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.

See the original story here

John R. Funk Elected Secretary of the High Sierra Lacrosse Foundation

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Gunderson Law Firm Attorney, John Funk, Esq. has been selected to serve as secretary of the High Sierra Lacrosse Foundation.

The High Sierra Lacrosse Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 2007 to develop the sport of lacrosse for all student-athletes in Northern Nevada, Truckee, and the Tahoe Basin. The Foundation is guided by a Board of Directors (BOD) who believe that participation in the sport of lacrosse provides a powerful vehicle for a participant’s personal growth and development. The Foundation believes that the team sport of lacrosse teaches the values of respect, fairness, teamwork, communication, responsibility, truthfulness, non-discrimination, honesty, and integrity. These attributes help develop skill sets in student-athletes that are valuable to our local communities.

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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People you should get to know: Courtney Forster

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WHAT WORK EXPERIENCES LED TO YOUR CURRENT POSITION?

I first began working for Gunderson Law Firm over summer break in college. It gave me a very realistic idea of what the practice of law entails — it’s definitely not like what you see on TV.

WHY DO I DO WHAT I DO

For me, being a lawyer is about being able to help people who can’t otherwise help themselves. A lawsuit can be a very scary and stressful thing for a person to go through, and I love being able to help people navigate that situation.

WHAT BROUGHT ME TO RENO, OR WHY I STAY IN RENO

I grew up in Reno, but I moved away for college and law school. After being gone for seven years, I realized that Reno was one of the best places to live in the country. We have all four seasons, easy access to the outdoors and a big-town spirit with a small-town feel.

WHAT I DO TO LEAVE WORK AT THE OFFICE

Making sure I don’t take work home with me was one of the biggest challenges I had starting out as a lawyer. I had many sleepless nights thinking about my cases and clients. Now, I have two separate phones, a work phone and a personal phone, and I make sure not to check the work phone after about 6:30 each night.

HOW I GIVE BACK TO MY COMMUNITY

I’ve been on the board of the Crisis Call Center since 2009, and I was just elected board president for my second term. I love the work we do at the center; we help so many people in the community through programs like our crisis lines, 211 and Sexual Assault Support Services.

BEST BUSINESS BOOK I’VE READ LATELY

I have to admit, I don’t read business books. It’s part of the way I separate my home and work lives. The best book I read recently was the “Count of Monte Cristo”; it’s a classic and a lot of fun.

BEST PLACE IN RENO TO MEET WITH CLIENTS OR COLLEAGUES

Brasserie St. James. I always want to support local businesses, and their menu is fantastic.

MY LEADERSHIP PHILOSOPHY

You can’t ask people to do something that you aren’t willing to do yourself. Before becoming a lawyer, I worked every job at my firm — photocopying, running errands, you name it. It gives me a much better understanding of how everyone in the office fits together.

NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENTS

I was chosen as a Top 20 Under 40 by the Reno Gazette-Journal and Young Professionals Network this year, which is a huge honor. I’ve also been voted a Legal Elite (top 35 lawyers in Northern Nevada) for the past two years, and I was voted one of the best lawyers in Reno by the Reno News & Review this year.

IF I COULD DO SOMETHING ELSE, I WOULD …

I’d love to be an English literature professor. I was an English major in college, and I wouldn’t mind spending all my time reading and talking about literature.

To view the original article on RGJ.com, click here.

Dealing With Partners: Avoiding Partnership Disputes and Preparing for a Smooth Exit

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By Austin K. Sweet

An age-old adage states: “Friends and business don’t mix.”  The problem is that many people look for the same attributes in a business partner that they look for in a friend.  Friendships and partnerships are both built on trust, common interests, and common goals, and both tend to fail when any of those three factors diverge.  Going into business with your friends is natural and has led to some very successful enterprises as well as some epic implosions.  Properly organizing your business from the outset will help you successfully address partnership disputes in the future and avoid a scorched-earth dissolution of your business and friendship.

