Northern Nevada Business Weekly In His Own Words: Austin Sweet

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Austin headshotNorthern Nevada Business Weekly: Tell us about Gunderson Law Firm and the duties of your position.

Austin Sweet: We do general business law, so we represent a lot of businesses in town for any issue that might come up. Our primary focus is litigation, so we do trial work, contract disputes and things like that. We also help form and dissolve businesses, advise business owners on potential issues that might come up, lease disputes — it’s a pretty wide range of business-type issues. I get the opportunity to handle my own cases, but with bigger cases Mark Gunderson will be more involved and is there to advise and oversee a lot of the bigger decisions. My role includes everything that can be done on a case, which is why I came to this firm. It’s not common starting out of law school that you’ll get that opportunity. I take depositions,argue cases, handle trails and arbitrations by myself, which I really enjoy.

NNBW: How did you get into this profession?

Sweet: I originally wanted to do engineering and in school I was a math and science guy. I wasn’t entirely convinced I wanted to do engineering, so my backup was business, and Washington had a great program for business. I was in the electrical engineering program at UDUB, and it just bored the hell out of me. I took at basic business law class, and at the same time I was taking a logic class. I really saw a big correlation between the thought processes of math and logic and the law. To me, it’s the exact same thought process — instead of taking numbers and plugging them into formulas you are taking facts and plugging them into laws and you need to figure out variables equations to reach a logical conclusion.

NNBW: In your five years of working as an attorney, what’s the most important thing you have learned in that time that helps you succeed?

Sweet: Realizing what I consider an interesting legal problem and what is the best interest of my client. Sometimes you have a fascinating legal dispute, but there’s no reason to charge your client thousands of dollars to go to trial and litigate it. It’s important to keep the focus on what’s in the best interest of your client.

NNBW: What’s been your most challenging case and why?

Sweet: Probably the one I am handling now. We have a major lawsuit that’s spread out over several states, and we are going up against a notorious litigant. It’s really helped me learn the global scope of practicing law and litigation. It’s like a game of chess — you always have to think six or 10 steps ahead and see what they are planning six to 10 steps ahead.

NNBW: What do you like most about your job?

Sweet: The challenging logical work and the variety. Every day is something different and new. There’s always a new challenge and twist to every case and issue and it keeps me on my toes and thinking actively. The second part of it is the people I get to meet. We do a lot of business law, and I get to learn about business, what people do and their passion for it. I really enjoy getting to meet those people and see into their world.

NNBW: What was your first job?

Sweet: My dad was a contractor, so it was working for him. I was doing that when I was five, since I was old enough to know the alphabet and put things in the right order.

NNBW: Tell us about your dream job. Why aren’t you working it?

Sweet: Honestly, I think it’s this. I think if I wanted to do something else I would do it.

NNBW: Have any advice for someone who wants to enter your profession?

Sweet: Try it out first. Get your foot in the door at a law firm, even if you are just working as a runner. Experience the profession first. I went to a pretty pricey law school and I knew a handful of people there in about their third year, after they had done their intensive summer internships that realized they didn’t want to be lawyers. But they were $100,000 in the hole and had wasted years getting a degree they didn’t want. It was hard to see that happen. If you are thinking about becoming a lawyer I recommend going to work at a law firm first.

NNBW: What are your favorite hobbies or pastimes? How do you spend your time away from work?

Sweet: Outdoors with my family. We play a lot of soccer, go rock climbing, skiing, hiking, backpacking.

NNBW: What did you dream of becoming when you were a kid?

Sweet: Probably a professional athlete, a soccer player or skier.

NNBW: If you had enough money to retire right now, would you? Why or why not?

Sweet: I would work less, definitely. I would travel more and spend time with my family.

NNBW: What’s the last concert or sporting event you attended?

Sweet: I went to an Aces game.

NNBW: Where’s your perfect vacation spot?

Sweet: Going somewhere new with my family.

NNBW: Why did you choose a career in northern Nevada? What do you like most about working/living here?

