Love them or hate them. But you must work with attorneys to run your association effectively. Here are six tips for getting the most out of your attorney-client relationship.
1) Get it in writing. “Make sure you have an engagement letter,” says Justin D. Park, an attorney at Romero Park & Wiggins P.S. in Bellevue, Wash. “It really protects both sides.” The engagement letter should identify at least two basics: what you’re hiring the attorney to do and how the attorney will be paid.
2) Designate a contact person. “The best relationships I’ve had with clients have been when they’ve had a clear contact person,” says Park. “Sometimes two or three people will contact me and say, ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that,’ and I don’t have a clear line of communication. It doesn’t matter who it is as long as everybody on the board knows who it is and the attorney knows exactly whom to call. Associations can even designate different points of contact for different purposes. For instance, there may be a board member responsible for dues collection. But if there’s a litigation, contacts go to another person.”
3) Don’t expect freebies. “People need to understand what it means to be the point of contact,” says Park. “They need to know that when they call, the attorney will turn on the billing clock because all attorneys have to sell is their time.” That doesn’t mean, however, that attorneys won’t work with you to keep fees down—if you ask them to. “One association I work with is very sensitive to costs,” explains Park. “We’ve agreed that if somebody shoots me an issue they need advice on, before I answer, I’ll shoot back an e-mail saying, ‘This is how much time I think it’ll take.’ It’s a little unwieldy, but it helps the association watch its finances very closely.”
Many attorneys will also be flexible in their payment terms. “If an association comes to me with one or two questions a month and suddenly asks me to negotiate all the contracts for a new project,” explains Park, “I can say, ‘It’ll cost this,’ and we can work out a payment plan ahead of time so nobody has a surprise moment.”
4) Tell it straight. Don’t hide embarrassing facts or shade the truth when you consult with your attorney. First, there’s no need to do that because communications with your attorney are confidential under the attorney-client privilege. But it’s also a bad idea because your attorney will undoubtedly learn negative information from somebody else, typically whoever disagrees with you in the position you’re taking. That delay in giving the attorney all the information necessary to help you may affect your ability to get the outcome you want. And it may cost you extra if your attorney works without the information necessary to protect your interests.
5) Be involved. Once you’ve asked for an attorney’s help, be sure to oversee the work to be sure you’re getting the representation you asked for. But there’s a fine line between proper oversight and micromanaging. If you continuously second-guess your attorney or rehash already-decided issues, you’re only increasing your costs and limiting your attorney’s ability to help you.
6) Be realistic. Ask your attorney for frank advice on what can and can’t be accomplished. “One big problem is that attorneys can only accomplish so much, and sometimes expectations exceed realistic possibilities,” says Park. “A lot of times people think a call to their attorney will solve everything and that I’m going to berate somebody to capitulate to our way of thinking. That’s not realistic.”
Perhaps the most important rule to remember is that an attorney can help only when you’ve asked for help. Don’t try to pinch pennies by handling things on your own when you’d be better served with an attorney’s advice.
“I’d much rather have people call me and say, ‘I need you to give me a break on billing’ than to not call me and have to deal with a problem after the fact,” says Park. “Most of the time that happens in the context of contract negotiations. Boards will negotiate with a contractor and not consult me, and then there’ll be a dispute because a contract provision is missing or there’s language I don’t like and would have negotiated out. It’s far better to spend the money up front than to deal with the problem afterward.”
“Ask The Experts” Articles have been Reprinted with permission from the Charlotte Observer
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