Use technology and make more money!

Standard

Grow your business, dirt lawyers!

This blog is supposed to be about South Carolina dirt law, but I saw this great article entitled “Twelve Steps to a Profitable Law Practice” that I thought would benefit most South Carolina dirt lawyers. The author is Ernest Svenson (also known as “Ernie the Attorney” if you are interested in Googling his interesting blogs about technology, marketing and other topics vital for law firms but often overlooked by busy lawyers).

Mr. Svenson is the founder of Law Firm Autopilot, the stated mission of which is to help small firm lawyers transform their practices to improve their quality of life. Check out Law Firm Autopilot’s online courses and coaching services here.

technology money

The article is adapted from a chapter in a book I’m reading, The Secrets to Marketing and Automating Your Law Practice: A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating Systems, Getting Clients and Becoming a Legal Rainmaker by David M. Pitton (Practice Panther, 2018). You can download a free copy of the book at the end of the article linked above. This book is good. Chapter 1, entitled “The Ultimate Checklist for Starting Your Own Firm” blew my mind with its very specific, detailed advice about the technology a lawyer establishing a new practice needs. Most of what the author advised was extremely practical and extremely economical because he understands the financial pressures of a new practice. Example:  design a logo for only $99!

Why am I bothering Dirt Law readers with this topic? I know most of you are not thinking about opening your own practices. I’m troubling you with this because I believe marketing and technology may be two of the most vital components required to maintain healthy and growing practices in 2018. Real estate practitioners are always competing and are always trying to stay ahead of the quickly changing technology landscape. The lawyers who master technology and marketing are the lawyers who will thrive in the future.

Mr. Svenson does not suggest that you must master technology yourself. He believes in hiring experts to push the buttons for you. He says, “If you can follow a clear ‘process roadmap’—such as the rules of civil procedure—then you are capable of radically improving your practice with common technology, most of which you already own.” He believes that digitizing will allow you to simplify your practice and lower your overhead. He believes automation will exponentially increase efficiencies and result in cost savings. And he believes that you can learn to work virtually from anywhere with an internet connection.

Many of you know our staff was displaced in 2012 when our office building was involved in a fire. Thankfully, no one got hurt, and much of our furniture and equipment was eventually saved, despite the layer of soot that settled on everything. But we were displaced for a whole year! We rented a small suite in an executive space downtown, but most of us worked remotely (from home) for an entire year. And we didn’t miss a beat. As far as we were able to tell, we didn’t lose a dollar. The day after the fire, several of us were camped out in my kitchen at home disbursing funds for a large commercial transaction. If I was not a believer in being “paperless” before that catastrophe, I definitely am today. I call myself the poster child for business continuity.

(By the way, I am working in said kitchen as I write. I recently hired a new lawyer despite not having space for him, so I displaced myself instead of our new underwriter until we are able to move to a larger space later this year. Again, I am not missing a beat!)

This article says, “If you want to streamline your practice and reduce clutter and chaos, you need to stop managing information in paper form. Digital information is cheaper to store, easier to transmit, and can be automated more easily.”

And, of course, the author points out, and I want to emphasize, that the more we rely on digital information and automation, the more we have to pay attention to security. There are experts that are available to help with this issue. Use them!

Don’t be surprised if you see more blogs from me on related topics in the future. I’m on a roll, trying to read everything on these topics I can, so that my office and I will be in a position to assist our attorney agents as they grow and thrive. Grow and thrive with us!

Advertisements

Dear History, please stop repeating yourself!

Standard

Hurricane Irma is the third disaster in two years for South Carolina

pen quill

Hurricane Irma is the third disaster to pummel our beloved state since this blog was launched in 2014. After the 1,000 year flood in October of 2015, Hurricane Matthew struck in October of 2016. Rebuilding is not complete from either catastrophe.

On my way to work this morning, I passed the remains of several businesses that were destroyed when Gills Creek flooded in 2015. Thankfully, I heard recently that Richland County is about to purchase those properties to turn them into green spaces. Other areas in and around Columbia are still in the rebuilding process or have been completely abandoned. Many homeowners have made their homes bigger, stronger and certainly taller. Others have given up and moved away.

