Charles Dickens once said, “It is a pleasant world we live in, sir, a very pleasant world. There are bad people in it, Mr. Richard, but if there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”
Ah Mr. Dickens speaks the truth. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, lawyers are necessary. Whether a massive condo development or a pocket-sized co-op, buildings need a multitude of experienced, competent professionals on their side in order to remain solvent, harmonious and on the right side of the law. Those pros include a property manager, an accountant, or similar financial adviser, and, of course, an attorney. While all three are obviously vital, attorneys play a particularly important role in keeping litigation at bay and making sure it goes well for the building when the courtroom is unavoidable.
“We’re not money-grubbing weasels,” quips attorney Russell M. Robbins, Esq., the managing partner of the community association law firm of Mirza Basulto & Robbins LLP in Coral Springs. “Getting past that stereotype of lawyers is probably our biggest challenge. We’re there to help.”
Believe it or not, finding and developing a successful relationship with an attorney is similar to finding and developing a successful relationship with the love of your life. That might sound humorous, but it’s quite accurate.
Finding the Right One
When you’re searching for someone to share your life with, friends and family will often try to set you up with someone they know. Why? Your friends and family already knows you, your personality and your situation and they work hard at pairing you up with the right person. You come with a great recommendation. While family matchups have the makings of a mismatched relationship, recommendations from someone familiar with you can be successful.
“Most associations hear about attorneys by word of mouth,” says Robbins. “Someone we already represent knows our service. It’s then up to the board or association to do their due diligence and check into the firm’s qualifications and background.”
Attorney Eric M. Glazer, Esq., the founding partner of Glazer & Associates, P.A. in Fort Lauderdale, says a board will hire his firm based upon a recommendation of someone already on the board. “They can also interview several law firms at a board meeting and the firms get to make a presentation about their qualifications and field questions from the board.”
Think about this initial introduction as the blind date or, in the case of the interviews, speed dating for attorneys. Often, by asking a few basic questions, a board can determine if the firm is the right one for them.
If blind dating and speed dating isn’t right for you, there’s nothing wrong with doing a little advertising. “Most communities learn of law firms through word of mouth, trade shows, advertising and educational programs,” says Donna DiMaggio Berger, Esq., the founding partner of the law firm of Katzman Garfinkel & Berger in Margate and the executive director of the not-for-profit Community Advocacy Network (CAN). “We have certified thousands of volunteer directors to serve on their boards and handed out tens of thousands of our Law and Learning Center Guidebooks which cover a host of topics including collections and foreclosures, legislative updates, disaster preparedness and recovery and construction defects.”
Finding What You Need
Writing perfect personal ads is about telling those who are looking for a partner what you want and don’t want from someone in a relationship. For example, perhaps you want someone to accompany you to the movies and talk about them afterward. If someone responds and states that they dislikes the cinema and know nothing about feature flicks, they probably didn’t have you at hello. On the other hand, someone who responds with ‘I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse,” from “The Godfather” or quotes the infamous scene from “When Harry Met Sally” will probably sweep you off your feet.
An attorney’s firm can sweep you off your feet too if they specialize in building and association issues that will work to your condo or HOA’s advantage.
“You want an attorney with knowledge about all aspects of community association law, not just collections or foreclosures,” says Glazer. “They should have the ability to handle all of the problems that may confront the association, such as the ability to draft and recommend amendments to the governing documents and draft contracts.”
Even if an attorney looks good on paper, there still needs to be compatibility between the parties—managers, the board and attorneys. However, the odds of meeting the perfect person with the first match or the first kiss are low, and you’ll probably have to kiss many frogs before you find your Prince Charming, Esq.
Alex Kuffel, president of Pride Property Management in New York City, urges association boards to be careful of the dreaded attorney-in-sheep’s clothing.
“If you want to kill a deal, hire an attorney,” he says. While that might sound harsh, it’s Kuffel’s personal experiences, he says, that have jaded his response. “Having an attorney available for contract negotiations and vendor contracts is a good idea, but the problem is that lawyers get paid by the hour, so they’ll stretch it out as much as possible,” he says. “For example, a simple standard storage bin agreement is to be written up, but several hours and several thousands of dollars later, they finally get around to it.”
