Is it ethical to buy a competitor’s name as a search engine “keyword”?

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Most South Carolina dirt lawyers don’t do much direct advertising, but some make use of Internet keyword advertising. For that reason, I wanted to make sure you noticed the recently issued Ethics Advisory Opinion 20-01, which you can read here.

South Carolina’s Ethics Advisory Committee was asked the following question:  “May a lawyer bid on and use the names of other lawyers and law firms as a part of a competitive keyword advertising strategy?” In other words, it is ethical for a lawyer to pay an internet search engine to insert his or her ads when a searcher types a competitor’s name into the search engine?

In some search engines, the resulting advertisements appear on the right side of the page. In other search engines, they may appear marked as an “ad” or “sponsored” above the organic search results.

The Committee pointed out that competitive keyword advertising is different from search engine optimization (SEO). SEO is the process of increasing the visibility of a web page by users of a search engine and is directed at optimizing unpaid placement organic results. This opinion addresses only keyword advertising.

The Committee followed the lead of New Jersey, Texas and Wisconsin and opined that a lawyer may purchase an internet competitive advertising keyword that is the name of another lawyer or law firm in order to display a “sponsored” website advertisement.

The Committee stressed that lawyers should be mindful to comply with all advertising rules and should use care to ensure that no derogatory or uncivil message is conveyed. The Committee also pointed out that surreptitious redirection from a competitor’s website to a lawyer’s own website via hyperlink is prohibited under our Rules.

What do you think?

Tips for doing business … when we can’t do business as usual

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Our company has a remarkable network of intelligent, creative, caring agents in South Carolina. I asked our staff to pass along to me the innovative methods they are hearing that our residential closing attorneys are using as they continue to do business in this world infected by COVID-19, a world where business as usual is impossible.

I’m sharing this list with you to pass along some new ideas for your business and request that you share your innovative ideas with me. Let’s talk and continue to figure out ways to keep our clients, our staff and ourselves safe and well.

Some have asked why real estate closing services are considered to be “essential”. The technical explanation is that closings are an ancillary service of financial institutions, and financial services are essential. A better explanation may be that our industry allows access by our customers to the equity in their homes. If consumers are unable to sell or refinance their properties in a time of financial difficulty, then they are denied an avenue to prevent or delay financial difficulties. The same concept can be applied to commercial clients. They need access to their properties during difficult financial times more than ever. Never doubt that our closing services are essential in this environment.

Here are some ideas that our agents are using to conduct safe closings:

Communicate, communicate, communicate!

We have heard that clients are often surprised by the changes to closing procedures. Don’t let that happen. The new rules you establish should be clearly communicated with clients. You can’t control this unusual situation if you don’t clearly communicate the innovative methods you are using

  • Add the new rules to your email signatures.
  • Add the new rules to your engagement letters.
  • Use attractive signs inside and outside your office.
  • Make telephone calls!
  • Add video chatting to your website, Facebook pages and other social media venues.
  • Make sure your real estate agents and lenders understand the new procedures. They deserve extra communication during this time, too!
  • Let clients, real estate agents, lenders and other real estate professionals know about county office closures and other inconveniences that may affect closings.

Move closings to different locations:

  • Close at the client’s car. Allow the client to remain in the vehicle. Hand the client a pen to keep. Watch the execution from a distance and witness signatures at that same distance. Some lawyers are calling these closings “curbside service” and “drive-through closings”.
  • Close on the trunk or hood of the client’s vehicle.
  • Rope off parking-lot spaces for closings. Use attractive signs to mark the designated spaces.
  • Use a tailgating tent in your parking lot or other outdoor location. Fresh air is a huge advantage!
  • Buy colorful, plastic tables and chairs for this purpose.

Limit contact with individuals who are not necessary for closings:

  • Don’t allow real estate agents, lenders and others who are not needed for signing documents into your office.
  • Don’t allow children in your office. If parents must bring children, have one parent remain outside with their children while the other parent signs, then switch.
  • Clearly communicate that extra individuals are not allowed during this difficult time.