Enter Irma. A friend joked on Facebook that we’re lucky here in South Carolina Irma passed us by. You would never know it passed us by from the many feet of water we’re seeing in pictures of Charleston, Beaufort, Hilton Head, Georgetown, Garden City and surrounding areas. And the pictures and video coming from Florida and the Caribbean, not to mention the pictures and video coming from the Hurricane Harvey disaster in Texas and Louisiana, all show unspeakable damage.

Our company’s home office is located in Jacksonville where surrounding streets are under water. Employees with power are trying to work remotely. Others are out of commission.

A wise man in our building here in Columbia said to me this morning that these disasters bring out the best and the worst in folks. There are looters, but there are many more heroes who have rescued their neighbors in boats. There are neighborhoods without power who are gathering in their streets for impromptu block parties. Chainsaws are chopping downed trees. Supplies and helping hands are being donated. Celebrities and charities are raising millions. I’d like to believe that we’re seeing much more good than bad in people.

Our hearts are breaking for those who have lost so much. Rebuilding will take time, resources and patience. Many have lost everything and are without insurance coverage. Millions are without power and water. Many are in shock.

Dirt lawyers are in an exceptional position to support clients who may not be familiar with the assistance available to them. We have all learned a lot in the last few years. I challenge each of us to continue to educate ourselves and to be available to offer the valuable advice our neighbors and others will need in the days ahead. Local, state and federal governments seem better prepared this time around and seem to be working better to coordinate efforts. Here is a link to the South Carolina Bar’s Key Assistance Numbers. South Carolinians are strong and resilient, and we are stronger and more resilient now than we were for the last disaster.

Let’s once again rise to the occasion, real estate lawyers, and provide the best advice available for our clients and friends who will need it as they sort out, clean up and rebuild.

Statute of Elizabeth case provides important reminders

Standard

Conveyance to an LLC is set aside

A recent South Carolina Court of Appeals case* affirmed a Circuit Court order that set aside a conveyance under the Statute of Elizabeth. This is yet another tale of woe from the economic downturn.

scales - blue background

Kenneth Clifton was a successful real estate developer who commonly purchased investment property in his own name. When he developed property, he transferred his interest to a limited liability company (LLC). He organized more than forty LLCs during his career.

In 1993, Clifton and Linda Whiteman purchased approximately 370 acres in Laurens County in their individual names as tenants in common.

Clifton routinely borrowed money from lenders to finance his developments. At issue in this case were three loans from First Citizens Bank totaling around $4 million. These loans were renewed over the years as Clifton made progress payments.

When the real estate market slowed in 2008, Clifton sought additional extensions for two of the loans. First Citizens asked for a personal financial statement. Clifton’s financial statement claimed a net worth of $50 million with real estate comprising over $48 million. The subject 370 acres in Laurens was included. The statement stated Clifton owned a 50% unencumbered interest valued at approximately $1.5 million. Relying on this financial statement, First Citizens renewed the loans to mature in 2009.

Later in 2008, Clifton requested an extension on the third loan. Just prior to receiving the extension, Clifton and Whiteman transferred their interests in the property to Park at Durbin Creek, LLC (PDC). Clifton testified that he and Whiteman chose to transfer this property to PDC over Whiteman’s concern about personal liability because the property was being leased to third parties for recreational hunting purposes. All three loans were extended to mature in 2009.

Clifton failed to make payments, to provide a business plan or to secure additional collateral. First Citizens initiated foreclosure proceedings in February of 2009 and eventually secured a deficiency judgment of $745,000 against him.

During the foreclosure proceedings, Clifton and his daughters entered into an assignment agreement resulting in a transfer by Clifton in PDC to Streamline, an LLC that was nonexistent on the date of the transfer but whose members, upon creation, were Clifton’s daughters and ex-wife.

