anyone starting a legal career is to “remember no amount of money is worth losing your good name. Once you start your practice, find a mentor with a good reputation, not just in the practice of law, but someone who is compassionate as well. People are honored to be asked to be a mentor.”
Personal Relationships, Foundation for Success
Barton, East & Caldwell
700 N. St. Mary’s Street, Suite 1825
For Dawn Finlayson, her father, noted Dallas lawyer Fred Bruner, drew her into the practice of law.
As she was growing up, Finlayson’s father ensured she had a front-row seat to history. At 17, she accompanied him to the U.S. Supreme Court, listening to his arguments on behalf of his client, the physician in the Roe v. Wade case. Her father also represented Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who shot and killed President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
An accomplished litigator, Finlayson focuses her practice on employment law. Her clients include all types of businesses, including large publicly held companies, large and small private corporations and various types of governmental entities. She represents companies and government agencies at every level of employee negotiation and dispute, from the drafting of employment agreements and employment handbooks to the representation of companies before local, state and federal administrative agencies, as well as employment-related litigation.
Finlayson attended St. Mary’s Law School and decided to stay in San Antonio with her husband, who is a native. She started her career in the federal court, working for then-federal Judge William S. Sessions, who would go on to become the FBI director in the Clinton administration.
“My work on the federal court led to my focus in employment law because so much of employment law is federal law oriented,” Finlayson said.
What strikes Finlayson about practicing law in San Antonio are the deep roots of the legal community and how much relationships matter. Building these enduring relationships takes time but pays dividends.
“People know they can trust me, and I know I can trust them,” she said. “It’s less expensive for the clients, too, because what you are working toward is a resolution of the client’s issues. Building relationships means there are better outcomes for the clients.”
Representing so many companies in employment legal cases, Finlayson advises business owners to be proactive. “The growing pains of a startup are, in many cases, avoidable,” she said. “It’s better when you can work with business before the ‘big bad thing’ happens to avoid those problems.”
She meets many clients once they’ve made a legal mistake, which becomes an expensive lesson, a one-time event before they understand the proper way to operate the enterprise.
“Find counsel with whom to work on a daily basis, a trusted counselor who can guide your business through its different stages,” Finlayson advised. “Your counsel can direct you to the appropriate specialized lawyer if you need it, much like your doctor would refer you to another specialist.”
For lawyers starting their careers, Finlayson recommends they consider taking a government position because one can focus on an aspect of federal law and develop an expertise. That initial government experience can take you far, especially if you look for mentors. “Look for people of integrity and knowledge—choose wisely whom to work with, especially when you first start,” Finlayson suggested.
Understanding ‘No’ To Get to ‘Yes’
Dykema Cox Smith
112 E. Pecan Street, Suite 1800
Katherine Noll has a broad-based federal income tax practice focused on a diverse range of complex tax issues, including business transactions, executive compensation, employee benefits and tax-exempt organizations. She understands well business needs, given her work in the finance industry before law school, including several years’ work at a commercial bank.
As she advises businesses on strategic tax issues in mergers and acquisitions, formation of business ventures and asset and stock dispositions, Noll has developed a reputation for her innovative solutions to negotiating complex tax codes. Representing individuals, closely held businesses, publicly traded corporations and tax-exempt organizations in IRS audits, as well as handling federal and state administrative appeals and litigation in U.S. Tax Court and U.S. District Court, she understands there is more than one way to approach a complex tax issue.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Noll went to Baylor University as an undergraduate. Afterward she worked in Dallas doing financial analysis, then commercial lending, in an institutional bank. That experience led her to law school and a master’s degree in tax before returning home to San Antonio.
As a tax lawyer Noll works to build a rapport with her clients and in negotiating with the other parties involved. “By understanding the other side, I can negotiate the best outcome for my client,” she said.
As she continues to work on regulatory issues, Noll finds herself focusing on the root causes. “I’m the one looking to know why,” she said. “If I get a ‘no,’ I work to understand the ‘why’ behind that ‘no’ answer. If I can change the variables going into that ‘no,’ I know I can change the outcome.”
At the Dykema Cox Smith law firm for her career to date, Noll understands that “more than in other towns in Texas, relationships are imperative to establish if you’re practicing law here in San Antonio.”
As for new lawyers, Noll would recommend they focus and develop strengths. She leveraged her analytical skills into a tax law practice. “Figure out what differentiates you from everyone else,” she said. “I’m known as ‘the creative solution lawyer’—once you figure out your value proposition, you can focus on how to best use your strengths in order to be successful.”
To do well in business law, one must first understand how businesses work in order to help clients understand their business needs. While it may be overwhelming at first, learning business operations in order to practice business law is part of becoming a seasoned attorney.
“Remember not to be intimidated when you first start in law,” Noll said. “The expert in anything was once a beginner.”
Invested in Successful Client Outcomes
Sasha Begum and Juanita Peláez-Prada
Begum Peláez-Prada Law
5826 Interstate 10 Frontage Road
Sasha Begum has over 10 years’ experience in domestic and international corporate matters, working for large companies assisting startups from inception through the growth stage and beyond. She started her career at Bracewell & Giuliani’s Houston office, where she worked in real estate, infrastructure and oil and gas companies. From there she moved to Baker & McKenzie’s and spent the last six years working as Cardtronics’ associate general counsel before deciding to start her own firm in San Antonio.
Juanita Peláez-Prada counsels clients in civil litigation matters, including business and commercial disputes, labor and employment matters, family law disputes and intellectual property and trademark controversies. Her experience as a litigator serves her in assisting and counseling her clients in legal compliance, assessing risks and developing strategies for avoiding litigation. She also assists corporate clients with general business issues, including corporate formation and dissolution and contract negotiations.
Peláez-Prada and Begum’s long-standing partnership started as a friendship while they were still in high school. Each has a decade of legal experience and can offer business clients Peláez-Prada’s litigation and real estate experience, while Begum addresses corporate and transactional law. A third lawyer in their firm specializes in immigration law.
The two decided to start their own firm in 2016 while on a play date with their respective young sons, who are each 4 years old now. An added strength they possess is that both are perfectly fluent in both Spanish and English, thus able to cater to Mexican nationals who need legal counsel for their businesses and immigration issues.
Both eagerly agreed that in order to be a partner in your client’s success you should be able to speak their first language and understand their culture. For Begum and Peláez-Prada, being bicultural and bilingual are assets to their legal practice in San Antonio.
Peláez-Prada spoke about how her family moved to San Antonio from Dallas because they found San Antonio to be a welcoming city with a rich cultural heritage.
Begum, born and raised in Brownsville, attended high school at Saint Mary’s Hall, where she met Peláez-Prada. What prompted her to pursue law was her mother’s negative experience selling her business and using a lawyer who did not represent her business interests well.
“My mom had cancer and needed an attorney to sell her business,” Begum said. “She was not protected from business liabilities in that sale, but she didn’t know any better. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone else, so I walk my clients through the entire process so they know what to expect and they understand what they are signing.”
Begum’s advice to those starting out is to remember to leverage the skills acquired in your legal education: “You can use your legal education in many ways because law school teaches you to think critically, and that can be applied to many professions.”
Peláez-Prada points out how San Antonio is a unique market for lawyers because of the importance placed on maintaining relationships. She advises, “Think of being more than a lawyer— in essence, you are a partner with your clients, helping their businesses prosper and succeed. We’re invested in their outcomes, and I would recommend anyone starting out approach their practice in much the same way.”
By Iris Gonzalez
Photography by Martin Waddy
Footnote: After the publication date, Katherine Noll joined Chamberlain Hrdlicka, a law firm specializing in tax law.