Due Diligence When Hiring Property Tax Counsel
By Glenn Guttman
Many people have the perception that property tax appeals are a simple, straight-forward, easy, “run of the mill” type of work that may not need the expertise, advocacy or preparation of a licensed attorney.
In fact, with the sheer number of postcards and letters that are showing up in mailboxes throughout the Chicagoland area, a property owner may well believe that tax appeals and tax appeal representatives are as plentiful as handymen, roofers, insurance agents and realtors vying for anyone’s business so long as they have a pulse. The reality is that you shouldn’t hire a roofer, real estate agent or any other service provider, without a recommendation or without conducting some minimal due diligence in order to get a more thoughtful understanding of the task at hand.
Due Diligence Questions to Ask:
1) How long has the individual or business been practicing in the area of property tax appeals? There are a number of firms/businesses that are nothing more than “start-up” companies with little experience in this specialized area of practice.
2) Who is the person with whom I’ll be communicating with and who will be acting on my behalf? Most of the complaints that I hear from property owners who have had previous representation, but are now moving their business to my firm, are based on the fact that they never were able to speak with anyone at that previous firm who had specific knowledge of their case, or that they were never able to communicate with an attorney, rather than a staff-person about their matter. You should, when visiting the website of a prospective business, be able to see who the principal owners are, as well as the names of those persons who will be working on your matter. Validate that there is transparency, rather than secrecy, as to who will be representing you, and see what their specific experience is in the field of real estate tax representation. If you feel like you are trying to figure out who the “Great Oz” is behind the curtain, that’s not going to put your mind at ease about who is handling your tax appeal matter.
3) Ask whether the person you are contacting is a lawyer, or if it merely is a “consulting” company or non-lawyer doing the tax appeal work. As a real estate taxpayer, a non-attorney or consultant owes you no ethical duty to handle anything in a professional capacity. If a non-attorney conducts their representation of you poorly, or fails to adhere to their contractual obligations, your only remedy may be nothing more than giving a bad rating to the Better Business Bureau or Yelp. Such a remedy is worthless when you are dealing with an inexperienced, or a “fly-by-night,” start-up business. And when bad becomes worse, a business cited for infractions in their service, or worse yet, for malfeasance, can simply shut down and re-open under a new business name within a couple of days.
On the other hand, when an attorney is representing a property owner, there is a governing agency known as the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission governed by the Illinois Supreme Court that requires ethical standards and continuing legal education that ensure that the public is well served by a competent and ethical practitioner. If a lawyer misses a filing deadline or otherwise botches your case, you have this avenue for redress for the attorney’s negligence.
4) Have you actually COMMUNICATED with someone who will represent your interests? It is irksome to know there are some people who will log onto a web-site, or sign their name on a fee contract which blindly came in the mail unannounced and without provocation, to have a company or individual provide a service such as a property tax appeal. It is ill-advised to hire a service provider without first having a full conversation about the facts of your particular situation. A property owner certainly shouldn’t hire either a layperson or an attorney regarding a property tax appeal without first having some modicum of insightful communication of the real estate tax appeal process.
5) When you do inquire and you have had a full conversation with someone, were you FULLY informed of ALL of the facts concerning your rights to pursue a tax appeal? There are three separate and distinct opportunities to file protests against your property tax assessment. 1) Appeals can be filed with a local township Assessor where your property is located. 2) Appeals can also be filed at the county Board of Review. And, 3) if an appeal has been filed at the county Board of Review, a property owner may then continue to appeal at either the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB), or in the Circuit Court of their county.
Non-attorneys do not FULLY inform property owners of these particular facts, because non-attorneys CAN’T practice or file complaints ANYWHERE other than with the local township Assessor’s Offices.
Also, many attorneys don’t practice in all of the arenas where property tax appeals are heard, and some may “farm out” their cases to other attorneys with more experience in venues with which they are not familiar, or in which they do not routinely practice.
My recommendation is to hire an attorney or a law firm that has broad experience handling appeals at every level of the appeal process. There are a variety of options for pursuing assessment relief and a variety of reasons that go into deciding what is the best avenue to proceed with an appeal, and at which venue, so as to achieve the lowest and most equitable valuation for your property that the law will allow. If you spend just a short amount of time to perform the basic due diligence before hiring an attorney to represent your interests, you can rest assured that the best, most competent and ethical attorney is zealously representing your interests in your property tax appeals.
Glenn Guttman is the managing member in the law firm of Rieff Schramm Kanter & Guttman where he has practiced property tax law for more than 20 years. Glenn routinely appears before all of the administrative agencies and in Circuit Court representing owners, developers and tenants of every type of property from single-family homes to downtown office buildings. He has served as the chair of the Chicago Bar Association’s Real Estate Taxation Committee and has been both the moderator and a speaker at the annual attorneys’ seminar on Real Estate Taxation. Glenn has also been the author of chapters on “Real Estate Taxation” and “Residential Real Estate Practice” for the Illinois Institute of Continuing Legal Education.