In 2010, First Citizens initiated supplemental proceedings, but by this time, Clifton had no remaining assets. First Citizens began this case under the Statute of Elizabeth (S.C. Code §27-23-10), alleging causes of action for fraudulent conveyance, civil conspiracy and partition.

court money 2The Circuit Court found sufficient “badges of fraud” to infer Clifton possessed fraudulent intent when he transferred his 50% interest in the property to PDC.

This is the first valuable reminder from this case:  The conveyance to Streamline was held void ab initio because Streamline did not exist at the time of the conveyance. (Dirt lawyers, make sure your entities are properly created before you assist your clients in making conveyances to them!)

A second valuable reminder involves requirements concerning transfers of interests in member-managed LLCs like PDC. When Clifton attempted to transfer his interest in PDC to a separate LLC, he failed to obtain Whiteman’s consent. Section 33-44-404 (c)(7) of the South Carolina code states that, in a member-managed LLC, the admission of a new member requires the consent of all members. The lack of consent in this case would have invalided the transfer to streamline even if the transfer to PDC had been held valid. (Dirt lawyers, make sure you follow statutory procedures when dealing with transfers of interests in entities.)

The case then sets out a simple South Carolina primer on the Statute of Elizabeth. The statute provides:

Every gift, grant, alienation, bargain, transfer and conveyance of lands…for any intent or purpose to delay, hinder, or defraud creditors and others of their just and lawful actions, suits, debts, accounts, damages, penalties, and forfeitures must be deemed and taken…to be clearly and utterly void.

Citing earlier cases, the Court of Appeals stated that this statute can be used to set aside conveyances whether or not consideration is paid.

Where there is valuable consideration, the following element must be established:

  1. The transfer was made with the actual intent to defraud creditors;
  2. The grantor was indebted at the time of the transfer;
  3. The grantor’s intent is imputable to the grantee.

Where there is no valuable consideration, no actual intent to hinder or delay creditors is required. Instead, the transfer will be set aside if:

  1. The grantor was indebted to the plaintiff at the time of the transfer;
  2. The conveyance was voluntary; and
  3. The grantor failed to retain sufficient property to pay the indebtedness to the plaintiff at the time when the plaintiff seeks to collect the debt.

In this case, the Circuit Court found and both parties agreed that valuable consideration was paid. For that reason, First Citizens was required to prove that Clifton transferred the property with the intent to delay, hinder or defraud First Citizens.

Citing earlier cases again, the Court of Appeals stated that when a party denies fraudulent intent, as Clifton did, the creditor must prove “badges of fraud”. One badge of fraud may not create a presumption of fraud, but several badges of fraud does create the presumption.

Nine badges of fraud have been identified by our courts:

  1. The insolvency or indebtedness of the transferor;
  2. Lack of consideration for the conveyance;
  3. Relationship between the transferor and the transferee;
  4. The pendency or threat of litigation;
  5. Secrecy or concealment;
  6. Departure from the usual method of business;
  7. The transfer of the debtor’s entire estate;
  8. The reservation of benefit to the transferor; and
  9. The retention by the debtor of possession of the property.

The Court held that six of the nine badges of fraud were present in this case, resulting in a presumption of fraud. The Court next considered whether Clifton successfully rebutted the presumption. The Court concluded that Clifton wanted to protect the property from creditors, despite offering the legitimate reason for the transfer, that Whiteman was concerned about personal liability on hunting property.

Finally, the Court held that the invalidity of the conveyance of Clifton’s undivided 50% interest in the property does not invalidate Whiteman’s conveyance despite the fact that only one deed was used.

* First Citizens Bank and Trust Company, Inc. v. Park at Durbin Creek, LLC, South Carolina Court of Appeals Case 5469 (February 15, 2017)

Cyber Incident Preparedness for Closing Attorneys

Standard

And what to do if you suspect a compromise

With the increase in wire fraud that is happening in closing offices around the country, our company recently shared two documents that I thought would be beneficial to pass along to all South Carolina dirt lawyers .

