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Janesville lawyers gear up for changes

Residents are still reeling from the announcement that General Motors plans to close its production plant in Janesville within two years.

That goes for the local legal community as well, as some attorneys are anticipating a temporary shift in several practice areas like real estate and workers’ compensation.

“My gut reaction is there is definitely going to be an impact,” said attorney Steven T. Caya of Nowlan & Mouat, LLP, in Janesville. “In terms of what specifically will happen, we are still waiting for that to shake out.”

More than 750 workers at the plant will be laid off this month, with an additional 96 expected to lose their jobs in September, according to GM. At the end of 2007, approximately 2,700 employees worked at the Janesville plant.

Moving On and Out

While the automotive company reports than more than 570 Janesville employees have already opted for early retirement, Caya and others expect some people will choose to leave the area, rather than look for a new job.

If that occurs, attorneys who do real estate and estate planning could see a change in business.

“I don’t know the numbers, but I assume hundreds of people could be taking alternate positions across the nation,” said attorney Timothy H. Lindau, also of Nowlan & Mouat. “If you have to sell your home in the current market, the laws of supply and demand come into effect there.”

Lindau admits that he is especially interested in what the future holds for business and transactional law, since he recently shifted away from litigation to focus on commercial
work with small businesses.

A mass exodus of people from Janesville and Rock County could dissuade the types of service industry clients Lindau hopes to represent from coming to the area.

“That may provide a disincentive for someone to start a business here and that’s the market I want to gear toward, so the worst case scenario is it could be devastating,” said Lindau, who came to Janesville in 2005.

In addition to former GM employees possibly putting their homes up for sale, Caya said if and when the plant structure is vacated, there may be a need for local legal assistance.

“Ultimately, what will happen to the physical plant will be a huge issue,” said Caya. “What becomes of the land and environmental issues could present some legal challenges, assuming GM does not use the building in one form or another.”

Strong Foundation

Attorney Michael R. Fitzpatrick of Brennan, Steil & Basting, SC, in Janesville, downplayed the possibility of a significant or prolonged disruption for practitioners as the plant winds down production.

As President of the Rock County Bar Association, Fitzpatrick said he has not heard any concerns from attorneys in the county, largely because he figures there will be enough work to go around even when the plant closes.

“It will have a much smaller impact now, than if it happened 30 years ago, because the area is so much more economically diverse,” said Fitzpatrick. “The number of people working at the plant is relatively small in light of the whole population of Rock County and the vast majority of those people will still be here and need legal services after the plant closes in 2010.”

He suggested the change in the number of cases involving family law or real estate issues will be relatively minute compared to number of attorneys in the area, so nobody will see a significant rise or fall in business.

Fitzpatrick said the closure will have a bigger impact on commercial business and he is a member and the only attorney on a recently created “steering” committee to evaluate the economic impact of the closure on the community.

“We know many people who are going to be affected and we’re very sympathetic to their situations, so I plan to help meet their needs on a commercial level and legal level,” said Fitzpatrick.

Lindau said his firm has several workers’ compensation clients who are pondering whether to transfer to another plant.

“Some have discussed being transitioned to a different facility and none of them seem too keen on that,” said Lindau.

Caya, a lifelong resident, has both professional and personal ties to the plant, which his father retired from six years ago.

“This has always been a GM town and there isn’t anyone who lives here who isn’t impacted,” said Caya. “For people who don’t have someone at GM, it’s more psychological that anything.”

Portions of this story came from the Associated Press

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