TAKE ALL THE KEYS
Residential real estate closings are not profitable unless handled in bulk. This was apparent from the start of your own practice, when you had just hung your shingle and were closing only three or four home sales a year, doing all of the preparatory paperwork yourself. Now your office handles hundreds each year, the paperwork done by not even associates but paralegals. You go to the closings because they’re absurdly easy and they get you out of the office. Not that you have to answer to anyone anymore, but you can’t well stay out of the office entirely and expect things to run smoothly. Your presence is reassuring, and a little bit frightening, to your employees, as you suppose it should be. Hell, all of my bosses frightened me, you recall.
Another thing you will now remember whenever you’re at a closing is this story: Some Orthodox men were buying a piece of land from some other Orthodox men, and at the closing, in a room at a branch of the bank lending purchase money to the buyers, with the deal done and only paperwork remaining, all of the principals present and their respective attorneys as a group wanted to ask for G-d’s benediction of the occasion, but they were short one man of the faith. Jewish tradition prefers that a minyan—a quorum of ten adult males, though the reason for the number ten specifically has been lost to time—be present for certain services, and even if the secular legal transfer of ownership of a parcel of unimproved real property in Lakewood is not strictly one of those, nor is the request for blessing thereof, the nine Orthodox Jewish men nonetheless wished to increase the number of supplicants by one, so they asked the bank officer—a Jewish man, but by no means either religious or observant—to join them. He declined, however, explaining that he wanted to finish the bookkeeping uninterrupted to prevent clerical error, which can be inordinately difficult to correct later in the State records. In other words, he had his own concerns about having the right numbers just then. The Orthodox men accepted the polite, considered refusal and called somebody’s cousin who lived near the bank to come over and pray with them.
When the banker later told his brother, an insurance agent, about all this, the brother joked that G-d would surely punish him, the banker, and in fact within a week the banker’s house had been struck by lightning.
Of course one thing had nothing to do with the other. If there really were a Higher Power inflicting electromagnetic retribution upon greater and lesser sinners... well, whose house would be spared? Still, you think of the account—told to you by the banker’s brother, who handles your various insurance needs, the last time he called you, no more than a month ago—as you work, closely, with your counterpart this morning, the Seller’s attorney, on the documents necessary to finalize the sale of a house from a man in his late seventies—as late into one’s seventies as one can go, indeed—to your clients, a young married couple buying their first home together. (The couple was referred to you by the husband’s aunt, for whom you prepared a will some years back, and whom you should no doubt reach out to about any changes she might wish to make in her testamentary plan. You will also, of course, when the closing is finished—that is, a few days after, in the letter covering the closing statement you’ll provide them for their records—suggest that the young man and woman, Glen and Laurie McGeary, have wills prepared—by you, an especial necessity now that they are, or will be in just a few minutes, homeowners.)
You’ve never had a problem at a closing, and this one is no different. You brought all the certified checks you were to bring, including the one made out to your firm; the seller brought all the keys and his attorney brought a body to lose one’s license for. The unpleasantness that will arise this time will arise not at closing but afterward, and it will arise because while you are huddled with the Seller’s toothsome counsel, the Seller himself asks your newly wed clients, in the most pitiable way possible, if he can hold on to one set of keys just for the remainder of the day, just for the afternoon, really, to make one last visit to, to take one final tour of, the house he always thought he’d die in.
His parents had owned the house before him, you overhear him mention.
Someone (his mother? brother?) had passed away there.
He had expected to be buried in the backyard...
Would it be too much trouble, he wishes to know, if he could look in just one more time?
The young bride says Of course not, and you look up to see her husband shrug. But then the Seller’s attorney asks you to look at her figures, and you are more than happy to. That doesn’t mean, though, that you’d otherwise have said anything.... Sometimes you let others make mistakes, even others who pay you to advise them. You can’t counsel common sense, you reason.
Something else that gets you out of the office, albeit generally only in the evenings, is teaching, some semesters as an adjunct professor at one or another of the local law schools, but more often as a lecturer for a continuing legal education outfit, as is the case tonight. These days, the lawyers attending your lectures are typically thirty years your junior. They seem to enjoy listening to your... well, they aren’t quite war stories, as you’re not and have never been a litigator (or, “little gator,” as your very-beddable-but-yet-to-be-bedded junior secretary likes to say)... but accounts of your more peculiar adventures in representing clients.
Your talks on counseling real estate clients always include a component addressing professional responsibility. You do not tell your audiences that you were responsible for the opinion of your State’s Advisory Committee of Professional Ethics titled, “CONFLICT OF INTEREST: STEERING—ATTORNEY, SPOUSE OF A REAL ESTATE PERSON.” But you were. And not because you wrote a letter of innocent inquiry to the committee asking for guidance in avoiding a bad situation, either. No, one of your first clients wrote, perhaps to gauge the likelihood of success of an action against you for malpractice.
This inquiry, wrote the committee, concerns the propriety in representing parties to a real estate matter where the spouse of the attorney [or of his partners, etc.] is the realtor or sales person whose firm has listed or made the sale of the property to be dealt with by the attorney. The upshot of the opinion was that it is improper for a real estate agent to steer either the seller or the buyer of a piece of property to the realtor’s attorney-spouse. The malpractice lawsuit was never commenced, to your great relief. On the other hand, when your mutually beneficial commercial relationship with your realtor-spouse necessarily ended, so did your marriage. Your current marriage is to an animal psychologist. Your next will not be to a career woman, you already know.
After the lecture, you return to your office. Everyone who works for you is long gone, it being well after ten p.m. You’re looking through the afternoon mail when the phone rings. You think it might be the female counselor you met at the bank this afternoon.
You answer, “Law office.”
“Hello?” A man’s voice disappoints you.
“May I help you?”
“Yeah. Hi. I was expecting a machine. Listen there’s a problem....”
“With the house.”
“Yeah, uh, Mr. Lipskind——”
“Mister——? Oh, the Seller.”
“Yeah, he, uh, he killed himself. In the kitchen. He shot himself in the kitchen.”
Huh. Mr. Lipskind had expected to die in that house.
“Have you called the police?”
“Yeah, the police are here. Police and an ambulance. It’s a crime scene or something. They’ve got that yellow tape——”
“Glen,” you interrupt. “Why are you calling me?”
“Why are you calling me, Glen?”
“Well, you’re... you’re our lawyer.”
“I’m your real estate lawyer.”
“Right, well, that’s the thing. The house. I mean, Laurie, she... she doesn’t want the house. She won’t live here. She says she can’t live here now.”
“It’s your house now, Glen.”
“But... no, I mean...”
“You and your wife own the house now. You don’t have to live there, but you can’t return it, if that’s what you were thinking.” You’re inclined to lecture Glen and Laurie McGeary about taking all the keys at a closing, but it’s late and you’re tired and you’d like to go home, so instead you say, “If you’d like to resell it, though, I’ll be happy to represent you.”
“Take All the Keys” appeared in Apt23, January 1, 2009.