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Don’t Kill All the Lawyers

The board was up in arms. The lawyer who was representing the small Manhattan building in some long-running litigation against a commercial tenant was “not doing his job,” said an impassioned board member, who then used a colorful epithet to describe the attorney and his work.

The president of the board, who had known the lawyer for years, didn’t agree, and he said as much. That led to more heated talk, always fun at a board meeting. The president later acknowledged that this board had difficulty with both attorneys and managing agents. “They must find us demanding,” he says, pointing to an incident in which a board member, in a phone conversation, actually brought a lawyer’s secretary to tears by his relentless manner with her (for his part, the cross-examining board member insists that he was simply trying to get a straight answer out of the woman).

This particular co-op has employed four attorneys in the last 16 years, so, by my count, that averages out to about a new attorney every four years. It’s doing a little better with managing agents – two in 16 years – but that’s only because the board got so fed up with the caliber of the agents that the members decided to do it themselves.

Is such turnover that unusual? Not really. The relationship between a board and its professionals always starts off with a good head of steam and the sort of hopeful visions of the future that presumably exist at the start of any marriage. But then, invariably, communication breaks down, and the blame game starts.

This building’s first manager came out of the sponsor’s office and initially seemed efficient. But when she started saying things like, “I haven’t gotten to that item” and “If you’re so concerned about it, you can call the contractor yourself,” you didn’t have to be a genius to recognize that it was time for her to go.

And when the second manager didn’t pay key taxes for the co-op – and then blamed the board for not being on top of him – it was time for him to go as well.

As for lawyers, well, they can certainly be equally frustrating. They speak in legalese; they like to commence matters rather than begin things, they talk about fact patterns rather than facts. And, of course, they charge by the hour (and most of them invariably like to talk).

Those may seem like small things, but from tiny acorns...well, you know the rest.

For my part, I’ve always felt that when you’re working with a professional, you should try to trust him. After all, he’s the pro and you’re the talented amateur. (Trust can be spread thin, however, when you call your attorney to question an item on the bill for “services rendered,” and you then find on your next bill that you have been charged for your phone call questioning your last bill. You could go on like that for quite some time, although at $400 an hour, I’d think you’d move on to a better billing system.)

But those are problems that go with any relationship, and I feel that cursing out your lawyer, while livening up the conversation and helping you to vent, does nothing to advance the partnership. The best question to ask is: “Are we getting what we paid for?”

In the story told earlier, the building’s lawyer was being questioned by angry board members because the litigation was taking longer than anticipated, which is sort of silly. After all, isn’t that the definition of litigation and also why most sensible people avoid it?

Bottom line, you may want your lawyer to talk less and do more, but if he warns you at the outset that your case is no slam dunk, that litigation is expensive, and that the “fact patterns” might be against you and then, some months later gets you the result you want (and also gets the insurance company to pay all his fees), well, then I think you’ve got only one thing left to say to him: “Thank you very much.”

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