At the 128-unit Yacht Club Condominium in Island Park, Long Island, veteran co-op and condo attorney Stewart Wurtzel, a partner at Tane Waterman & Wurtzel, is the board president. To avoid potential conflicts of interest or legal liability, the board turns to its attorney, Evan Gitter, a partner at Cohen, Warren, Meyer & Gitter, whenever it needs advice on condo business. The two lawyers responded to questions about their delicate balancing act.
What are the benefits of having a lawyer on the board?
WURTZEL: We do bring a different approach. We’re trained to consider what we can and cannot do. We also can sometimes see the pitfalls and problems of board actions. If there is litigation, we often understand the cost, expense, and frustration that goes with it. We also understand the risks of losing and the need, sometimes, to accept offers of settlement.
GITTER: Co-op/condo law is a niche specialty, and a lawyer who practices in this field possesses a unique understanding of the rules and problems. Non-attorney board members may not understand the complexities of litigation. I have found that an attorney on the board can serve as a legal liaison. Not only can the attorney assist with the discovery process, but he or she can also help the rest of the board understand what is involved in litigation.
What are the downsides of having a lawyer on the board?
WURTZEL: Lawyers often micromanage issues. We often think we know more than we do. I have come across attorneys who do not practice in the co-op/condo field who nonetheless believe they understand what’s involved in running a building in New York. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an attorney on a board review a contract and not spot an issue that Evan or I, as co-op/condo attorneys, would recognize. Laundry contracts come to mind. The laundry companies write their contracts as leases. A savvy attorney wants to change that to a license and eliminate the automatic renewal provisions. An attorney unfamiliar with these areas might not spot those issues.
GITTER: There are so many nuances and intricacies in co-op/condo practice that an attorney who does not practice in this area may have difficulties. That attorney may try to use expertise that may not be applicable to the issues facing the community and might end up being detrimental. Another problem with having a lawyer on the board is that other board members, intentionally or otherwise, may defer to the opinion of an authoritative-sounding attorney/board member.
Since you are both co-op lawyers, do you agree on all issues?
WURTZEL: Not at all. We have different approaches to problems, as all lawyers do. But we’re able to discuss our respective positions and usually agree on a way to proceed. There have been instances where Evan and I have disagreed on the approach or meaning of something, and when he gives the board his opinion, he is speaking as the sole legal counsel of the building. The board weighs his advice accordingly. I may say I disagree, but Evan’s position is the only one set forth as the legal advice to the board. I know it’s hard to believe, but clients don’t always follow their attorney’s advice!
GITTER: Stewart and I may analyze issues differently based on our experiences and practices. When we disagree, that can sometimes work to the benefit of the condominium. Stewart and I have the ability to brainstorm together, explain our respective positions, listen to one another, and come to an ultimate agreement as to the handling of an issue. That agreement may be one of our positions from the outset, or a conglomeration of the two. Either way, our relationship is one that I believe leads to the best governance of the Yacht Club Condominium.
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