To prevent unnecessary billings, Kuffel says that in his attorney relationships, he makes sure to speak directly and tell the other party about his expectations. “I don’t ask open questions—such as ‘what would you do,’” he says.
Once you meet someone of interest, it’s important to do your due diligence. That might mean checking around and making sure their background is what they say it is.
“Boards and managers should absolutely do their due diligence when selecting a lawyer or law firm to assist them in this very specialized area of the law,” says Berger. “It is important to know how many years of experience the attorney or law firm has had dealing with shared ownership communities and their unique issues. Also, does the lawyer or firm represent entities like developers, banks, insurance companies and others who may have interests adverse to their community someday?
She explains that if a lawyer or firm does represent potentially adverse interests, that community could wind up being dumped as a client in the future in the event of a conflict of interest.
“Since concise communication is so important in the attorney-client relationship, it is never a bad idea to ask to see samples of your legal candidate’s writing,” Berger says. “If the lawyer or law firm produces a blog or articles, those are good opportunities to see if that lawyer or firm’s communication style fits your community’s needs,” she says.
In a relationship, there are expectations on both sides. Who is going to call who? Who makes the first move? There are the same expectations in an attorney-board/management relationship.
“Don’t be afraid to call your attorney,” says Robbins. “It’s better to ask a question in advance, and then find out later that what you did wasn’t right. People think we’re the $250/hour greedy weasel, but the bottom line is that to get you out of the mess you got in might cost tens of thousands of dollars. The phone call you probably wouldn’t even had been billed for.”
Berger agrees and says that, similar to being on a bad date, any time that little voice in your head starts talking that you should call the attorney, “it’s a good sign you should!” she says. “Most problems ensue when boards fail to get their attorney involved early enough to prevent problems down the road. It really boils down to common sense. If the board is going to be taking an action which can subject it to challenge, recall or legal liability, it is wise to contact the attorney for a legal opinion. That legal opinion creates a safety net of sorts so the board cannot be accused of taking rogue, unilateral or foolish actions. The hot button topics that usually require advance legal input include: screening for purchasers and renters, amending the governing documents, passing special assessments, taking out loans, purchasing or selling property, etc.”
Can’t We All Get Along?
Generally, in a building association, it would be ideal for management and residents alike. However, the reality is that even in the best of buildings, there are problems. Residents get annoyed with each other and, although some problems get resolved, some spiral out of control and end up in litigation. When that happens, it’s the responsibility of the building’s attorney to get involved—maybe.
However, Glazer says there’s no question that bringing an attorney into the mix raises the stakes. “The reason is simple,” he says “Now the attorney’s fee has to get paid. Once an attorney is involved, a small case can become a large case pretty quickly and both sides want the other to pay the attorney’s bill. If neither agrees, it’s on its way to court, arbitration or mediation.”
When an association gets sued, Glazer says it’s the association’s general counsel that must make sure that the association notifies its insurance company immediately of the lawsuit and demand both coverage and a legal defense. “At that point, the association’s general counsel becomes somewhat of a bystander, as counsel appointed by the carrier steps in to defend the association,” he says. “When one resident sues another—there is nothing for the association’s attorney to do unless the association is eventually brought into the suit as a party or if the association is served with a subpoena for records or for attendance at a deposition.”
Breaking Up is Easy to Do
However, sometimes it’s necessary to admit that the relationship isn’t working, and you need to sever ties and move on to a new and healthier relationship. In Florida, it’s legal to break up with your attorney anytime you’re not happy. “Florida law says that you don’t need to keep the lawyer at any time,” says Robbins. “But our retainer has a 30-day termination policy so we can get out of the cases we were involved in.”
In any endeavor, successful relationships take hard work, understanding and communication from both sides. And if all goes well, the ending could be happily ever after.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator.