As I have preached for so many years, boards of directors of community associations sometimes think that their job is to spend as little money at whatever cost. This carries over to the retention of legal counsel, and sometimes, their decision is prompted by a misguided simple comparison of billing rates alone and/or an affiliation between their managing agent and “its attorney”, which is frequently an attorney with whom the management company is clearly associated, but is retained by the association which pays for his or her services.
Finding the best legal counsel for your association requires a higher level of inquiry and detail than a search for a snow removal or landscaping contractor. I submit, and experience has shown, that there are five factors that are paramount in choosing the best community association attorney for your association.
First is integrity. Does the attorney have a reputation of being ethical? Do they have the traits that lawyers, judges and other professionals look for in terms of integrity? Often, that is a nebulous concept that clients do not think to consider. What has been the employment history of the attorney? Where did they learn their trade, and how did they treat their employers and other employees? Are they ruthless in leaving employers, taking their wares, soliciting their own firm’s clients, impinging upon the very fringes of ethical requirements? Or do they recognize the nuances of treating employers and other lawyers with proper respect and appreciation? Do they talk out of both sides of their mouths according to who is listening? If that lawyer does not have the attributes of proper integrity, you are likely to suffer in your relationship with them as a client. In short, integrity is indispensable to the successful practice of law and the successful representation of any client, and you should make every effort to determine as much as you can about the integrity of your prospective attorney.
The second “In” that should be considered is intangibles. Look at the experience and reputation of your prospective attorney in the legal community. Are they recognized as an expert in their field? Have they achieved fellowship in the College of Community Association Lawyers of the Community Associations Institute? Intangibles such as writing books, writing articles, and being recognized as an expert in community association law means the judge and the opposition recognize that you have hired a well-known and respected attorney in your field. For example, circuit court judges have literally recognized me on the record as the “condo king”. If you are looking for a criminal lawyer, you are not going to hire someone who doesn’t have a reputation of getting criminals acquitted. If you are going to hire a community association or condo lawyer, you obviously want to hire the very best that can serve the needs of the Association, recognizing that he or she may get a better result in less time simply because they are recognized as an expert in their field. The experienced lawyer who has the reputation of being a leader in the field in community association law will be the best suited to resolve your issues more expeditiously and more effectively than someone who might be just as smart, but doesn’t have the reputation or experience. Of course, one of the intangibles that also should be considered is the length of time that the attorney has been representing community associations and his or her success rate in doing so.
Some management companies will suggest that you work with “their attorney”. The independence of an attorney who is not absolutely reliant on recommendations from management companies is also a factor to be considered. If an attorney is too dependent on a management company for business referrals, will they be able to represent your association’s best interests? I can personally testify to many instances where I have observed attorneys that have prioritized their intertwined business relationships with management over what is best for their clients.
Independence also allows an attorney to correctly identify and recommend several good management companies to an association client that requests a referral. So, this works both ways – if your attorney pushes hard for a certain management company, this also may be a red flag.
This ten-dollar word means “never showing any sign of getting tired or of relaxing an effort.” While there are certainly exceptions, it has been widely observed that members of the baby boomer generation are known for their value of honest hard work in tireless pursuit of their goals. This may be contrasted with attorneys belonging to the millennial generation, which may be less willing to be patient than other generations in terms of demanding advancement in their law firm. Some argue that they will do whatever is necessary to promote their careers with the minimum amount of labor involved. That is not to say, of course, that every millennial lawyer fits the bill, but it has been the experience of many elder lawyers that millennials sometimes do not have the trust level that one would hope in dealing with the practice of law, the employment loyalty of these millennials and/or the obligations of lawyers not to directly solicit clients of other attorneys.
INexpensive bottom line cost
One concept that experienced board members will understand is that you cannot simply look at an attorney’s billing rate to determine who is the most affordable or inexpensive. What may take a less experienced junior associate several hours to complete may be completed in a fraction of the time by a more experienced principal attorney. Billing increments of a tenth of an hour as opposed to a quarter of an hour can also make a big difference.
Additionally, we have recently become aware that after a period of certain newer associate attorneys trying to offer hourly rates drastically lower than ours in order to gain business at whatever cost (while claiming we were more “expensive”), they have given up on that approach and have raised their rates so as to be virtually indistinguishable from our firm’s associate rates. Additionally, our legal assistants have more years of experience working with community associations than most community association lawyers currently practicing in Michigan. Given that our collective experience far outweighs those of our competitors, we expect the right choice has never been more clear.
Simply stated, these are the “INs” that need to be considered by board members in choosing the best attorney to represent their interests, keeping in mind that board members’ acts and omissions are subject to scrutiny, and they should get the very best talent that they can reasonably obtain to represent the interests of their members, which is their fiduciary responsibility.
By Robert M. Meisner, Esq.