Limit the individuals who come into your office for any reason:

  • Don’t allow walk-ins during this time.
  • Stagger closings.
  • Have clients call from their vehicles to check in. Then call them and ask them to come into your office only when they can enter without encountering other individuals.
  • Set up separate waiting rooms if you have space.
  • Separate buyers and sellers.
  • Use video conferencing for activities other than actual closings.

Keep your office de-cluttered and cleaner than usual:

  • Buy pens in bulk and allow one-time use only. Give clients the pens they use.
  • Clean all surfaces clients touch, including conference tables, chairs, doorknobs, elevator buttons, stair railings, restrooms. Cleaning should take place between closings.
  • Use effective, antibacterial cleaning products.
  • Communicate additional cleaning requirements with the individuals who clean your office after hours.
  • Keep hand sanitizer and wipes at convenient locations throughout your office.
  • Remove children’s play areas.
  • Remove magazines and other extraneous items from waiting rooms and conference tables.
  • Wear masks and gloves. Encourage visitors to wear masks and gloves. Consider providing those items to your visitors.
  • Ask visitors to clean hands at the door.
  • Encourage pre-and post-closing hand washing.
  • Pack up glasses and cups. Use only disposable items. Limit food and drink sharing.
  • Clean after visits from delivery services.
  • Increase ventilation by opening windows and adjusting HVAC systems.

Other ideas:

  • Designate drop locations for documents and checks. These locations may be on porches or lobbies. But don’t forget security! We added a new, locked drop box to the exterior of our office.
  • Mail or wire all funds. Don’t allow anyone to wait for checks in your office.
  • Sadly, don’t allow hand-shaking or hugging!
  • Advise anyone who feels sick to stay away! This includes your valuable staff members.
  • Use powers of attorney.
  • Use open spaces for meetings.
  • Use Plexiglass to separate individuals.

All of these ideas, of course, are not useful for every office. Use your best efforts! I heard a horror story about a closing office where staff members came to work despite feeling ill. The result? Individuals from twenty closings were infected. Don’t allow a horror story to occur in your office.

Please share ideas with me. I would love to add to this list to benefit everyone!

Stay safe and well out there!

Congress is working on online notary legislation

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Please see the linked March 22 article from HousingWire that outlines the bipartisan movement in Congress led by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Kevin Cramer (R-NC) to allow for remote online notarization nationwide.

While most of our agents seem to support this effort, we understand some oppose the South Carolina remote online notary law (RON) because they believe they would lose control of closings if it passed. I understand that concern, but point out that neither the state nor federal proposals would change our unauthorized practice of law precedent. In fact, the senators working on the federal version indicate it would not impede consumer choice nor change any state law governing the practice of law.

The federal bill is entitled “Securing and Enabling Commerce Using Remote and Electronic Notarization Act of 2020.” Currently about half the states allow for RON at this point, but South Carolina is not one of them.

Please pay attention to this movement and contact your congressmen whether you support or oppose the legislation.

SC Supreme Court rule change affects every lawyer with a trust account

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Make one simple change to stay in compliance

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On October 23, our Supreme Court implemented several changes to the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules dealing with lawyer and judicial disciplinary rules enforcement procedures. If things go well in our respective practices, most of us will never have to study the rule changes.

But one change affects every lawyer with a trust account.

Rule 1.15(h) of the Rules of Professional Conduct has been amended to state that every lawyer maintaining a trust account must file a written directive requiring his or her financial institution to report to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, rather than to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct, when any properly payable instrument is presented for payment against insufficient funds.

In other words, NSF checks must now be reported by your bank to the ODC.

The Court recognized in a footnote that these written directives will take time to update and that lawyers whose written directives currently require reporting to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct are not in violation of the rule. The Court stated that lawyers should update these directives at their earliest convenience.

Most dirt lawyers pay close attention to detail, and I would recommend paying attention to this one sooner rather than later.

