You might think that any real estate or corporate attorney can handle the matters for a Community Association. But let’s consider this example. Would you go to a podiatrist to have brain surgery? Just as you would not want a foot doctor to perform your brain surgery, a real estate or corporate attorney is generally less sufficiently knowledgeable and experienced to handle matters for your Association. Community Association law has become a very specialized field. A real estate attorney may not be prepared to assist you with Community Association law issues. There are only a handful of attorneys in the Central Florida area that emphasize this area of practice. Hiring and paying to educate an attorney who is not experienced in this area of law can be a costly decision for your Association.
How do you determine who is really a Community Association law attorney? One general rule of thumb is, “Does the firm at least have the experience of representing a substantial number of Associations?” If not, the firm may only practice in this area of law on a part time basis or may be trying to learn this area of law. Your association will benefit from an attorney who practices in this area on a full time basis and already “knows” this area of law.
Do not solely rely upon advertising such as the Yellow Pages or newspaper. As we all know, anyone can advertise anything. Call various sources for referrals, including your local Bar Association, other Community Associations, and Community Association management companies. Always ask for a complete listing of all the attorneys that practice this area of law.
Once you have compiled a list of attorneys, you are ready to start contacting the firms. When calling a law firm, explain to the receptionist that you are a Community Association seeking legal representation, and ask to be transferred to the appropriate individual who can answer your questions. Some law firms offer complimentary presentations to your Board of Directors or your Association, during which they explain the legal services the firm offers. If a firm offers this introductory service, take advantage of it. It is important to establish a rapport with the firm you will hire. Most of the Community Association law attorneys practicing in the Central Florida area have a high degree of expertise in this field. However, no one firm is the “best” firm for every Association. If you do not have a good rapport with your attorney, then all of the legal expertise in the world will not lead to a successful relationship between the firm and the Association.
The next step is to interview the prospective law firms. You should establish a list of standard questions to ask so as to be able to properly compare the firms. It is highly recommended that you ask the same questions of each firm. It is the only way to compare apples to apples.
INTERVIEW THE ATTORNEY. . .
The following are sample questions your Association may want to ask a prospective firm:
- How many Associations does your law firm represent? Remember, look for a firm which has a substantial number of Association clients. If a firm is handling less than 500 clients, then Community Association Law may only be a sideline to their existing practice.
- What is the firm’s area of service (i.e., which counties does the firm service)? Will the Association be charged for travel time? (Note: this is standard in the industry.) For example: If you are in Brevard County and the firm you are interviewing is in Orlando, do you pay travel time from Orlando? Or do you pay travel time from a point within Brevard, such as the firm’s branch office?
- Do you have to go to the firm’s office for meetings, or will the firm come to your Association? It is often difficult for Board Members to go to their attorney’s office, or a law firm may have insufficient space to accommodate a meeting with the entire Board.
- Try to conduct your interview at the firm’s main office, or at least ask to see their office. While there, observe how the staff and attorneys operate. Does the office have a professional appearance? Is there adequate space for a Board meeting to be held at the firm’s office? Will there be adequate parking if a larger group wants to attend a meeting at the attorney’s office? Is that parking convenient and either free or inexpensive? These are things to consider in your decision as to whether a firm is equipped to meet your future needs.
- How many experienced attorneys work at the firm who could assist your Association with legal matters? What background and experience do the various lawyers have to offer?
- What is the firm’s effective hourly rate? Many associations make the mistake of hiring a firm solely by comparing the hourly rates charged by attorneys in the firm. Remember, a lower hourly rate is not necessarily a bargain and is only one factor that enters into determining the legal fees you will be charged and the legal results you will obtain. One attorney may charge $300 per hour and another $175 per hour. However, the attorney charging $300 per hour may be the real bargain because of his knowledge of issues and experience in the Community Association field. This knowledge and experience often translates into less billable time being required to answer a client’s question and/or to accomplish an equal or even superior result. In addition, some attorneys offer complimentary rate reductions and/or may not charge for certain items on their invoices, which reduces the total rate. The sum result of these factors is sometimes referred to as the effective hourly rate. This is a more relevant comparison of what you will be charged. Does the law firm offer any special reduced rate or fixed fee services? There are some firms that offer specially reduced rates for certain services. Ask what services are offered at reduced rates or for a fixed fee, how such special offers might benefit your Association, and what is the cost. Then determine if you need the service offered.
