New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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The Specialist

Our lawyer was dragging his feet.

He had been with us for about four or five years. Although he is a sole practitioner, he had always seemed good for what we needed. He answered our questions in a no-nonsense fashion, drafted letters when we (infrequently) needed them, and handled closings (which is where he made most of his money off us, as his hourly rate was very low).

Yes, the small firm was for us. Our previous lawyers had all been with large firms, and although those relationships had started off well enough, they eventually went south – because of us, or the lawyers, or circumstances, I’ll never know which.

In one case, we thought our lawyer was charging too much. When we complained to him, he said he’d look into it – and then charged us for the call complaining about being overcharged. In another case, a board member spoke sternly to a receptionist at the lawyer’s office. I later got a call from the attorney complaining that he had found the receptionist sobbing in the bathroom because of the “harsh” language my colleague had used in his conversation with her. (He had simply made a stern-sounding comment about the firm – which she apparently took to mean her.)

Now we needed our current attorney to step up to the plate and deal with a situation that had developed. We were unhappy with his approach, however. For two months, we had repeatedly called our lawyer asking him to take some action on a pending matter. He said it would be better if we got a counselor who specialized in cases like ours; he said he had one; then he said she had died; then he said he had found another, but we would have to communicate with him through our lawyer, who would act as liaison. When we said that was unacceptable and we’d have to meet with the potential lawyer first, he said he would set up a meeting. Then we played phone tag with our lawyer for weeks. He was in court, we were told; he’s on a conference call; we just missed him. The excuses became as empty as a politician’s promises. When we finally reached our attorney, he said his specialist lawyer was in Europe for a week; he’d talk to us on his return.

That’s when we thought, “Well, we’re happy with our lawyer on everyday matters. So, why don’t we keep him to handle that and do what he has been doing – hunt for our own specialist attorney?” On researching the matter, we found that more and more small and mid-sized co-ops and condos were bypassing their regular counsel on certain matters for a specialist in one area of the law to come in and handle a specific case. This is a common practice with co-ops employing tax certiorari lawyers, for example, who just handle tax challenge cases.

Sometimes the regular counsel will suggest hiring a specialist; other times, he will just bless it and say, “Go ahead. He is better equipped for this than I am.” At yet other times, he doesn’t even know about it. Fees can be an issue: the hired gun may charge $300 an hour and the regular counsel gets an additional $50 fee because he’s the house attorney.

Attorney Bruce Cholst, a partner in Rosen Livingston & Cholst, calls it an unusual practice, but nonetheless, he has served as a specialist lawyer himself. In such cases, he thinks there’s often an ulterior motive. “Sometimes, I think they are trying me out” as a replacement for their current lawyer, he explains.

In fact, it’s really a no-brainer. As management executive Ellen Kornfeld of the Lovett Company says: “I represent boards that frequently hire these specialist attorneys and it’s really quite logical: you wouldn’t hire a civil lawyer for a criminal case, nor would you hire a criminal lawyer to handle a co-op matter.”

Unless, God forbid, you were under indictment. But that’s another story.

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