The Law Firm of Your Dreams

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Say Goodbye to Your Boss, Say Hello to the Law Firm You’ve Always Dreamed of

JFisher Book 2Readers of this blog know I am prone to write a book report from time to time, but only about books that I think will benefit South Carolina real estate practitioners. I’ve blogged previously (twice!) about John Fisher’s The Power of a System; How to Build the Injury Law Practice of Your Dreams. John Fisher has a new book that I also recommend for dirt lawyers.

By the way, John was a speaker at our Chicago Title annual seminar on October 14, and he did not disappoint. If you missed him, I highly recommend that you begin following what he writes and that you seek out the opportunity to hear him speak.

His 2019 book is entitled The Law Firm of Your Dreams; Say Goodbye to Your Boss, Say Hello to the Law Firm You’ve Always Dreamed of.

In the formative days of his medical malpractice firm, Fisher wished for a step-by-step manual for running a profitable practice because, like the rest of us, he was not taught strategic planning, goal setting, business metrics, managing employees, managing clients, and marketing in law school. He later developed that manual for his firm, not just technical systems for running a business, but also the managerial and entrepreneurial principles to keep a constant stream of new cases and clients coming through the pipeline.

Those systems were covered in his first book, and numerous lawyers have said the book provides a roadmap for accurate and precise business development for any lawyer in any practice anywhere!

The 2019 book starts with the premise that the lawyer’s mindset is the most important aspect of creating the ideal law firm. Without the right mindset, the author says, the best policies and systems won’t do you much good. He recommends becoming a “specialist” even though that word is a “no no” under our ethical rules. John believes that if you don’t specialize in something, you will be marginal in everything.

I have a lawyer friend who has learned to specialize. He practices in the area of residential real estate closings in a coastal area. He is a sole practitioner, and he very narrowly defines the scope of his work. He seeks to make buyers, sellers, real estate agents, and lenders happy in connection with their closings. For that reason, he will not write what I call “nasty lawyer letters”. He refers that work to a friend. He will also not do any kind of work that will slow down the very well-oiled machine that keeps him churning out his closings in a timely and accurate fashion.

He may set up a simple LLC for a closing, but he refers out complicated entity formation, complicated trust formation and anything to do with estate planning. He may draft a simple set of restrictive covenants, but he refers out complicated subdivision development and commercial real estate closings of any type. His clients, lenders and real estate agents are happy and return again and again. Fellow lawyers love that he refers complicated work to them, and they refer residential closings to him in return. Win. Win. Win. John Fisher would approve of his system.

John Fisher recommends that a lawyer should delegate almost everything, both professionally and personally. He says, “your career (and life) will be chaos if you answer every phone call or email during your work day. You will never go home in time for dinner or attend your kids’ ball games if you insist on being everything for your clients. That’s why you have to delegate everything you can and do only those things you cannot delegate.”

And the best thing you can do for your career, according to this author, is to devote as much time and energy as you can to marketing and growing your law practice. A large part of both books is devoted to marketing.

I am a huge fan of the ideas and step-by-step instructions of this thoughtful lawyer and author. I invite you to read his books and follow his advice to improve your practice and your life!

Do you and your employees work remotely?

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Check out these network tips for remote employees

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Our office has been involved in workflow studies for the offices of our attorney agents, and one point that comes up often is that allowing employees to work at home increases employee satisfaction and retention. We’ve witnessed many paralegals permanently move to remote locations and successfully retain their jobs. Telecommuting seems to work successfully in many instances.

In our own office, all our employees have the capability to work remotely. We learned when our office building suffered a fire in 2012 that the ability to access our network from remote locations allowed us to continue our business without interruption. The day after the fire, we disbursed the funds for a large commercial transaction for an agent from my kitchen at home!

And since South Carolina routinely finds itself within the maze of the spaghetti models during hurricane season, the ability to work remotely is important if not necessary to maintain contact while taking care of school children and hunkering down at home.

American Land Title Association (ALTA) published an article on September 5 attaching The Center for Internet Security, Inc. (CIS) Telework and Small Office Network Security Guide.