The first document is a Public Service Announcement from the FBI dated August 27, 2015 concerning Business Email Compromise (BEC). BEC is defined as a sophisticated scam targeting businesses working with foreign suppliers and businesses that regularly perform wire transfers. Legitimate e-mail accounts are compromised through social engineering and computer intrusion to conduct unauthorized wire transfers.

We have seen this happen in more than one law firm in South Carolina!

cyber-fraud-theif

This PSA states that the total number of victims from October 2013 through August 2015 was 8,179 and the total exposed dollar loss was $798,897,959!

The second document was prepared by Linda Grahovec, the Director of Education and Marketing for our company. This document provides two cyber incident checklists, one for use in preparing, and the other for use if your office is attacked.

Here are three pieces of advice for all closing attorneys:

  1. Use an e-mail system that requires two-factor authentication;
  2. Never wire funds based on the content of an e-mail. Always assume e-mail has been compromised, and validate the information by phone. A good practice would be to refrain from sending wiring instructions by e-mail.
  3. If you suspect fraud, contact the bank immediately.

Please remain vigilant! Read everything you can on this topic, and continue to update and guard your systems. One incident could easily put a law firm out of business. Title insurance companies are excellent sources of information and training on these topics! Call on them!

SC Supreme Court Warns Closing Attorneys

Standard

Don’t be used as a “rubber stamp” or “rent” your name and status as an attorney!

businessman nametag for rentIn a disciplinary case filed on April 20,* the South Carolina Supreme Court publicly reprimanded an attorney for failing to properly supervise the disbursement aspect of a residential refinance closing. In a three-two decision, the Court pointedly seized the opportunity to warn residential closing lawyers.

The disciplined attorney worked as an independent contractor for Carolina Attorney Network, a management service located in Lexington, that provides its services to, among other entities, Vantage Point Title, Inc.  Vantage Point Title was described as a non-lawyer owned title company based in Florida. The attorney testified that 99.9% of his business comes from Carolina Attorney Network and that he had no direct contact with Vantage Point Title.

The attorney had previously been suspended for thirty days by the Court for failing to properly maintain his trust account. He stated in oral arguments in the current case that the suspension caused him to lose his ability to perform closings in the normal manner because he lost his status as an agent for a title insurance company. As a result, he said he was forced to handle closings through the management service.

The attorney testified that he didn’t recall the closing at issue, but he described the process. He said he receives closing documents via e-mail and reviews the title opinions. He verifies that a South Carolina licensed attorney completed the title opinions. He also reviews the closing instructions and the closing statements. He does not review the title commitments nor verify the loan payoff amounts. He conducts the closings and returns the closing packages with authorizations to disburse. Vantage Point disburses the funds, records the documents and issues the title insurance policies. Vantage Point then sends the lawyer disbursement logs showing how closing funds are disbursed. The lawyer reviews the disbursement logs to ensure they have a zero balance. He or an employee of Carolina Attorney Network reviews the online records of the ROD to verify that the mortgages are properly recorded.

The loan at issue had been “net funded” and the disbursement log did not “zero out”. The log showed a credit of approximately $100,000, and a disbursement of approximately $800. The Court stated that the disbursement log was inaccurate, and that the lawyer did not even know at the time of closing that the loan had been net funded.

The HUD-1 Settlement Statement in the closing at issue showed Vantage Point received approximately $800 for “title services and lender’s title insurance”, but attorney’s fees were not reflected. In fact, Vantage Point paid Carolina Attorney Network $250, and Carolina Attorney Network paid the attorney $150.

Vantage Point maintains a national trust account for all fifty states, but at some point, it opened “for unknown reasons”, according to the Court, a SC IOLTA account. Two checks were written on the IOLTA account for the closing at issue. When those two checks were returned for insufficient funds, the investigation by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel was triggered. Ultimately, all checks cleared, and no one sustained harm.