DOES THE FIRM OFFER ANY FREE SERVICES?
- Are any complimentary services offered by the law firm? Some firms offer complimentary services which greatly offset some of the fees charged by the firm. This is a strong point to consider when selecting a firm. Offering complimentary services demonstrates a firm’s commitment to their clients and the industry. It also demonstrates stability.
- Does the firm operate on a retainer, flat fee, hourly rate, contingency, or some hybrid fee basis? It is customary for a firm to request a retainer for their services or at least for certain costs. It may be an annual or monthly retainer or a retainer that is to be replenished when it drops to a certain level. Most firms doing Community Association law charge for their legal services on an hourly rate basis, but many of these firms also offer some of their services on a reduced or fixed fee basis.
- Does the firm offer educational seminars for Community Associations? Some firms even offer complimentary seminars. By attending these seminars, you are keeping your fees down and learning to spot the risks as they occur. This is an excellent way to keep abreast of changes in the law in the Community Association industry.
- Does the firm offer a newsletter or other types of educational materials to its clients? Again, this is another valuable service that some firms offer. You will be notified of changes and new trends in the law. You will also be exposed to pertinent case law, which can help you identify issues that may affect your Association.
- Who will be your contact person at the law firm? If the lawyer with whom you will be working is unavailable, who can you contact at the firm? Are there other attorneys in the firm with whom you can work if you need additional expertise?
- How is billing handled by the law firm? Are invoices submitted monthly or quarterly? Will the invoices show sufficient information for your Association, such as who provided the legal services and what is their hourly rate, and will the services provided be described in enough detail to allow you to understand your Association’s charges?
- Are attorneys in the firm available for evening or weekend meetings? Many directors of Associations are unable to meet during the day due to their jobs. This is why many associations schedule meetings in the evening or on weekends. Not all firms are available to attend an evening or weekend meeting.
How many legal assistants/paralegals does the firm employ? In these difficult economic times, legal assistants/paralegals play an important role at most law firms. Legal assistants/paralegals can perform many legal functions under the guidance and supervision of an attorney. This can be extremely important in keeping your fees down. Most judges, when reviewing attorney fee affidavits, look for the legal assistant/paralegal time. Judges may be critical of legal services being performed by an attorney at his hourly rate when those services could have been reasonably rendered by a legal assistant/paralegal at a substantially lower hourly rate. Many times, judges will reduce the Association’s award of attorney fees when an attorney does not effectively utilize legal assistants/paralegals, leaving the Association to ultimately pick up the legal bill.
IS THERE A MANDATORY RETAINER?
- How does the firm handle the collection of delinquent assessments? Will the firm initially endeavor to collect the assessment before billing the client for attorney’s fees? Will the firm bill the Association on a monthly basis? Is any money required up front? Who handles the collection work? Is it the attorney? A paralegal? Or a combination of both? Remember, the use of paralegals in collection work can keep your fees down significantly.
- Is the firm known to take an aggressive stance or do they take a more laid back posture? There is no one correct answer to this question. It all depends on which type of firm your Association relates to best. Does the firm instantly recommend litigation, or does it try to come up with alternatives to resolve the matter without litigation?
- Does the firm offer regular, comprehensive status reports on the work they are handling for the Association?
- Does the firm utilize written representation agreements to describe the terms of representation and how the Association will be charged for legal services rendered?
Once you have the answers to your questions, you are ready to select a firm. It is essential to understand the importance of a good representation agreement between you and the firm. The Attorney Representation Agreement will outline the costs, fees, and the general operating agreement between the Association and the firm.