This 25-page paper provides useful, up-to-date guidance on keeping your networks safe when employees are allowed remote access. The guide provides recommendations for buying equipment, setting up networks, setting up devices, securing home routers and protecting against digital threats.

The ALTA article refers to a Forbes study that found 38 percent of teleworkers lack the technological support they need to do their jobs. Securing devices and networks that allow telecommuting is critical. The guide includes a network security checklist and tells users how to map security configurations to provide cybersecurity protection at remote locations.

Thanks to ALTA for pointing us to this valuable resource, and thanks to CIS for publishing it!

FCC Publishes Scam Glossary

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The Federal Communications Commission recently published a Scam Glossary, which you can access here. The glossary provides a helpful description robocalls, spoofing scams and related consumer fraud.

The FCC tracks these nefarious items through consumer complaints, news reports and notices from other governmental agencies, consumer groups and industry sources.

The glossary includes links to more detailed information posted in the FCC’s Consumer Help Center and trusted external sources.

Here are a few of my least favorite schemes from the glossary:

“Can You Hear Me” Scam: Scammers open by asking a yes-or-no question, such as: “Can you hear me?” or “Is this X?” Their goal is to record you saying “yes” in response. They then may use that recording to authorize charges over the phone.

Flood Insurance Scam: After floods, scammers may target hard hit areas with fake calls about flood insurance to steal private information or money. They may spoof a legitimate flood insurance company to appear more convincing.

Google Listing Scams: Some scammers claim that they can add or remove you or your business from Google searches or similar services. These callers, unaffiliated with Google, seek payment for services they can’t deliver.

Jury Duty Scams: Callers pose as local law enforcement, claiming they have a warrant for your arrest because you missed jury duty. They may instruct you to pay a fine by wiring money or using gift cards.

Porting: A scammer gets your name and phone number, then gathers other identifying information that can be used for identity theft. Pretending to be you, they then contact your mobile provider to report your phone as stolen or lost, and then ask for the number to be “ported” to another provider and device. They can use your number to gain access to your financial accounts and other services with two-factor authentication enabled.

Smishing: Short for “SMS phishing”, smishing often involves text messages claiming to be from your bank or another company. The message displays a phone number to call or a link to click, giving scammers the chance to trick you out of money or personal information.

Wangiri/One Ring Scam: When your phone rings only once, late at night, you may be tempted to call back. But the call may be from a foreign country with an area code the looks deceptively like it’s in the U.S. If you dial back, international calling fees may wind up on your bill. Such cons are known by the Japanese term “Wangiri”.

Check out this useful list, share it with your office and your family members. And be careful out there!

Dave Whitener’s “Palmetto Logs”

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Two weeks ago, this blog paid tribute to the late, great Dave Whitener, a giant among real estate legal professionals in South Carolina. As suggested in that blog about Dave’s “Top Ten You Betters”, I also wanted to share with you Dave’s “Palmetto Logs”.

Several years before his death, Dave was asked to address the American Bar Association. The issue was whether a successful defense might be mounted if a federal agency attacked the rights now existing in South Carolina for lawyers, and only lawyers, to close real estate transactions. In that talk, Dave cited ten areas of defense that he called the Palmetto Logs. For non-South Carolinians, the palmetto log has traditionally been a symbol of protection for South Carolinians in time of war. South Carolina is nicknamed “The Palmetto State”.

Here are Dave’s suggested protections against an attack from outside our state for closings performed by licensed South Carolina attorneys:

Caselaw

  1. State v. Buyers Service, 292 S.C. 426, 357 S.E.2d 15 (1987). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court defined the practice of law in a residential real estate closing to include: certification of the title; preparation of the deed and loan closing documents, closing the transaction and overseeing recording.
  2. Doe v. Condon, 351 S.C. 158, 568 S.E.2d 356 (2002). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court reiterated and confirmed that the four protected areas set out in Buyer’s Service would also apply to residential refinances.
  3. Doe v. McMaster, 355 S.C. 306, 585 S.E.2d 773 (2003). In 2003, the South Carolina Supreme Court again reiterated its holding in Buyer’s Service.

