Ideally your rental property business will run smoothly, and you will rarely have a need for legal advice. While keeping good records, maintaining professionalism when dealing with clients, and diligently complying with legal requirements will go a long way toward keeping tenant disputes to a minimum, it is almost inevitable that disagreements will arise. If you are an experienced landlord and are well-versed in the state and local laws that apply to your rental property, chances are you have a system for responding to these issues, and you can resolve many of them on your own. However, even the most seasoned landlords may occasionally need to call in legal help in some cases, such as those involving contested evictions under rent control laws, discrimination claims, and cases that are going to trial. If you do need to seek legal advice, there are a few strategies you can use to maximize efficiency and minimize headaches.
Hiring a Lawyer
Effective ways to find lawyers can include using online lawyer directories, asking landlords you know who their attorneys are, or seeking recommendations from a local landlords’ association, among others. When choosing legal representation, perhaps the most important thing is to hire someone with extensive experience in representing landlords, as it is not only to your advantage to work with someone who has significant knowledge of the issues you are dealing with, but they will also be able to work more efficiently on your matters if they are highly familiar with them, even if they charge more. Your lawyer should be someone you feel comfortable with, and who is available and receptive to your questions and issues. You will also want to make sure you and your attorney are in agreement about your preferred level of involvement in the legal matters you will bring to them. It is wise to interview at least a few attorneys before picking one, and keep in mind that if you become dissatisfied with the relationship you have with your lawyer, you can move on and find another lawyer.
Most small landlords will end up either paying hourly for legal services, or paying a flat fee for specific legal matters. If you are being billed hourly, your lawyer will usually bill in 10- or 15-minute increments. If any of the work your lawyer takes on for you is being delegated to a more junior attorney or administrative staff, that should be billed at a lower rate. When choosing a lawyer, again, even if more experienced attorneys charge more, it can be cheaper in the long run to hire them because their knowledge of the subject area will allow them to work more efficiently. Sometimes you may end up paying a flat fee for a lawyer to handle one specific matter, such as an eviction, meaning that you will pay them the same amount no matter how many hours they spend on it. This type of arrangement can make sense for landlords with more properties and more frequent legal issues. Keeping a lawyer on retainer, typically meaning that you pay them a set fee per year to handle all of your legal work except for more complex matters, can also make sense for landlords with larger-scale businesses.
Whatever fee arrangement you arrive at, be sure it is put in writing. Also clarify up front what sort of costs the lawyer may or may not pass on to you. For example, it is common for attorneys to bill clients for things like court costs and costs of service of process. But if a lawyer wants to charge you for basic administrative items such as photocopying and faxes, that can be a red flag.
Finally, keep in mind that if you have an attorney fee clause in your lease or rental agreement, you can potentially collect at least some of what you’ve paid your lawyer in preparing a case if you prevail in a court dispute with a tenant. However, the opposite can be true if you lose, meaning that the tenant will often recover fees from you based on this sort of clause if they win.
Working With Your Lawyer
In order to get the most out of your interactions and overall relationship with your lawyer, it is important to keep a few tips in mind. As an initial matter, try to be as organized as possible in terms of having necessary documents and records available and assembled ahead of time for meetings. Also, prepare for conferences or calls with your attorney by having your questions established (and possibly sent in) ahead of time, and asking all of your questions at the same time (even if they are about different matters), rather than over two or three occasions in a short period of time. Pay your bills as promptly as possible, and keep your lawyer apprised of your plans for your business.
Conflicts With Your Lawyer
In the event of a dispute with your attorney that cannot be resolved independently between the two of you, local bar associations often offer mediation or dispute resolution help. If there has been an ethical breach of some sort, such as overbilling or failing to properly handle your case, attorneys are subject to discipline by the state bar. For significant mistakes that you believe have caused you sizeable damage, you can potentially sue for legal malpractice.
Staying Current on Legal Developments
Keep updated on legal developments by following industry publications, and send any relevant changes to your lawyer, asking that they do the same. You can find most state, local, and federal laws relevant to your rental property on your own by going online. Legal self-help guides, public libraries, and law libraries are also good resources if you are looking for legal sources or need help finding information.