I was interviewed recently for an article outlining tips on how to choose the right attorney to represent a community association. Specifically, the reporter wanted to know which qualities I thought might be crucial for a successful relationship.
Most of us have been taught how to pick the right piece of fruit or what to look for in a mate but picking the right attorney, accountant, engineer or other professional? I suspect that many of us choosing these professionals work off of referrals, word of mouth and gut instinct. All of those avenues may lead you to the perfect fit but I would suggest that the following are also some qualities/credentials that a board would want to seek in an attorney to assist their community:
● Knowledge in this area of the law. How many years has the attorney been working with community associations and what percentage of his or practice is devoted to the representation of community associations? 5%, 50%, 100%?
● Does the attorney or the firm for whom the attorney works represent any other clients that may have conflicts of interest that could impact the community? I have seen community associations dumped as clients when their law firm also represents a developer, bank or other entity with a competing interest since those entities are often seen as the source of more "lucrative" work.
● Has the attorney ever served on a community association board? It usually helps create a sense of understanding and empathy when an association attorney has actually sat in the shoes of a volunteer board member. Most of our KG&B attorneys and many of our staff members have sat on association boards which is very helpful in their daily interactions with our clients.
● Does the attorney have the ability to communicate clearly in writing and verbally? It doesn't matter if your attorney graduated from Harvard if no one can understand the advice he or she is rendering. Lengthy paragraphs in legal opinions that could have been written by James Joyce are one tip-off that you might have a problem. I have never seen a potential client do this, but I would suggest asking an attorney to give a writing sample; perhaps an opinion letter with sensitive information redacted. I do this when I interview job candidates and associations should do this to see if the attorney's communication style is a good fit for them.
● Does the attorney have common sense and experience to realize when they are "being played"? Experienced community association attorneys get a sense when one board member is seeking advice that was not sanctioned by the full board but is really a personal agenda item for that director. Similarly, experienced community association attorneys know not to take sides when there are intra-board disputes and remind the board that it is their duty to advise the entire board what can and can't be done within the confines of the statutes and the association's governing documents.
● Does the attorney have a history of disciplinary action with their State's Bar and, if so, for what reason and what was the disposition of those complaints?
● What do other associations have to say about this attorney or Firm's work? Are they on top of the changes to the law each year? What kind of programs and services do they provide to their community association clients?
● What is this attorney's track record in terms of litigation successes if you are seeking assistance on a potential litigation matter? Does the attorney and/or firm give a choice of billing options for litigation including deferred billing or contingency work if your association has limited resources to pursue its rights legally?
Overall, the successful community association/attorney relationship depends on mutual respect, clear communication and clearly articulated goals and expectations.