There’s always something to howl about

Attorneys, Condescension, Immaculate Perception and the NAR

It’s always dangerous – and not a little misleading – to extrapolate a whole from a part.  One of the problems facing the real estate industry is a phantom stereotype – generally negative – applied to all agents, when anyone in the business knows that the range spans the genius to the inept, the scrupulously honest to the corrupt.  I’d argue high professionalism for most, but in three short years in the business I’ve run into the gamut.

So I understand the pitfalls of where I’m going with this, but I’m going anyway:

Do law schools really have a required Applied Condescension class; and why is it so many attorneys have a self regard inversely proportional to their actual worth?

I admit some of this is anecdotal and personal: the only attorney I’ve ever had to hire I also had to fire; what she’d failed to accomplish in six months I managed on my own in six days. Recommended by a friend, she overpromised, under delivered and grossly overcharged. When I told her on her last billing I wouldn’t pay until she provided an itemization – which she never provided – she tried the intimidation game.  Didn’t work.  Oh, my, it didn’t work.

But much more recently and pertinent: First, there was this – Buying without an agent – written by an attorney at Rain City Guide.  Entirely self serving, badly argued with serious errors of omission, it generated some pleasant acrimony in the comment section – numbering over 150 – as well as a follow up rebuttal.  I’m not going to parse the whole thing, but you get the tone from the last sentence:

Regardless, for hundreds of dollars, you can save 3% on the purchase price, while getting legal services from an attorney, not an agent.

This is just another verse in an emerging chapter:  Save money and get better representation by using an attorney instead of a real estate agent!  Why?  Hey, who cares about home values, sewer scopes, oil tank decommissioning or elevation certs when you have this argument: “I’m an attorney, you’re not!”

The straw came a couple days ago.  I was at a meeting where an attorney had been invited to speak.  The topic was to be the writing of lease options, on which she spent two minutes; another forty five was spent on proving her cleverness.

First she interrupted an insurance provider who was offering to pull CLUE reports.  He’d apologized for delays in the past, but said he’d “…hired a girl in Denver to help out and things sho…” 

“WOMAN!!  This is a room full of professional WOMEN.  You should know better.”  He said she was young – he wasn’t over twenty-five so I’m thinking eighteen. To me – and the English language – that’s a girl. She continued the ridicule after he’d left the room and she’d begun to speak, sandwiching a declaration that agents should pull a CLUE report whether their sellers authorize it or not … to see if they’re lying about anything…

Then she pulled the office tour sheet, on which were printed the agent to agent remarks from the MLS listings.  “Now, this isn’t to embarrass anyone, but you people have to be very, very careful how you write.”  And she began to try to embarrass:

“This – ‘Excellent Newer Neighborhood’ – what’s that mean, no African Americans??  Latinos need not apply?  You can’t say that!”  In fact, anyone who knows the city knows that in that area some old neighborhoods have no sidewalks, the newer ones do.  This one is, well, newer. 

“And this – ‘New Kitchen’ – is that brand new from the foundation up??”  The answer came from the back: “Uh, yea, sure.  Brand new.”  “New foundation?”  “Yep.”  “New walls?”  “Yep. New.”  “Don’t believe you.”  “Don’t care.”  “Remember, the ONLY way you can say ‘new kitchen’ is if it’s new construction.”  “Right.”

Pause to note that of 16,000+ active listings in the Portland Metro Area, 5300+ have the word ‘new’ in the private remarks.

“Is Mary Jo here?  This is hers.  No, of course she’s not here, we would have heard her by now.” Ooh. Catty girl.  Note Mary Jo’s production is on par with Russell’s.  “’Every surface inside and out has been renovated.’  What?  EVERY surface?  Come on!  You have to be careful, people!! Doors are surfaces!  Windows are surfaces! Every surface means every surface!’” 

And my personal favorite:  “Here’s another Mary Jo: ‘…immaculate 3808 SF custom home…’  What?? Immaculate?  What’s that mean?  It means different things to different people; does it have a chip in the counter?  Then it’s not immaculate! NO you can’t use it!”  Good grief. 

