Alternative Legal Resources Avoiding the Courtroom--and Hefty Legal Fees

These days, suing someone is often the knee-jerk reaction to resolve a problem. But before you call your attorney, focus on determining exactly what you're using your legal professionals to do. For example, do you really need to go to court over a minor dispute?

"Boards have to spend time identifying what are administrative functions and what are legal functions," says Michael T. Hartsough, a partner at the firm of Hartsough Kenny Chase and Sullivan in Hamilton. "Try to look at a possible end result and figure out what's the cost associated with getting there. Then evaluate what your course of action is based on the possible result."

When you have zeroed in on your anticipated outcome, see if the potential legal fees you'll incur justify the result. "If someone is looking to have a neighbor change the color of their door, it does not make sense to pay an attorney to have that done. There are solutions out there through your association where you may not need legal counsel. But if a board or resident is dealing with a structural issue that will cost hundreds of thousands to fix, that falls into the category where you need legal help," says Hartsough.

But you should proceed with caution: even a seemingly no-lose situation can be tricky. "In today's judicial environment, there are more gray areas and fewer areas of black-and-white," says Hartsough. "It's very difficult to tell clients they have a sure win or lose situation. There's more risk in going through the court system now than in the past, because courts are creating new laws that were once left to the legislature."

Residents vs. the Board

Before hiring their own attorney, disgruntled residents can and should try to change things from the inside, says Jeffrey S. DeCristofaro, Esq., director of The Camden Center for Law and Social Justice. "One of the first things they can do is run for the board. If that doesn't work, the resident may need to review relevant documents with a professional and see if there are ways the concerns can be addressed within the parameters of the organization," he says.

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