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How Do I Find a Good Real Estate Attorney?

Dear Ali;
I'm buying a new home, and I want to make sure I find a good real estate attorney. Where do I start?
A: Referrals, referrals, referrals. You want to have someone you trust, so ask friends who they used, and hire the person with the raves.

Conventional wisdom, right? Here's the part that's heresy: If you can't find a real estate specialist who's been strongly referred, get any attorney who you know to be good or who comes to you through a trusted source. Real estate law is somewhat arcane, and there are tricks of the trade in every locality, but I'd rather have you work with your Uncle Joe the divorce lawyer (and a good broker, for belt and suspenders) than a real estate lawyer who you just picked out of the phone book.

You won't find many people in my profession who will say that -- most brokers just want to work with real estate attorneys who do the same thing over and over. And I agree: a real estate specialist who is referred to you as "great" is the best of all possible worlds. But if you can't find that person, then go ahead and use the family lawyer rather than grabbing a real estate attorney out of the Internet hat.

Why? Quality of service. I once had a real estate deal where there was an odd little complication of tax law. One side's attorney -- who was their trusted lawyer for other issues -- didn't normally do real estate, so she didn't understand the wrinkle. As the real estate agent on the deal, I had to send her a 27-page fax and walk her through the situation and the city's tax site, complete with screen prints of what she'd see if she clicked on different menus. Man, it was a lot of work. But you know what? She read the fax, learned the law, and closed the deal. That's the kind of dedication you want. When you hire a one-shot transaction person, you may get someone with decent standards, but frankly the quality of service will vary depending on how busy he or she is with regular clients. And that's not something you can screen for.

If you do want a list of specific things to look for in an attorney, I'd make sure they're tech savvy (because scanners are easier to deal with than faxes ), somewhat easy to get on the phone (you're going to get an assistant or a paralegal as a first line of defense, but there are times when you want your lawyer), and willing to sit down and explain the basic contract to you (I think of this as "attorney bedside manner;" you may need it less if you've bought property before.)

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