How do I keep my community’s legal fees down?
It’s true. Some people are better than others at getting the most out of their lawyer while trying to keep a lid on the legal bill. Part of being a good lawyer is to help the board be good stewards of the association’s financial and physical assets. There is plenty of legal work to be done. As I write this article, my to do list contains several billable projects, including, inter alia, reviewing contracts, easements, negotiating eminent domain proceedings, drafting and filing lawsuits, corporate counseling, drafting governing documents, and more. From the lawyer’s perspective, we prefer doing work that is truly needed, and that involves actual legal questions, such as those on this list. This article focuses on the best and most economical ways to engage with your lawyer, so your community can spend money on flowers!
Hypotheticals – Leave Them to the Law Professors
Hypothetical scenarios often result in an avoidable expenditure of legal fees debating about “what if.” Questions that involve potential scenarios that have not occurred often morph and result in little actual progress solving a problem. Legal research and analysis become a moot point, ergo a waste of money, the farther away from actual facts a hypothetical strays. A healthier exercise is to set up a brainstorming session with the lawyer trying to keep to a set time frame. Provide the lawyer with as much foundational information as you believe is relevant, have a list of questions. Brainstorming and strategizing can be valuable, especially if questions are based on known facts.
Identify and State Your Goals
Frequently, the phone will ring, and a manager or director will launch forth with a narrative of something that has happened prompting the board to believe the lawyer is needed. When there is a pause for me to respond, the response is usually, “What is your goal?” Oftentimes, then there is another pause. The law is sadly “grey” on many points, and the law changes. Sharing a chronicle of adversity without good questions and/or the goal means you could spend lots of money on hearing about the possible outcomes based on the interesting story you just told.
Conversely, if the board has a goal in mind, a good lawyer can (1) advise about the approximate cost of the goal, and how legally compliant it is, and (2) help achieve the goal if possible. Sometimes the board does not know how to identify its goal; in that case a good direction for the lawyer is “what should our goal be, and what will it cost?” Fundamentally, the association’s goals are liability avoidance, competent, fair and legal operations. Within that umbrella, many near term goals are achievable such as increasing transparency without increasing liability, improving operational documents, creating and updating rules.
Leave Politics to the Politicians
Most industries, legal included, require diplomacy and patience when tempers flare. Sometimes directors distrust fellow directors, homeowners distrust the board, vice versa. When disputes intensify, the association’s lawyer and the law itself are often used as a political pawn to try to prove one side morally, ethically, substantively superior to the other side. During times of conflict, personal animus, and not a legal question, can be the source of the problem. At times like these, legal fees can spike, and can be avoidable.
Awareness by boards and managers that the lawyer is being drawn into a battle of personalities is a great first step in controlling costs. The next step is to create a list of legal questions the board can determine whether it would like the lawyer to answer. After that, if applicable, the board and lawyer can determine what answers can be shared with the membership.
Stay in Lanes: Management, Legal, Administration
Many times, a director or manager can do something that someone wants the lawyer to do. To wit: writing a simple first demand letter, liaising with the government about a non-adversarial matter, collecting data, setting up a meeting. If the board or management feel they do not have time and prefer to pay the lawyer to do tasks that a non-lawyer can do, that is one thing. Otherwise, leave the meeting scheduling to the professionals, and let the lawyers hammer out legal solutions.
By Molly Peacock, ESQ.
Molly has devoted her career to solving problems for community associations since 2006. She joined Rees Broome’s community association practice in 2015 after a fulfilling time as founder of the Peacock Law Firm. Her practice includes counseling and litigating on behalf of community associations in Washington, D.C. and Virginia, in all manner of topics including transitioning from declarant control, assisting with enforcement of covenants and rules, resolving conflicts, collecting debt, monitoring and achieving legal compliance.