Blog: R.E. Tales
(Hey, they all can't be pretty...)
What’s the difference between a skunk and a lawyer, both lying dead in the road? (There’s skid marks by the skunk.)
We laugh at them, but they take themselves seriously. Attorney John Kirkpatrick has a book of lawyer jokes in his waiting room – he’s the only one with that book – but he doesn’t joke himself. He is one of several lawyers whom I routinely recommend. Not a trouble-maker, the kind who feels if he hasn’t caused a problem, his clients won’t think he is working for them, John can be relied upon to get the work done – right. But not necessarily right on time. He shares that problem with every other lawyer – they never get things done as fast as the rest of us want them to. Why is this? Buyers and sellers often have unrealistic expectations. And the list of things that can go wrong is endless. You’d think after 40 years I’d have seen every glitch out there. Only new ones keep cropping up.
New York is a so-called “Abstract State”. We rely upon abstracts of title, often large and unwieldy documents that buyers frequently manage to lose… well, temporarily misplace. The abstracts show the chain of title and serve as proof that the tile is good. Before each sale, they are updated by professional abstractors. I tell folks to expect this process to take three weeks, time during which nothing observable happens. Their work could be done in a day or two but they are chronically busy, hence the delay. Worse yet, they are insulated from complaints by buyer, seller or us agents. We can talk to lawyers and bug them, but the lawyers seem to be the only ones who can bug the abstractors, which they rarely do.
Once the undated abstract is back, the lawyers can get back to work examining it, checking for tax or other liens, for anything that can cast a shadow of doubt upon the title. They want titles squeaky clean for their clients, with zero chance of a third party appearing out of the woodwork to make a claim on the title.
Some states rely solely upon title insurance to provide this proof. We have title insurance too and sometimes a lawyer will recommend that his client purchase this, but in my experience they usually don’t. (Title insurance is typically sold by abstracting companies; they are policies that guarantee your title for as long as you own the property – one payment does the trick.) And some states allow abstractors or even real estate agents to handle a lawyer’s job to bring about a closing. If I did that here, I could lose my license. We are neither trained nor licensed to do such work. Lawyers are.
I get a surprising number of people who hope to avoid employing a lawyer. That’s perfectly legal – but it’s crazy. I would not consider buying or selling one of my own properties without the assistance of a lawyer. What often ends up happening in these cases is – nothing. For a long while. Then they realize they need help if we are going to make this transaction work. So the lawyer for the other side is cajoled into doing the minimum work needed to achieve a closing and the recalcitrant party gets a small bill from the lawyer – but no representation. They are trusting that the lawyer is going to do his job honestly and treat them fairly, which is what happens, thank goodness. I have seen lawyerphobia occur in both buyers and sellers. Some day it is going to happen to both parties at the same time and nothing will ever get done to bring us to a closing. I have seen some who think they can do a lawyer’s work themselves and save $500 (or whatever). The one lawyer handling the other side of the transaction usually gets frustrated with the quality of their “work”. If they have a sense of humor,; they may laugh to me about it.
I work with a great many lawyers, but only a very few have not earned my respect. One I recall was a fellow from Long Island named MacNamara. His client was buying a property up here, the owners of which were about to be in financial trouble if it didn’t get sold – which is exactly why they brought me in. Somehow, MacNamara found this out and things began to slow drastically. A troublesome inspection, then one thing after another. And the sellers didn’t have the time to play games with this guy.
What got me was a phone conversation I had with the guy. He had the temerity to come right out and tell me that when he was done, the sellers were going to walk out of it with just the shirts on their back. He would see to it that they lost all their equity by demanding lower and lower prices, in stages. Then, he had the balls to tell me, he would see to it that I got half of the commission I expected. I listened, but kept my mouth shut. When he started swearing at me, I hung up on him. I let the owners know what his plan was and sure enough they nearly lost the place – but the buyer did not get it; he lost what he’d wanted due to the greed of his attorney.
It is not likely I will ever deal with MacNamara again. Actually, it’s sure. I’ll throw the sale rather than subject a client to such underhanded shenanigans again.
