Not every condominium or homeowners’ association is going to run afoul of the law—the happy truth is that litigation and legal trouble are relatively rare occurrences. However, even the most upstanding board in New York City must navigate a labyrinth of association law in the course of serving its ownership, and the odds are that its trusty group of volunteers will include few, if any, qualified legal professionals. So what to do in order to ensure that your association’s business remains on the up-and-up? Hiring one of the aforementioned legal eagles would be a good start, sure, but how best to ascertain which attorney or firm is the one to guide your association right and true? Turns out, choosing a legal pro isn't so different from choosing any other kind of service provider your HOA might need – even if the stakes are somewhat higher.
Trust Your Associates
Sometimes, the best advice on which professional to hire comes from those with whom you already have strong professional relationships. In the case of a condo or co-op board, a good place to start is your property manager. Most managers handle several buildings, and are in a position to refer their client communities to the right pros for a given job—including legal counsel.
“Most referrals come by way of a management company who has dealt with an attorney and/or law firm on other buildings, and are quite happy with services rendered,” says Denise DeNicola, an associate with Philadelphia-based law firm of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP. “And an individual needs special ‘people skills’ to represent a co-op or condo board. An attorney who can’t make the time to show compassion and patience and have the ability to hand-hold when necessary will not succeed as a condo/co-op attorney.”
Fortunately, the burden of meeting with qualified attorneys does not fall entirely upon the condo or co-op. An attorney who possesses the people skills cited by DeNicola is also one adept at networking, and may well cross paths with community decision-makers at local events, trade shows, and other venues. “Most law firms with a devoted practice in community association law spend a great percentage of time making and nurturing new relationships,” notes Jennifer A. Loheac, a shareholder attorney with the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff in New Jersey. “Attorneys may also volunteer on boards and committees for the betterment of the overall industry. And addition to managers, many referrals come by way of other industry professionals, such as managers or accountants.”
Direct and straightforward as referrals can be however, it's worth keeping in mind that in some cases, one professional may have ulterior motives for recommending another. “The positive aspect of relying on a management recommendation is that the managing company has most likely worked with the attorney before and thinks highly of that professional,” says Loheac. “The flip side of that, however, is that certain management companies may prefer certain firms for reasons beyond professional reputation—like which law firm sponsored their golf outing, retreat or holiday party. This is why it’s wise for a board to solicit recommendations from multiple sources, to minimize personal bias.”