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Attorneys vs. Consultants

Every year we hear from a number of clients who have received solicitations to handle their property tax matters. Fortunately, we enjoy a very loyal clientele that know we are available to discuss their concerns. Because many of these solicitations are from non-licensed tax consultants, it is not unreasonable for the recipients of the solicitations to ask what they get from an attorney that they don’t get from a tax consultant. This article will summarize some of the issues that should concern you when confronted with this situation.

Tax consultants are growing in numbers as they declare themselves experts in property taxation. Although they claim professional status, they meet no educational requirements, licensing or certification standards and are not subject to ethical restraints or oversight by a professional board that would insure the quality of service provided to the general public. We often hear in the media and from consultants, as justification for allowing consultants to represent taxpayers, that attorneys are “high priced.” Even so, I have yet to see a consultant’s contract that charges less than the going rate for attorneys providing the same services. In most instances, the uninformed taxpayer may find himself or herself paying more to the consultant.

What is most disturbing about this circumstance is the general public has no protection from the unscrupulous consultant and questionable and expensive avenues of redress if injured. On the other hand, an attorney must not only successfully complete an extensive program of study, but also must pass a rigorous National and State Bar Exam. Once accepted into the legal bar, an attorney must adhere to stringent ethical rules designed to protect the public and maintain confidence in the legal system. A client, who is unsatisfied with the handling of a matter and questions the conduct of his or her attorney, has free access to file a complaint with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee. Without charge, it will investigate the client’s complaint and, if wrongdoing is found, Supreme Court will take disciplinary action ranging from censure to disbarment. In addition, attorneys must be financially responsible for their actions taken on behalf of clients.

Most attorneys carry malpractice insurance coverage that provides a potential financial redress for clients. Consultants, on the other hand, cannot even qualify for professional liability insurance. In the absence of insurance, a dissatisfied client may file a potentially costly lawsuit against a consultant. However, as the client’s agent the consultant is not held to as high a standard of care as the attorney is and most consultants know ways of avoiding the responsibilities of their agency. Many states do not allow consultants to represent taxpayers. In Illinois, a consultant may not appear before Boards of Review, the Property Tax Appeal Board or the Circuit Court. Consequently, if a fair assessment is not achieved at the Assessor’s Office, the consultant cannot take the case further unless an attorney is hired. Moreover, to avoid the client’s contact with a professional representative, the consultant may not recommend further appeal. Even if an attorney is brought in at a later stage the cost may be higher because the consultant expects compensation as well as the attorney.

The whole situation is not pretty and one that we will certainly hear more about in coming years. The bottom line must be the protection of the public. At least for the present, only attorneys have the education, license, over-sight and professional insurance that assure the public’s protection. Many consultants have attorneys who file the necessary complaints on their behalf. The key words here are “on their behalf.” The consultants hire the attorneys, not the taxpayer, which gives rise to a number of ethical problems for the attorney and security problems for the taxpayer. The taxpayer has no recourse against the attorney. If something goes wrong, the taxpayer and attorney have no attorney client relationship. The attorney has ethical problems because he is required to represent the client directly and not through a third party consultant that may, and usually does, have interest that conflict with the taxpayer.

For more information on this article, contact the Law Offices of Rieff, Schramm, Kanter & Guttman.