When agents up here have to deal with a downstate lawyer, they groan because they know they are in for a hard time. A too-high percentage of them just make things hard for everyone. State laws apply to all of us, but customs of practice vary from area to area. Downstate, extra regulations and practices make everything much more difficult. I get a lot of business from people who want to get back to a simpler and easier life. Here’s an example: downstate lawyers may insist on a Letter of Intent, which states what we hope to achieve but is not binding. Then, in due time, the lawyers draft a voluminous contract. I’ve seen them 20 pages and longer. This all takes time. Time is money, money that they get.
Here, life is simpler. I normally draft the contract (unless someone objects) and can do it then and there if we are all around the kitchen table. It will be 2, maybe 3 pages. This is something I can legally do and I do it as quickly as possible. Why? With passage of time, things start to go wrong or one party or the other may have second thoughts. If I can get them committed right away, people are much more likely to hold up their end of the agreement and not try to back out on a flimsy excuse. All my contacts have attorney approval clauses so both buyer and seller can take to their attorney right away (don’t delay!). And that attorney has the right to approve, disapprove, or request a modification, which I normally do perfectly willingly.
One local lawyer insisted that he needed 1.5” margins and every line had to be double spaced, which is a pain in the butt for me to do and doubled the size of the document. I find a correlation between the simplicity and size of what people are asked to sign and the likelihood that the sale with go through as intended. This guy is sort of a stuffed shirt type, not one I normally recommend (for other reasons) and I notice that he not longer makes these demands. He must have received push-back form agents he sees more often.
Going back to the downstate guys, some of them have an attitude that because we are more laid-back here that we are all hicks and obviously our attorneys must be second rate, or worse. Needless to say, that doesn’t sit well. We often take pleasure in seeing these lawyers demand a Bargain and Sale Deed for their client. We begin to laugh among ourselves when this happens. Those deeds are what is commonly used in New York City and I’ve never understood why. Here we normally use a Warranty Deed, a higher form of deed than Bargain and Sale, one more protective to the buyer. “Sure, you want a Bargain and Sale Deed? No problem, you’ll have one.” Then time passes and the downstater comes back, tail between his legs, wanting to know, uhm, could we change that to a Warranty Deed?
I’ve seen others not want to communicate with me if they can avoid it. Yes, the job is in their hands now and mine is officially done. But every agent here knows they have a lot of work left to do. They are the only one who knows both buyer and seller, the only one who may remember what so and so said. And part of my job is to bug them periodically, to keep things moving forward. Too many times I have heard both lawyers say they are waiting on the other one. “That’s just what the other guy says. Pick up the phone”, I tell them. I don’t like making a nuisance of myself, but often that’s what it takes. They need to know someone is looking over their shoulder.
Obviously they are not all like this. Many are perfectly good people and do good work for their clients, professionals I’d work happily with again if given the chance. But some…. We have a few like that up here too. Thankfully, a very few.
I find that if the two attorneys have an already established good working relationship that things go much smoother, another reason to retain local attorneys. They know each other, the abstractors, understand the customs of practice here, and they live much closer to where the records are kept so can work cheaper as a result.
I have seen adversarial relationships develop between them too. A out of state doctor bought a farm from an out of state veterinarian. The vet was my client and he exhibited all the charisma of a sabre-toothed tiger. His lawyer was no better. The two lawyers were continually arguing and at each other’s throats. It took a lot of extra time on my part to keep the deal going and their fast-deteriorating relationship cost both parties 3 extra months getting to the closing. At the closing, the vet’s attorney hired a third attorney to attend so he would not have to face the other lawyer. It was that bad, and sure enough, within a year a lawsuit erupted, one that lasted a couple of years. I felt bad for the doctor as he is a great guy and not to blame for all that happened. I was just glad not to be named in the suit.
I have my favorites in each county where I work and try to steer business to them whenever feasible. They rarely if ever give me business in return however; I do this because I want good representation for the folks with whom I work and want it done in a professional and friendly manner, hopefully quickly and at a fair price. That’s the way I want to be myself.
Oh, yes, I used real names this time.
Some are merely amusing. some can help you immensely. All are interesting.
After 40 years, I've learned a lot, & acquired unforgettable experiences. Follow these long enough and you'll eventually get the whole book. (Names probably changed, for obvious reasons.)