Sweet: I grew up here, and when you leave I don’t think I realized how good Reno is. I got to see Seattle and Boston, and that made me appreciate the culture of Reno and the outdoor activities we have to offer. A lot of my friends work for big firms in Boston, Seattle, Chicago and New York, and they are working 80- to 100-hour weeks. When you come back to Reno, there really aren’t firms like that; I have a good work-life balance that is hard to find other places. I really like the small legal community; you get to know the judges, they get to know you, and it’s a place where you can really build a reputation that can help you with your practice.

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Congratulations, Courtney!

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We are thrilled that our very own, Courtney G. Forster, was one of the recipients of the Reno Gazette Journal and Young Professionals Network sponsored, ‘Twenty Under 40 Awards’. Congratulations from all of us here at Gunderson Law Firm- we had so much fun watching you accept this award! For a full list of 2013 winners, click here.

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Nevada Newsmakers With Courtney G. Forster

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Nevada Newsmakers Tuesday, September 17, 2013

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Host: Sam Shad

Guest: Courtney G. Forster, Esq., Gunderson Law Firm

Pundits: Sean Cary, Vice President, Nevada Matters Media Trey Abney, Director of Government Relations, The Chamber Stacy Woodbury, President, Appearances, LLC

Using and Protecting Your Liability Shield

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By Courtney G. Forster

How your corporate entity can protect you – and how you can protect it

Clients regularly approach me wanting to create a liability shield to protect themselves from personal liability. Most people hear that the best way to protect against personal liability is by forming a corporate entity, but few understand how to go about creating this liability shield or how to use it.

The idea behind a liability shield is that a corporate entity will help protect you from being sued personally when something goes wrong. When used correctly, these entities are a great tool to help you launch a business without risking your personal assets. Unfortunately, all too often small business owners will inadvertently harm or destroy their liability shield through sloppy paperwork, financial errors, and inaccurate bookkeeping. Here are some key tips to keep in mind when forming and operating a corporate entity so you can ensure your corporate liability shield remains strong and intact.

1. Get your paperwork in order.

The first step to forming a corporate entity is creating the necessary paperwork. If you are forming a limited liability company, this will include an operating agreement; if it’s a corporation, it will include articles of incorporation and issuing stock. Either way, you will also need to register the company with the secretary of state. If your company needs a business license or any operating permits or licenses, be sure to obtain those in your company’s name as well. Make sure you have these in place before you do anything else with your company or you could end up liable for events that took place before your paperwork was finalized.

For a relatively low fee, an attorney can help make sure you’ve set up your company correctly and have all the necessary forms. Internet-based companies that offer to set up your company for you often charge the same – or more – as a local attorney and will give you one-size-fits-all paperwork that may not be right for you. You will also need to maintain these records on a yearly basis, including keeping company minutes and renewing your filings with the state. Again, an attorney can help make sure your paperwork stays current and you don’t end up with a gap in your protection.

2. Hold the asset or assets in the company.

Once your company has been formed, make sure you use it! A company is only as good as what’s in it, so make sure you keep the asset or assets in question in the company’s name. For example, if you are planning on renting an office building to tenants, make sure the office building is owned by your company (rather than you individually). However, always keep your personal assets out of the company – this is for business only.

3. Don’t commingle money.

The biggest, and most common, mistake people make is mixing their company’s income or expenses with their own personal income and expenses. You could be out at dinner and forgot your personal credit card, so you charge the meal to your company card. Or maybe you use the company card to fill up your gas tank from time to time – it’s okay because you sometimes run errands for the company, right? Unfortunately, these are classic examples of using the company’s assets for your own purposes. This is the fastest way to destroy your corporate shield and expose yourself to personal liability. Always, always, always keep your personal finances and your company finances separate.

If you have more than one company, the same lesson applies to them – the more you combine finances between the two companies, the greater risk you run of having a court treat the two companies as one entity. Especially in smaller or one-asset companies, the money is usually where the most action is: if your financial records show that you treated the company like your personal bank account, the courts are going to ignore the corporate liability shield.

