Leonard Bellavia, senior partner at Bellavia Blatt Andron & Crossett PC in Mineola, could have followed in his father's footsteps and created a mega car dealership for Long Island. But his father advised him to head into franchise law. "No lawyer that my father hired was ever really able to understand the intricacies of the franchise business," Bellavia said.
After law school, Bellavia worked at large Long Island firms to gain trial experience, and then, at age 26, he launched his own firm by offering legal services to car dealerships for $100 a month.
"There weren't many lawyers that really did automobile dealership law or franchise law, so once I established a foothold, I was able to leverage that to get more clients," said Bellavia, 55, who still offers a flat monthly fee for his services.
The firm calls itself the "David vs. Goliath" law firm; Bellavia said he finds ways to cluster small business owners together in "mass action" lawsuits to level the playing field against Fortune 500 firms.
What legal issues do car dealerships face?
The big issue is always the tug of war between the owner of the local dealership and the carmaker ... My job is to push back and assert the rights of the small business owner.
Is there room for pushback?
There is. Rather than fight the manufacturers on what I call a foxhole-by-foxhole basis, we get large groups of similarly aggrieved franchise holders to form a consortium and fight back with a single lawsuit. There's strength in numbers, and it's more cost-effective because legal fees are kept in check. And you get a lot of momentum, because the trade press is more likely to carry a story about 100 franchise owners fighting back.
Saab is no longer producing cars in this country, and about a year ago they stopped paying dealers what they were owed for warranty claims and sales incentives. We represented all of the nation's Saab dealers in the Saab bankruptcy, and the bottom line is Saab had to stop selling cars in this country. Now my clients are getting paid everything they're owed. [Last week, Bellavia filed a suit against Carfax on behalf of 150 used-car dealers, claiming the provider of vehicle-history reports is violating antitrust laws.]
How is the Long Island market different for dealerships?
The costs of running a dealership on Long Island are much higher than they are in other parts of the country. It's a very competitive market because the consumers on Long Island are very sophisticated and savvy. They know what they want and how much they should be paying. So no dealership really makes huge profits off car sales. They make their money on developing people relationships so their customers come back for service and refer other relatives and friends.
Always dress professionally, resist the temptation to get swallowed in by this casual culture, be willing to work hard and come up with creative solutions. And then, for me at least, I like lawyers that communicate. If six hours go by in a day and I don't hear from that lawyer through either text or email, I'll assume he's not working diligently, or not smart enough to know I need to hear from him.
Some say it's a bad time to be a lawyer. What do you think?
With the difficult financial market, many people who were headed for MBAs in finance have opted instead to get law degrees. So the industry is flooded with lawyers. That doesn't mean that lawyers will not be successful. Find a niche, an area of the law that you like, whether it's matrimony law, environmental law, elder law, tax law. Don't be a generalist, because it's very difficult to do well as a generalist. What happens then is you never really become good in one area of the law.
NAME: Leonard Bellavia, senior partner at Bellavia Blatt Andron & Crossett PC in Mineola
WHAT IT DOES: Represent franchisees and small business owners against corporate giants; clients include thousands of auto and boat dealers across the country.
REVENUE: $6 million to $7 million