Statutes and South Carolina Constitution

  1. C. Code §40-5-310 makes it a felony for an individual to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  2. C. Code §40-5-320 makes it a misdemeanor for a corporation or other entity to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  3. C. Code §37-10-102 gives a borrower the absolute right to choose the closing attorney in a residential loan closing. The statute provides for a $7,500 penalty if the disclosure is not given.
  4. South Carolina’s Constitution gives the S.C. Supreme Court the exclusive right to define the practice of law within South Carolina

Practical Considerations

  1. The low cost attributable to attorneys’ fees for residential closings in South Carolina. Dave believed the low cost would present a major difficulty if a federal agency argues that South Carolina’s practice is anti-competitive or increased prices.
  2. Major job losses would possibly result from the outsourcing of jobs to closing centers outside of South Carolina
  3. Major risks would be raised in turning over the duties now performed by experienced lawyers to unregulated and inexperienced lay persons.

I’m not sure whether Dave would say differently if he were here to analyze this topic for us today. I fear that the retirement of Chief Justice Jean Toal may have resulted in the loss of the South Carolina lawyer’s strongest advocate in the South Carolina Supreme Court. So far, the Palmetto Logs are holding strong, but some more recent cases from our Supreme Court give me some concern on this topic.

In any event, I am continually thankful for Dave Whitener and his influence, mentorship and friendship to South Carolina dirt lawyers!

South Carolina lawyers: “Reply All” is not always your friend!

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Don’t communicate with represented parties accidentally!

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“Ruh-roh”

There are numerous ways a lawyer can get into trouble with the Supreme Court, but inadvertently communicating with another lawyer’s client can be avoided simply by thinking before hitting “Reply All” in your email system.

Ethics Advisory Opinion 18-04 addressed this concern. The situation posed to the Ethics Advisory Committee was:

Factual Background: Lawyer A sends an email to Lawyer B and copies several people, including Lawyer A’s client. Lawyer A has not previously consented to Lawyer B contacting Lawyer A’s client and does not expressly do so in the email.

Question:  If Lawyer B receives an email from Lawyer A on which Lawyer A’s client is copied, may the lawyer “reply to all” – copying Lawyer A’s client with the response – without the express consent of Lawyer A?”

The Committee discussed Rule 4.2, SCRPC, which provides that in representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter unless the lawyer has consent of the other lawyer or is authorized to do so by law or a court order.

The purpose of the rule is to ensure proper functioning of the legal system by protecting a party who is represented by counsel from overreaching by other lawyers. The rule is also aimed at preventing interference in the lawyer-client relationship.

Two previous opinions discussed whether letters can be ethically mailed to opposing parties represented by counsel. Ethics Advisory Opinion 91-02 advised prosecutors to avoid copying criminal defendants on court appearance notifications without the consent of the defense attorney. Similarly, Ethics Advisory Opinion 93-16 advised plaintiffs’ lawyers to avoid copying defendants on settlement offers to defense counsel without the consent of defense counsel.

The Committee opined that copying an opposing party on email is prohibited in the same way sending a letter is prohibited, absent consent of opposing counsel. The question then became whether consent must be express or may be implied. The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers indicates the consent may be implied: “An opposing lawyer may acquiesce, for example, by being present at a meeting and observing the communication. Similarly, consent may be implied rather than express, such as where such direct contact occurs routinely as a matter of custom, unless the opposing lawyer affirmatively protests.”

The North Carolina, Alaska and New York City Bar Committees had previously opined that, while this consent may be implied, the mere fact that an attorney copies a client on an email sent to opposing counsel does not, by itself, constitute implied consent to a response sent to both opposing lawyer and the opposing client. South Carolina’s Committee agreed.

