Hiring the right lawyer to represent your Community Association is an important decision. Does the law firm and lawyer you are interviewing specialize in Community Association Law? How long have they been actively representing community associations? How long have they been in business? Are they intimately familiar with the routine and unique issues facing Community Associations? Is Community Association representation their entire practice or just a portion of their practice? Do they offer options and programs that other law firms and lawyers typically do not?
Like the medical industry, legal representation is highly specialized. Generally, you would not be comfortable with a heart surgeon operating on your brain. However, many Community Association Boards choose to work with Law Firms and Lawyers that are not as experienced and/or skilled as others available in the marketplace. We all know the classic case of someone on the Board who “knows” a friend or family member who is an attorney and suggests that the Association use him or her as legal counsel. Does anyone believe that is a wise choice when considering that the Board has a fiduciary duty to make decisions in the best interests of the membership that it serves?
It is likely that we can all agree that a Board should contemplate legal representation by a well-qualified and experienced Community Association Law Firm and Lawyer. But, how should a Board go about choosing that Lawyer?
- Obtain Recommendations – Management Companies, Community Association Managers and Board Members in neighboring communities are all great resources. You may also consider attending tradeshows and educational events related to Community Associations.
- Research Your Prospects On The Web – Once you have your list of 3 to 5 prospects, go to their websites and learn more about them - their offerings and history. Try to choose Law Firms/Lawyers that you believe would be a good fit to work with your Board and community. If there was one best Law Firm/Lawyer, then everyone would choose to work with them. The best Law Firm/Lawyer for your community may not be best for another community. Narrow down your choices to no more than 3 potential candidates.
- Speak With Them – Call the Law Firm/Lawyer and have a conversation. Are they easy to reach? Are they responsive to your request to be contacted? Are they asking you the “right” questions about your community and its challenges? If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no” - cross them off. If the answer is yes, then………
- Meet With Them – Do they offer a FREE Face to Face Initial Consultation? If so, is that consultation provided only at their location or are they willing to provide a complimentary meeting at a location of your choosing? Were they on time for your meeting or did they make you wait? Were they dressed appropriately? Did they provide you with any information about them or the Law Firm prior to or at the time of your meeting? Did you “like” them?
If you have gone through this process, you can feel confident that you or your legal search committee has taken the necessary steps to choose the right Law Firm/Lawyer for your community. The last question above may seem strange and insignificant when choosing a Law Firm/Lawyer, but how many people in your personal and business life do you associate with that you do not “like?" I hope very few.
The relationship between a Law Firm/Lawyer and client is a sacred one which requires trust and confidence, as well as an understanding that the lawyer is looking out for the community’s interests and not his/her own. There can be no doubt as to your legal counsel’s loyalty.
Many Association Boards choose legal counsel based solely upon price rather than service. A higher hourly rate usually comes with a greater level of experience, and may be well justified if you want the right Law Firm/Lawyer working with your community. In addition, a higher hourly rate does not necessarily mean higher legal bills. A more experienced Law Firm/Lawyer may be able to do the same work in less time which actually translates into a cost savings for your community - even at a higher hourly rate.
A final question that should always be asked of a lawyer when being interviewed is “Who do you represent?” The correct answer is: The corporate entity that is your Association - working through and with its Board of Directors that has been duly elected to represent the interests of the membership.
Choosing an attorney can be a time-consuming process. However, it is crucial that the Board does not make this decision lightly. Hiring a lawyer who meets the specific needs of your Association will save you time, money and aggravation in both the short and long term.
Overall, there is no substitute for finding several well-qualified Law Firms/Lawyers, and then choosing the one that you “like” the most. This will provide you with the best opportunity to create a meaningful, long term relationship… and, avoid the need to reference this article again in a few months!