She was clearly earnest in her advice, just as her advice was thoroughly nuts.  She obviously was conflating contract law – wherein language does have to be precise – with marketing standards, where fair housing laws occasionally impose silliness but are otherwise, beyond blatantly false advertising, infinitely more open in their interpretations.  I think I’m on solid ground in saying there’s never been a successfully litigated complaint regarding a subjective modifier, especially when that subjective modifier is followed, as in all listings, by the standard ‘information not guaranteed’ disclaimer.

But there are lessons here, even beyond the questionable prudence of buying one’s largest asset through someone who can’t tell the difference between a listing blurb and a binding contract.

It seems to me law school teaches, besides hubris, how not to do things wrong, and how to ferret out the wrong in others.  The paradigm is defensive and reactive. Function defers to form, creativity and risk are boxed into a manageable subset.  That’s terrific if your task is defending someone for murder or suing someone for overbilling, but problematic when your raison d’être is the adversarial finding of fault and your task is, to the greatest extent possible, the amicable transfer of property. If you’re being paid to find something wrong you almost always will.

On the other hand, every good agent I know is an entrepreneur, one who focuses intently on doing things right.  The paradigm is offensive and proactive. Every transaction is different from all others; creativity is imperative, risk a part of everything we do, and a successful result for our clients – function – our driving concern. 

There.  That’s a thousand words to say this:  Strict education and rigid testing standards – as provided by Law schools and the Bar – are no panacea for what ails real estate. It does our clients no good to apply the dye cut approaches to unique problems that would result.  Nor would it automatically eliminate the NAR; lawyers have the ABA to deal with.  With respect to all my good friends who are attorneys – had to get that in – I’d hate to turn real estate agents into another class of stuffy elites.  One’s enough.

PS  Oh, this is delicious.  Just ran a google on my ex attorney:  Here.  Sweet, sweet providence.  Now I know how Edmund Dantes felt.


9 Comments so far

  1. Chuchundra September 14th, 2007 8:20 pm

    You never ever, in a professional context, refer to a female subordinate or co-worker as a “girl” unless maybe she’s 12 and even then I’d still go with “young woman”. It’s wrong and it’s disrespectful.

  2. J. Ferris September 14th, 2007 8:59 pm

    Oh, attorneys. They are like salt in your morning coffee. I have a great relationship with an attorney I thoroughly recommend and works well with me in sharing of contracts etc. but there are at least 10 dumb*** attorneys for every good one. My most recent tale of fun begins with my relo calling in their attorney to resolve the purchase of a home after the builder wouldn’t agree to the terms/price they requested. What is their attorney’s solution? Add more contingencies… some REALLY difficult ones and if the builder doesn’t agree to it then find another house. They attempted that today: 10 houses later and now they are listening to me and being more reasonable with the house they’ve longed for all along. A good attorney will be your guiding light through the mumbo jumbo that is law. A bad attorney will stick their face in a field they aren’t familiar with whatsoever (his practice isn’t even in this county) like the local real estate market across the river from him and spew out legal stupidity that will never get accepted and help you lose the house of your dreams. This attorney’s mistake was working the entire home sale from a legal, black and white perspective while real estate is really one giant shade of gray. Let’s hope he didn’t cost my buyers the house.

  3. Ron September 15th, 2007 10:32 am

    We use attorneys all the time at work (computer software), to help with contracts, partnership agreements, one-offs in sales deals, etc. Of course they are trained to tell you all the things wrongs with your deal. That’s what they do. Then, you use your judgment to decide which items on their list you want to pay attention to, and which to ignore. At least then you have a good idea of the range of possible issues that you might or might not face.

    I believe that an attorney can be useful in the home buying process if the buyer has solid ideas about what he wants. The lawyer can point out a set of potential contract issues, and the buyer can decide to incorporate or ignore any of them. The point would be that the lawyer sees enough contract-related problems to give you the benefit, and some context to help your decision. Just blindly doing whatever your lawyer says is dumb and indicates someone who doesn’t work with lawyers very much.

