Executive Q&A: Supporting OEMS and Suppliers

Automotive attorney Lynda Hill of Frost Brown Todd talks about legal issues facing the industry

When Lynda Hill started practicing law in Chattanooga in 1998, she had no idea that her
experience representing general manufacturers would someday lead her to primarily concentrate on helping automotive OEMs and tier suppliers.

Lynda Hill, at Frost Brown Todd. Photo by Dallus Whitfield

Hill, who joined Nashville’s Frost Brown Todd in 2012, now chairs the firm’s Automotive Industry Team, made up of 40 industry-specific attorneys, plus another 20 from supporting practices such as environmental and employment. She also recently joined the board of directors of TAMA – the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association.

In recent years, Hill has successfully defended a component part maker of underground fuel distribution systems against allegations of environmental contamination, represented Tier 1 suppliers in contract litigation related to counterfeit automotive products, and served as lead counsel for clients threatened by major supply chain disruptions, among others.

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This year, Frost Brown Todd was the premiere sponsor of the Southern Automotive Conference in Nashville.

Q: Was there a learning curve when you started focusing on automotive law, or was this already an area of expertise?

LH: It was a learning curve. Obviously, automotive manufacturing is a subset of the larger general manufacturing universe, but it’s very unique. It’s kind of a delicate ecosystem because of the just-in-time supply system. It’s a little more sensitive to disruption, but it’s
also the thing that makes it flow really well.

The language of automotive is different than a lot of general manufacturing. Frost had a strong automotive practice when I joined, and I was able to immerse myself in it and learn the terminology, learn how the industry worked, and slowly start developing a practice in that area.

Q: What skillset does an automotive attorney need to have?

Lynda Hill and her colleagues provide legal expertise covering a variety of automotive issues. Photo by Dallus Whitfield

LH: It helps to be passionate about the industry. If you care about it, then you’re going to be better at it. There are a lot of attorneys who have skillsets that would translate into the automotive arena, but if it’s not something that you’re interested in, I think it makes it
difficult to excel at it and to make it a preeminent area of practice.

The other thing is you have to have attention to detail, but also a commitment to get the work done when it needs to be done. The automotive industry never sleeps. There are transactions going on globally all the time. You may need to be working on something at 11 at night. You may have to take a phone call to Japan in the middle of the night. So, you’ve got to be willing to be as dedicated to the needs of the industry as the individuals who are working in the industry.

Q: What types of legal issues do auto companies face right now, and how are those different from when you started specializing in this field?

LH: When I started, we were coming out of the recession, so we saw remarkable growth and recovery in the automotive industry. The recession was incredibly hard on the automotive industry but we saw significant growth [afterward] and we are now leveling
off and even starting to see some decline in sales, which basically creates uncertainty in the industry.

There is also a lot of uncertainty around trade issues as it relates to tariffs and trade agreements. That type of uncertainty can cause some anxiety in the market and the industry. At the same time, that’s kind of a short-term concern. I think long term, the industry is plowing forward with technological advances, trying to move toward more automation and expansion of electric vehicle platforms. So I think there’s a long-term belief
that the industry’s going to be fine and recover and advance and evolve.

Q: How do you spend most of your time at the firm?

LH: It’s never boring. The types of work that I do may involve helping the client in a distressed supplier situation, which can be created by any number of things. The supplier’s financial situation may be poor. It could be a natural disaster, a hurricane, for example. And because of the just-in-time system, disruptions in shipping and production can cause a whiplash effect and ultimately stop production at an assembly plant or OEM.

Photo by Dallus Whitfield

So one of the things I may do in any given week is to help clients work to support the suppliers or to resource their supply to someone else if that’s possible … until they get back on their feet. Or maybe they have to file bankruptcy. I don’t get involved in the bankruptcy piece so much, but I will help if the supplier is winding down and going out of business.

Also, I am involved in litigation. My first 14 years of practice were exclusively dedicated to general business litigation, and I went back to school in 2013 and in 2015 finished my MBA at Vanderbilt to help me better understand the operational aspects of automotive.

Q: What do you consider your most interesting automotive case so far?

LH: I really can’t identify any one particular matter, but I can tell you that any time we can help an OEM or supplier maintain production, that’s a success. When there’s a threat to
production, that’s potentially millions and millions of dollars in damages to them. They have a labor force they have to be concerned with. They have their own contracts they have to satisfy. So helping clients be able to work through that is very rewarding. It’s also very challenging, because it’s usually a situation in crisis mode and, as a result, you sort of work hot and fast and hand-in-hand with the client in order to help them get through those issues.

Q: You are also a Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 Listed General Civil Mediator. How often does mediation come into play in your practice?

LH: I have not mediated any matters in the automotive space, but the training I had is often very helpful in trying to negotiate on behalf of my client, understanding how to read certain situations and how to try to reach consensus. I think it’s a very important tool to have in your toolbox.

Q: You serve on the board of the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum. Why, and what are your goals?

LH: The Southern Automotive Women’s Forum gives me an opportunity to be involved in
something in which I’m personally interested: the advancement of women, and in particular the advancement of women in automotive. I also have the good fortune of it tying into my industry and what I do for a living.

That nexus is sometimes hard to find. I get to work with some fantastic women who work directly in the industry. We work with middle school girls to introduce them to the STEM field and careers in automotive. We raise money for scholarships for young women who are pursuing STEM careers, with an automotive twist in college. And we also provide special development training for those women who are already in automotive who want to succeed and advance. It’s just a great way to scratch my philanthropic itch.

Q: Why did your firm decide to sponsor the 2019 Southern Automotive Conference?

LH: It’s part of our strategic plan and commitment to support the industries in which we work and to become preeminent in our service areas within those industries. We also believe that the best way to help the firm is to support the industry because if the industry thrives, then we will thrive.

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