Formalize Your Business Relationship.  Many of the worst partnership disputes started with a handshake.  “Handshake deals” are a trial lawyer’s dream because they inevitably lead to some confusion or discrepancy.  We’ve all had that moment when we’re positive we’re right, and our spouse / friend / sibling is positive (s)he’s right.  Neither person is trying to deceive the other but someone is simply wrong.  The same thing happens in business and sometimes the stakes are much higher.  These disputes can be avoided simply by formalizing your agreements in writing.  “Handshake deals” may have been the Way of the West, but so were duels.  Avoid duels.

Another important reason to formalize your partnership is that, if you don’t, the law might do it for you.  In Nevada, legal partnerships can be created unintentionally: if two or more persons carry-on as co-owners of a business for profit, they have created a legal partnership.  Something as simple as pooling your money to buy and flip houses can create a legal partnership with a wide range of legal implications.  Formalizing your business relationship will ensure that you remain in control of your partnership without unknown and unintended legal consequences.

Address the Tough Questions Early.  Entrepreneurs are inherently optimistic people who sometimes have difficulty considering the possibility of getting into a major dispute with their friend and partner.  This can lead to some partners never discussing the uncomfortable topic of what to do when something goes wrong.

A common problem arises when a mentor offers his/her apprentice a great partnership opportunity.  Often the apprentice feels awkward addressing the mechanics of the arrangement or formalizing the relationship, fearing the mentor will take offense and withdraw the offer.  This concern is often misplaced – a good mentor will appreciate your business savvy and be encouraged that you can handle the responsibility you’ve been given.

If your partner still resists, it may be time to reconsider the business relationship.  Partners with fundamentally different views on how a business should operate cannot run a successful business.  Addressing and understanding these differences before it’s too late may save you both substantial frustration and money.

Decide How to Resolve Disputes Before they Happen.  Most business partners get along when the business starts and friends like to form 50/50 partnerships to give both partners equal rights and authority.  However, 50/50 arrangements lead to stalemates: for example, your partner wants to sell now, but you want to hold for six more months.  Absent some method to break the deadlock, this type of dispute can destroy an otherwise successful business.

Ideally, business partners should avoid 50/50 relationships altogether.  However, if you’re adamant about maintaining equal interests, establish a procedure early on for how disputes will be resolved.  It is much easier to formulate a dispute resolution plan while all parties get along than to wait for a dispute to arise.  Consider agreeing upon a mutually respected third-party (or group of people) whom is willing to informally hear both sides of your dispute and act as the tiebreaker. 

No partnership begins with disagreeable, untrusting partners, but some end with them.  Planning for disputes before they happen will save substantial grief and money.  If you don’t plan ahead, someone else (possible a judge) might end up making your decisions for you.

Formulate Multiple Exit Strategies.  All good business plans begin with an exit strategy, but things get much more complicated when partners are involved.  What if your partner wants out before you do?  Will you buy him out, or can he sell his interest to someone else?  What if you don’t have the cash to buy him out?  What if your partner dies?  Will his children inherit his interest?  If so, do you want to be partners with his children?

Including clear and detailed buy-out provisions will help you prepare for unexpected contingencies, allowing one partner to smoothly exit the partnership without ending a longtime personal friendship.  Create a “right of first refusal” to ensure that your partner’s share of the company does not get transferred to someone you do not want to do business with.  Establish a payment plan in the event that you do not have the cash available to buy-out your partner’s interest.  Be very clear about how the business will be valued and how payments will be made.

Always have a primary exit strategy and operate your business with that goal in mind.  However, preparing for the unexpected contingencies that come with adding partners to your business might save your business and your friendship down the road.

Know When Enough Is Enough.  Ugly partnership dissolutions are like bitter divorces: both parties get emotional and take unreasonably stubborn positions on objectively silly issues.  Like divorces, many of these disputes arise from minor disagreements that fester, grow, and eventually consume both sides.  If you feel this downward spiral begin, simply utilize your well-planned exit strategy and get out before irreparable damage is done, either to your business or your friendship.

Austin Sweet is an attorney at Gunderson Law Firm, practicing business law directed at helping business owners stay protected and prosper.  He can be contacted at (775) 829-1222 or asweet@gundersonlaw.com

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.