    Also, the lawyer you talk about in your post just sounds like an ass.

  4. Craig Blackmon September 15th, 2007 12:27 pm

    Perhaps we should ALL grow up and admit that the bashing of ANY profession is inappropriate. It’s always based on anecdotal evidence and broad generalizations and thus has little basis in reality. Moreover, the acrimony it generates simply feeds on itself and detracts from meaningful and informative discussion.

    And now, a brief defense of my post. “Badly self-serving”? (a) The post provides information about how to see properties listed on the MLS without agreeing to pay your agent 3%. Yes, that fits within my general business model, but I don’t even mention the POSSIBLE need for legal services until the final paragraph, and even then I link to FOUR attorneys (three real, one virtual) who can provide the service. (b) That said, sure the post is self-serving. News flash: I use blogging to promote my business. How unique — and truly disgusting, I’m sure.

    “Baldly argued”? The post educates consumers about how to see property without hiring a full-service agent. I was not “arguing” anything. Now, the issues raised by the post and explored in subsequent commments do rise to the level of argument, but the post itself? Not in my eyes. If you want to find a post that “argues,” you can do much, much better.

    “Serious errors of omission”? As I admitted in the comments, I simplified some issues for the sake of brevity in the initial post, and those “omissions” were clarified in the lengthy discussion that followed.

    Finally, I guess you’re arguing that an agent provides legal counsel equal to or better than that provided by an attorney. After all, the quote references only “legal services,” NOT all of the services a buyer could conceivably want to assist with the process. At no point anywhere — in this post or elsewhere — do I EVER suggest that an attorney provides all of these services, let alone do a better job of doing so. Your criticism is specious to say the least and fits right in with your “bash attorneys!” mentality.

    Okay, Jeff, now tell me what a dirt-bag I am as an attorney. The sad truth is that your business model is under attack from several angles, including lawyers. Perhaps you want to debate on the merits rather than attempting to convince your readers that lawyers are bad, bad, bad. Or maybe not. It would require greater thought, more time — and you may not get to feel as good about yourself as the Agent in Shining Armor.

    Now, I must return to work — sorry, no lawyer-baiting here…

  5. Jeff Kempe September 16th, 2007 8:53 am

    Chuch …

    You’re right, of course. But correcting innocent rudeness – he was a boy himself – with haughty rudeness is not only ineffective, but goes a long way to put the ‘un’ in ‘professional’.

  6. Jeff Kempe September 16th, 2007 8:58 am

    Craig …

    I have no interest in revisiting the details your original post. I fully stand by my characterization, and readers here are bright enough to make up their own mind. As kindly as I can I’ll point out that your comment here serves to reinforce that characterization, and offer that petulance in the service of argument is never a winning line.

    One quick thing: A readable blogger is never one who blogs first to promote his or her business; that’s an ancillary benefit. In the best case a blogger who does tends to be tedious and shallow, the online equivalent of an infomercial.


  7. Diane Aurit September 17th, 2007 8:44 am

    Oh, just be glad you don’t live and work in an attorney controlled state. Coming from CA where I was a Realtor for 15 years to a state where we are not allowed to write ANYTHING in a contract beyond filling in the blanks without an attorney, I am simply shocked at how attorney’s have kept control of the real estate process here. I actually like the attorneys I work with but that has nothing to do with it. Is it not a bit crazy to have an attorney sit with a buyer while they sign loan docs? Do we really need attorney’s to pull title for us and create the HUD Statement?

  8. Chris Johnson December 2nd, 2007 5:44 pm

    Wow. I’ve come across attorneys several times in transactions.

    Not once did they represent their clients.

    Not once did they facilitate the transactions their clients wanted.

    Not once did they do anything but murk up the process and delay, delay, delay.

  9. […] It generated quite the conversation (concluding with this tasteful comment from our friends at Bloodhound Blog: “Entirely self serving, badly argued with serious errors of omission, it generated some […]