Real estate is a unique asset, and the legal issues touching real estate can be correspondingly unique, not to mention high stakes. Real estate is usually the single largest asset that most Americans own. Nevertheless, some will feel disinclined to spend thousands of dollars on a lawyer, and will try to save money by hiring a cheaper or less experienced attorney.
Do not be penny wise and pound foolish. Whether you are a buyer or a seller, you would be wise to invest in smart, experienced counsel to ensure that you can avoid potential pitfalls.
And if you're in a state where lawyers are a mandated part of a real estate transaction, as is the case in Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Georgia, you will have no choice but to hire one to help you structure and close the deal.
Plan your search for the right real estate attorney to help answer your questions and solve your real estate issues.
Identify Your Property Type and Legal Issue
There are thousands of real estate lawyers to choose from, most of them focused on one area or sub-area of U.S. law. How do you know whom to retain?
Begin your search for the right lawyer by identifying the type of real estate and legal issues you may have. Not all real estate and related legal issues are the same. Real estate lawyers may focus their practices on such subcategories of real estate law as:
Other specialized areas include agricultural real estate, industrial real estate, environmental matters, homeowners' association governance, and construction. Having a general idea of the type of real estate and the issues you have can help you narrow your search, save time, and find the lawyer who is a good fit.
Another important distinction between types of lawyers to be aware of in the real estate context and beyond is that between lawyers who focus on lawsuits (called litigators) and those who focus on transactions and contracts (called transactional lawyers). While some lawyers will claim to be able to handle both litigation and transactions, most tend to specialize in either “disputes” or “deals.”
Get Names From Bar Associations and Personal Connections
If you don't already have a list of prospective real estate lawyers, a great place to start your search is right here at Lawyers.com. You can search for lawyers by location or practice area, or find more information about a certain lawyer or law firm.
Here some other additional resources:
- The real estate law committee or local bar association and real estate bar association in your area. For example, if you’re looking for a real estate attorney in New York City, the New York City Bar Association has a related committee.
- The American Bar Association, with a membership of attorneys from around the country.
- References from family, friends, and business contacts, including real estate brokers and agents with whom you've worked in the past. There's a good chance one of these contacts faced a similar real estate issue and can share information about the lawyer he or she used.
- Local phone directories.
- Your city's chamber of commerce.
- Legal aid programs, if you think you can't afford legal fees; some programs offer free or reduced-cost services.
Research the Candidates and Create Your Short List
Your next step is to find out whatever you can about the lawyers. After doing some initial screening, as follows, you'll want to whittle down your list to three or four prospective candidates:
- Read the biographies and pertinent material on websites for the lawyers and their law firms. The best attorneys are likely to have received awards or similar peer recognition, written articles for publication, and served on law-related committees.
- Search the Internet under the name of the lawyer and law firm. Look for articles written by the lawyer. Are they clear and well written, and do they demonstrate expertise in the area you need help with? You may even find a video by the attorney, perhaps posted on YouTube!
- Contact your state bar association or go to its website to find out whether the lawyer is in good standing (as opposed to having been suspended, disciplined, or disbarred).
- Check out the yellow pages of your telephone directory. Does the lawyer advertise? If so, do you find it compelling? Helpful? Tasteful?
- Figure out how many years of experience the lawyer has. You will probably want to someone with at least a few years of experience or who will be working directly with a law firm partner who has many years of experience. A newly admitted sole practitioner might be cheaper, but an attorney with five or ten years of experience will be able to provide more sound advice.
- Find out whether the lawyer works on cases similar to yours, and ask for a list of representative clients (this may be considered confidential, but some firms will publicly state who their larger clients are).
- Look to see if a lawyer is affiliated with associations that cater to your legal issues. For example, most bar associations have sections in real estate law and related areas.
- Don't forget to check the address where your attorney practices! A local office is often important and practical in real estate cases.
- Consider any special needs you have. For example, could you benefit from a lawyer who speaks a language other than English?
Interview Candidates and Make Your Decision
Once you have a short list of candidates, interview each one, gather added information and make your hiring decision. Here are steps to help with your final selection:
- Contact the lawyer by phone; depending on your needs, a phone interview may be all that's needed. Ask if the lawyer offers a free initial consultation if you want to meet the lawyer before making a hiring decision.
- Ask the lawyer for any informational brochures or materials on the law firm.
- Ask questions about how the lawyer would handle your case. If you're going to court, ask about the reputation of the local judges for being sympathetic to cases like yours.
- Ask about any conflicts of interests: Does the lawyer or firm represent opposing parties in your case? (The lawyer has an ethical obligation to avoid such conflicts.)
- Obtain contact information for references and follow up with them before making a hiring decision. It's best if you can talk to several types of referral sources such as past clients or those with interests in a real estate matter, such as real estate agents.
- Inquire about the lawyer's fees. Depending on your case, the lawyer may charge hourly or flat fees. You should feel comfortable asking about billing practices, and with the answers you receive.
With this research complete, you can feel confident in your choice of an attorney. Remember, good legal advice is not necessarily cheap. However, sound advice can save you from countless potential pitfalls as you buy, sell, or litigate your real estate issue. An experienced lawyer, more often than not, pays for him- or herself.