Lawyers of the Year 2021: Keith Trammell

Patrick Shelby

For many lawyers across the country, the first few weeks of the pandemic were scary, and they were scary for clients, described Keith Trammell, partner with WilmerHale’s Denver office.

Trammell leads the firm’s corporate practice in the state, counseling public and privately held companies and private equity funds on matters including capital markets, mergers and acquisitions and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reporting.

“As a lawyer, as a partner at a big firm, we had a number of big clients really wrestling with existential issues. What do I do… they had all kinds of questions and no answers. And these were very smart, well educated and extremely sophisticated people,” Trammell said.

He described how a savvy group of lawyers and friends, remotely gathered in living rooms or around the kitchen table with laptops open while trying to educate their kids at the same time, all raised the similar question, “how’s our state going to respond?” 

The group collectively asked, “how are we going to hold on?” Trammell said the community all had eyes on Colorado’s tourism and recreation appeal.

Trammell’s colleagues lamented that the vast majority of businesses in the state are small businesses. They fumbled around for a few weeks trying to find partners, allies and people who would not only listen but could use their power of influence to proactively deal with the burgeoning problem.

Trammell said the group struggled to scale up pro bono efforts to address small businesses in crisis in a meaningful way. While Trammell had provided pro bono services throughout his long legal career, the logistics of assisting a struggling statewide workforce and multiple small businesses initially eluded him. 

“We placed a lot of calls and didn’t get a lot of yeses from people. Until the Colorado Attorney General’s Office said, ‘this is a great idea. We need to do something to help the small business community. If you guys can bring lawyers to bare who know how to help, we’ll lend our moral authority to the cause.’ There is not much they could do beyond that, but they certainly got on the bully pulpit and started to scream loudly,” Trammell said.

The legal aid message began to echo soundly. From there, the collaborative group received a helping hand from the Colorado State Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The agency operates a statewide network of 15 small business development centers and provides technical assistance to small businesses in need, but had never teamed up with a legal services aid group, according to Trammell. 

They immediately proceeded to integrate their grassroots information with the network of small business development centers to assist in recruiting similar businesses and identifying people who required their legal help.

Once the information was accessible to the statewide network, the coalition could see a wave of momentum take shape. During the next three weeks, the Colorado Lawyers Committee, a vast network of volunteer lawyers became involved, then the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, bar associations and other large law firms joined in support. 

Originating from a mile-high brand of adventurous resourcefulness guided by a perceptive sense of urgency, the cooperative group launched Colorado Covid Legal Relief website in the summer of 2020 with technical support provided by WilmerHale and the CLC.

At the same time, CCLR figured out how to deal with prospective ethics issues and conflicts while assembling large law firms and scores of volunteers to bear their knowledge and make a positive difference.

“Overnight, we had a platform that integrated with statewide resources that recruited small business clients in need of help, mostly women and minorities, with about 250 volunteer lawyers and 10 to 15 large law firms across the state,” Trammell said.

About 260 small businesses have received legal services assistance, 64% were owned by women and 70% of those women were minorities, CCLR reported. Areas such as understanding business closure orders; how to humanely furlough or lay off employees; renegotiate contracts; public health agency interactions; financial statement preparation; and application for state and federal assistance programs are among the variety of legal aid administered by volunteers.

Organization team members learned quickly there was not much technical assistance available to inform small business owners on how to do things they assumed owners already knew. Members were compelled to become highly knowledgeable in all aspects of small business operations, Trammell said. “It was eye-opening and heartbreaking.” 

Another area identified by Trammell and team members, which vibrated with alarming urgency was the lack of virtually no dividing line between small business owners’ personal and business assets.

Small business owners make personal guarantees on their leases and with their contracts, Trammell said. Many of them work out of their home, entwining their homes and home assets.

Trammell reflected on his important work with the small businesses sector and how the experience and personal involvement has made an insightful impact on him.

“It was helping people save their homes. It was helping people not go hungry. It was on a very personal level, just heart wrenching at times for us to deal with it all.”

According to the Office of State Planning and Budgeting, Colorado’s tourism industry, which supports many of the state’s small businesses, is expected to rebound more slowly than other sectors. By assisting small businesses, the task force hopes to indirectly support the more than 400,000 Coloradans who have filed for unemployment due to the pandemic, according to a June 2020 statement from OEDIT.

“We’ve been working diligently to try and convince lawmakers and policymakers that there is something more they can do, short of appropriating money,” Trammell said.

In an effort to assess the impact CCLR was having, they looked at similar efforts taking place across the country. Their consensus: there was very little legal or financial aid available to small business owners that would position them to recover, Trammell added.

He noted there was plenty of data available on the dot com era of financial collapse and great recession of 2007 to 2009, which indicated it takes small businesses three to five years on average to recover. 

Trammell explained that when small business owners face economic distress, their personal credit often takes a hit. When personal and business assets are intermingled, it may take even longer for small businesses to recover. 

Trammell and his coalition have been frustrated that they have not been able to convince local, state and federal policy and lawmakers to allow small business owners to check a box on a new loan application indicating their credit was adversely impacted by COVID-19.

“And that’s what we’re really screaming from the mountaintops to try and do right now,” Trammell said, who was previously recognized in Law Week’s 2018 Lawyers of the Year issue for his merger and acquisitions accomplishments. “I shake my head all the time, and I wonder and worry: why something this obvious, this easy, is so hard?”

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