The specialists

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm

Finding the right law firm to handle the right situation is a lot like picking the right doctor. For general day-to-day matters, a general practitioner is best. However, when specific legal matters arise, a specialist is often needed. And the more serious the specific matter is, the greater the need for a specialist.

In early 2005, it became obvious to the owners of Super Group Packaging and Distribution that they needed a specialist. Based in Merrill, Wis. at the time, Super Group produces woven, non-paper bags.

In the late summer of 2004, Neil Bretl and Mark Resch, owners of Super Group, approached a much larger company that they believed could help them bring their product to market. They met with officials from Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., a publicly traded Chicago-based maker of packaging products. Smurfit-Stone is one of the largest makers of paper bags in the world.

Super Group Packaging had technology and connections to create woven polypropylene bags, and the company was looking to partner with a larger firm to bring the product to a wider market. Smurfit-Stone had an established network of customers, which Super Group believed would want its new bags.

The new bags were stronger, lighter and could be printed on easier than traditional paper bags.

That November, the companies entered what Bretl and Resch thought was a five-year contract to produce bags. Bretl and Resch took Smurfit-Stone officials on a trip to China and Taiwan, where they met a network of suppliers.

However, by February 2005, Smurfit-Stone told Super Group Packaging that it would not proceed with the five-year agreement. Unbeknownst to Bretl and Resch, the larger company’s officials had gone back to China and Taiwan to create their own arrangements with the overseas suppliers.

Because Super Group Packaging and Distribution was much smaller than Smurfit-Stone, it needed help. The company needed a law firm experienced in complex business litigation.  It turned to the Milwaukee firm of Kohner, Mann & Kailas S.C. (KMK), which has a lengthy history of business litigation in Milwaukee and around the country.

The law firm pursued the case, eventually winning a verdict of more than $4 million for the upstart company.

“They (Bretl and Resch) were wise enough to realize they needed to talk to a lawyer,” said Robert Gegios, an attorney and shareholder with the firm. “We understood what the points were, how to do discovery quickly, knew where to look and where to present the claims.”

Finding the right law firm to represent Super Group was key to winning the case, Bretl said, because of KMK’s experience.

“Any business owner likes to think that they’re really smart,” Bretl said. “A lot of things that (the attorneys) did and said didn’t make sense at the time. But (at trial) they made a tremendous amount of sense.”

KMK has 20 lawyers working out of its office at 4650 N. Port Washington Road in Milwaukee. KMK specializes in business law, only handling matters related to commercial interests, including litigation, sales and secured transactions, loans, construction lien and bond claims, issues relating to bankruptcy and receivership, antitrust, contracts and leases, security, mortgage foreclosure, and recovery of commercial debt.

KMK has argued cases across the United States, in the Netherlands, in Japan and other countries.

Founded in 1937, the firm has always targeted commercial service, said Steve Kailas, attorney and managing shareholder with the firm.

When selecting a law firm, business owners need to ask specific, targeted questions related to the kind of work that will be needed, Gegios said.

“It’s important that in the interview process you’re asking questions and looking for compatibility and experience — someone that can understand your issues,” he said. “Lawyers come in different models and you have to determine if the law firm or lawyer will be compatible with you. Dedication is vital, just like it is for the owner of a small business.”

When selecting an attorney, talking about fees up front is a good idea, especially for owners of small companies. In the early stages, an hourly fee may be appropriate, but it might be smarter to switch to a contingent fee if a court case becomes inevitable, said Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton, another KMK attorney and shareholder.

“It’s like being at the doctor’s office – people never talk about fees with their attorneys,” Pendleton said. “Small-business owners need to get over that when they talk to their lawyer. They should talk about options, including hourly, a contingent fee or a mix of the two. They should not be reluctant to raise the topic up front. It can make a big difference in the outcome.”

Only a small percentage of legal conflicts, between 2 and 4 percent, actually go to trial. Most matters are settled out of court, usually to avoid court costs and high attorney fees. However, small companies need to have attorneys who are willing to fight matters in court when necessary, KMK attorneys said.

“A large company thinks no one will want to go to trial against them,” Kailas said. “(Your law) firm has to have a record of being able to take a case to trial.”

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