Doe v. Richardson is the controlling case. In this 2006 seminal case, the S.C. Supreme Court held that disbursement of funds in a residential refinance is an integral step in the closing and constitutes the practice of law. Richardson further held that although the attorney must supervise disbursements in residential closings, the funds do not have to pass through the supervising attorney’s trust account.

The Court stated the current case presents a situation where the lawyer conducted his duty to supervise disbursement in name only. He “rented” his name and status as an attorney to attempt to satisfy the attorney supervision requirement. There is no question, according to the Court, that the lawyer’s cursory review of the disbursement log did not satisfy the duty to supervise disbursement. The Court stated in furtherance of its concern that attorneys are being used as “rubber stamps” to satisfy the attorney supervision requirement in low cost real estate closings, and it took the opportunity in this case to expand upon Richardson.

The Court clarified that an attorney’s duty to oversee the disbursement of loan proceeds in residential closings is nondelegable. To fulfil this duty, the attorney must ensure: (a) that he or she has control over the disbursement of loan proceeds; or (b) at a minimum, that he or she receives detailed verification that the disbursement was correct.

The Court stated that, in practice, an attorney may find that utilizing his or her trust account and personally disbursing funds provides the most effective means to fulfil this duty. The Court stood by the Richardson holding, however, that residential closing funds are not required to pass through the supervising attorney’s trust account. It held that the attorney’s verification of proper disbursement, via sufficient documentation or information received from the appropriate banking institution, in addition to the disbursement log, is acceptable to fulfil this duty.

In essence, according to the Court, the lawyer was used as a “rubber stamp” for a non-lawyer, out-of-state organization with no office in South Carolina, whose involvement was not disclosed to the clients. The Court stated that it has insisted on lawyer-directed real estate closings in order to protect the public. The lawyer’s method of handling his client’s business was stated to provide no real protection and was held to be a “gross abandonment” of his supervisory authority.

Former Chief Justice Toal wrote the opinion for the Court. Justices Kittredge and Moore concurred. Current Chief Justice Pleicones dissented in a separate opinion in which Justice Hearn concurred.

The dissent characterized the case as a situation that through an error by a title company, the ODC became aware of a single closing where the attorney failed to explain the nature of a “net funding” transaction to clients who suffered no harm. Nothing in this single instance justifies a public reprimand, according to the dissent, nor justifies a modification of Richardson, adopting a non-delegable duty to oversee loan disbursements through “detailed verification” or through the receipt of “sufficient documentation or information” in addition to the disbursement log.

The dissent said that the majority neither explains what this means nor how more oversight could have prevented the title company from issuing checks drawn on the wrong account. In a footnote, the dissent accused the majority of imposing a “new, vague requirement on residential real estate closings”.

The real question becomes….what in the world will the next case on this topic hold?

*In the Matter of Breckenridge, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion No. 27625, April 20, 2016.

SC Real Estate Lawyers: Prepare To Advise Clients Struck By Disaster

Standard

 _SC Flood 2015Our hearts are breaking for our family members, friends and neighbors who have lost so much in this flooding disaster. Charleston and Columbia and the boroughs, towns, cities and counties between will rebuild, but it will take time, resources and patience. Many have lost everything and are without insurance coverage because flooding was so unexpected in many areas. Many are without power and water. Many are in shock. And we are being told the flooding will get worse before it gets better.

For those of us old enough to remember, this disaster feels incredibly like the aftermath of hurricane Hugo in 1989. As I think back to the beautiful areas in South Carolina that were hardest hit then and reflect on those areas today, it seems that almost all of them are better and stronger and more beautiful than they were before the disaster. South Carolinians are strong and resilient, and we are stronger today than we were yesterday.

Dirt lawyers are in an exceptional position to support clients who are not familiar with the assistance that may be available to them. I challenge each of us to educate ourselves to be available to offer the valuable advice that will be needed in the days, weeks and months to come. I am not knowledgeable on these topics at this point, but I am beginning to learn today and will pass information along via this blog. If anyone already has a wealth of information and is comfortable with sharing it, please pass it along to me, and I will get it out. Here are a few points I’ve learned so far.