4. Adequately fund the company.

This rule is basic, but vital: keep enough money in your company for it to operate. If you remove income from the company and leave it unable to pay its debts, the courts may ignore the corporate form. When you start your company, make sure it has enough assets or money to operate, and keep enough funds in its accounts to pay its debts. Don’t forget to also maintain sufficient insurance in the company’s name. Again, this will show the courts that the company is able to operate as its own independent entity and is not simply an empty shell.

5. Maintain accurate, up-to-date financial records.

Careful and thorough bookkeeping will reinforce the idea that your company is its own separate entity. If you borrow money from one company to fund another, make sure that loan is properly tracked, accounted for – and eventually repaid. Don’t forget to file tax returns for each company as appropriate. Again, courts will always look at the way your finances are when evaluating whether your company will protect you as a liability shield.

6. Notify business partners they are dealing with a company.

Another simple, but critical, point to remember is to always notify your business associates that they are dealing with your company rather than you personally. Always use your company’s name on all contracts, invoices, and the like.

7. Remember: a corporate liability shield can only do so much.

Even with the strongest corporate liability shield, no system is airtight. Many banks will require you to sign a personal guarantee when your company borrows money – if your company later defaults on that loan, you will be personally liable for any amounts covered by that personal guarantee. A corporate shield also won’t protect you if you commit fraud or other bad acts in the company’s name. However, if you stick with these basic rules and are careful about maintaining your company’s separate status, you can protect your company while it protects you.

 

Courtney Forster is an Associate at Gunderson Law Firm. She earned her Juris Doctorate from Notre Dame Law School, and can be contacted directly at cforster@gundersonlaw.com or 775-829-1222.

A View Of The TIP Program

A View Of The Transitioning Into Practice (TIP) Program From The Mentor/Mentee Perspective

By Theresa Freeman, Client Protection Manager

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The Transitioning into Practice (TIP) program is well underway; the third six-month cycle began in January 2013. The program replaced the previous Bridge the Gap program with a one-on-one mentorship program that individualizes the transition into practice by pairing each new attorney with a Supreme Court-approved mentor. Mentors and mentees are matched by general interest in similar areas of law and are required to complete a mentoring plan for the program. Portions of the mentoring plan are standardized and require that certain elements be met. However, many elements of the mentoring process are left to the mentor, along with the new lawyer’s input. Mentors and mentees may also customize the plan to suit their needs within their particular area of law. With two six-month TIP pilot cycles completed, most of the feedback has been positive.

 

Mark Gunderson is a small practice owner in Reno and has been in practice since 1979. As an official TIP mentor, and an unofficial mentor to his daughter, son-in-law and various young attorneys, he gives his unique perspective on the TIP program and what can be gained by both mentor and mentee:

“TIP is a forward-thinking and practical way to better prepare new attorneys in Nevada to practice law effectively and ethically. The TIP program very thoroughly and completely addresses many critical practice areas and tasks to better serve new attorneys in becoming effective and ethical attorneys. The interaction required between the mentor and mentee to address the critical practice areas and tasks provides a unique and well suited way to start new attorneys in practice.

In my experience, if both the mentor and mentee approach the required tasks with a positive attitude in a fostering learning environment, a great deal can be gained from the TIP program. That, of course, requires a good faith commitment by both parties. While that may not always be possible, the opportunity is there for a very positive and educational experience.

The days of when new attorneys would largely be mentored in public practice or private practice law firms before starting their won individual practices are gone. TIP fills that gap and provides uniquely tailored mentoring to better serve the new attorneys as well as the public.

As a mentor, it has likewise broadened my experience with new attorneys, their attitudes and approaches, and been a good educational experience as well. In fact, those I have mentored still reach out to discuss their practice issues, which facilitates more than the mere satisfaction of a requirement.”

Mark Gunderson is the founding partner at Gunderson Law Firm and can be contacted directly at mgunderson@gundersonlaw.com or by calling (775) 829-1222.