The Committee stated, however, that consent to a “reply all” may sometimes be implied. The Committee indicated that whether the matter is adversarial is an important factor. Additionally consent may be implied if the email is about scheduling under circumstances whether the client’s availability is at issue along with counsels, if email conversations among counsel and sophisticated clients together are the normal course of dealing, or if the lawyer initially cc’d the client expressly invites a “reply all” response.

The Committee cautioned that the practice of copying a client by either “cc” or “bcc” when emailing opposing counsel poses the risk of revealing confidential information. The Committee said that the recipient of an email might not recognize all the names in a group email and might communicate with opposing client’s client inadvertently by using “reply all”.  For these reasons, the Committee said that it is generally unwise to “cc” a client on an email communication to opposing counsel.

The Committee summarized its opinion: “Absent consent of Lawyer A, Lawyer B may not communicate with Lawyer A’s client about the subject of the representation either directly or by copying Lawyer A’s client in an emails sent in response to Lawyer A’s email on which the client was copied. The mere fact that a lawyer copies his own client on an email does not, without more, constitute implied consent to a “reply to all” responsive email.

My advice? Use caution when hitting “reply all” in all circumstances! “Less is more” is a generally good rule to follow in email communications. I have actually heard that one lawyer may set up another lawyer by coping a client in email communications. Don’t be a victim!

Let’s collectively start a trend in South Carolina: Shifting home closings away from the end of the month

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I’m going on the record with a strong second to my friend, Gary Pickren’s blog!

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Gary Pickren, an excellent residential real estate attorney with an outstanding law firm, Blair|Cato|Pickren|Casterline, here in Columbia posted a blog on May 12 entitled “Save Yourself a Huge Headache!!!!” You can read Gary’s blog in its entirety here.

Gary was apparently reacting to a crazy month-end for his office in April. He reported 25 closings on Tuesday, April 30 as opposed to 3 or 4 on Wednesday, May 1. And the closings that occurred on May 1 were a result of late loan packages from lenders. He was asking his real estate agents to save themselves headaches by scheduling closings throughout the month.

Closings at the end of the month are not a new phenomenon. As far back as I can remember (and that’s a long way back), real estate agents have scheduled closings at the end of the month. Why? Because interim interest has to be paid for only one day, reducing the funds the buyer has to bring to the closing.

Does closing at the end of the month save the buyer money? No! Interest will be paid from the date of the closing regardless. The only difference is the amount of the interim interest, the funds brought to the closing table. If interest is not brought to the closing, it is paid with the first payment.

I sent Gary’s blog around to my office members and got some unexpected strong reactions!

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Troyce Anderson, who was formerly a closing paralegal in Greenville, said scheduling closings throughout the month would probably reduce claims because law firms would be able to close with less stress and avoid common mistakes.

 

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Melissa Christensen, who was formerly a closing paralegal in the Myrtle Beach area, said her daughter, Savannah, was born on May 30, and the family always has to schedule birthday parties in early June.

 

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Speaking of birth issues, Sara Sigwart, who was formerly a closing paralegal in Hilton Head and Charleston, said that one of her fellow closing paralegals successfully searched for a doctor who would schedule a delivery of her child on the 20th of the month so she could celebrate birthdays with her child on the actual birth date.  Sara’s other reply to Gary’s blog was “PREACH!”

 

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Denise Seay, who was formerly a real estate paralegal in Hilton Head said, “Oh good grief-we used to say Realtors only knew one day in the month!”

 

If our office staff reacted this strongly, imagine how strongly your paralegals, who are currently in the closing trenches, would react. Think about how much easier it would be to manage your office and everyone’s schedules! Your holidays and vacations would even be more manageable.

Gary’s blog calls the end of the month in a residential closing office “organized chaos”.  It might also be termed a huge “traffic jam” for lenders, real estate agents, closing attorneys, paralegals, abstractors, and even buyers and sellers. Let’s follow Gary’s advice and spread closings throughout the month!

You don’t have to be the “bad guy” by using your own words to pass this thought on to real estate agents. Send them this blog!