_SC Flood 2015 2The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has announced that federal emergency aid has been made available to areas affected. President Obama authorized FEMA to coordinate disaster relief efforts and to identify, mobilize and provide, at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency. W. Michael Moore has been named the Federal Coordinating Officer for the federal response operations in the affected area. For more information, go to www.fema.gov.

Governor Hailey has announced that South Carolina will act closely with the federal government to protect the citizens of South Carolina. At this point, the State is dealing with road closures, emergency responses, and water power issues, but announcements are already being made about disaster relief. We should all remain vigilant about ways our clients may obtain assistance.

Clients should begin now to make inventories and take pictures of damage. FEMA teams are on the ground now and will (slowly) begin to work with individuals and businesses. Clients should get in touch with their insurers as soon as possible.

Those with mortgages should contact lenders who may provide relief in the form of loan modifications, restructuring, temporary suspension or reduction in payments, waivers of late payments and/or suspending delinquency reporting to credit bureaus. To begin researching some of the options your clients may have, check out Fannie Mae’s site: http://knowyouroptions.com and Freddie Mac’s site: https://ww3.freddiemac.com. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures of FHA-insured home mortgages following natural disasters as long as the property is:

  • within the boundaries of a presidentially declared disaster area, and
  • the property was directly affected by the disaster.

The time period may be extended if:

  • the disaster affects a large area, or
  • is especially severe.

If a client’s property was not damaged by the disaster, but the disaster did affect his or her financial viability, your client might also qualify for a moratorium.

During times of natural disasters, the Veteran’s Administration (VA) encourages lenders and servicers to:

  • establish a 90-day moratorium on initiating new foreclosures, and
  • help individuals affected by a natural disaster by offering forbearance or modification of veterans’ loans.

Advise clients to gather information like credit reports, proofs of employment and income.

_SC Flood 2015 3Unfortunately, some clients may need to be advised to contact a bankruptcy lawyer. Chapters 7, 11 or 13 may be alternatives that should be considered, depending on circumstances. I always tell real estate lawyers that they should know just enough bankruptcy law to know when to call in a bankruptcy practitioner. This may be one of those times for numerous clients.

Let’s rise to this occasion, real estate practitioners, and provide the best advice we can for our clients who are in dire need at this time.

Still Need to Reach Out to Your Realtor® Partners About TRID?

Standard

toolboxSome new tools are available!

Residential dirt lawyers may still need to reach out to their real estate agent partners to discuss how the CFPB rules will affect closings after October 3. Some new resources are available to assist in that effort.

I previously blogged about five things real estate agents should know before the new rules become effective. Now there is more useful information in a format that is easy to share.

On September 17, Richard Cordray, Director of the CFPB, met with an officer of the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) to unveil online tools designated to help consumers and real estate professionals navigate the new closing procedures.

The CFPB had previously developed an array of online tools for prospective home buyers, the most important of which is an interactive resource called, “Your home loan tool kit, a step-by-step guide”. This guide allows consumers to perform calculations and obtain information to assist them in understanding their financial prospects for obtaining financing and avoiding pitfalls associated with the process.

The CFPB encourages real estate professionals to consider linking the toolkit on their websites to position themselves as trusted sources of information for consumers.  I encourage residential dirt lawyers to do the same to position themselves for their consumer clients.

Last week’s announcement included a new resource called “Guide for real estate professionals”, the goal of which is to “ensure smooth and on-time closings”.  I encourage real estate lawyers to use this new guide to connect with their real estate agent partners.  Link it on your website. Send the link to you best real estate agent contacts.  Offer to meet with them to answer questions. Your goal is to be perceived as a thought leader and problem solver when questions begin to surface after October 3rd.

we are here to helpSouth Carolina residential real estate lawyers should also keep in mind that their title insurance companies have prepared to assist in the transition. Don’t hesitate to use your title insurance company friends as valued resources. They are ready! Their goal, like yours, is to give their very best customer service as we all navigate these new closing rules together.