Real estate attorneys and paralegals have uniquely similar roles in protecting the public to those of combat soldiers and police officers, who must develop a skill to recognize when “things just don’t look right” in order to survive.
It’s the morning of May 26, 2017. The Friday before Memorial Day Weekend. Traditionally, this is one of the busiest real estate closing days of the entire year. At my firm, we will be transacting 30 closings today among 4 attorneys.
It is the day we call “Black Friday” in our office. Everyone trains for this. It’s our Super Bowl. A few late nights in the days leading up to a day like this one. All hands on deck. It’s almost exhilarating.
Except this is no game. I will be moving approximately 7.3 million dollars of other people’s money through two trust accounts today, all while countless cybercriminals from foreign countries are trying to steal it from me and my clients, in real time. My staff is actively engaging in unwanted games of email cat and mouse with trained, deceptive hackers — while trying to do their other routine closing paralegal tasks. On this day, of all days, Black Friday.
Oh, and by the way, my great friend and smoothest closing attorney, Ralph Walker, had a massive heart attack the week prior and nearly died. He won’t be joining us in the trenches today. We are a man down.
After dropping my son off at school (best part of my day) – I show up a few minutes late to my first closing at 9 a.m. and immediately I’m smiling – as the Clozee® vibes take over and a day of happy transactions gets going. In two other Hartmanlaw offices, my attorneys are working hard to put several more excited, anxious, busy families in new homes. All while ensuring that titles pass cleanly without encumbrance, money transfers properly to sellers and everything is put neatly in its place. Thirty times. And 7.3 Million ways to screw it up. And little ways, too. Because I’m a people pleaser. And cyber crime be-damned, I also like my Realtors to be happy about the efficiency of things, and the coffee, and the candy.
And it’s not even the last day of the month. After the three-day holiday weekend, my exhausted, battle worn crew will do this two more days in a row. Each day with about 15-20 more transactions to process with little margin for error. And when it comes to Other People’s Money, that margin goes to zero.
Dolly Parton sang, “It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it!”
This is perhaps one of the bigger secrets we keep as Real Estate Closing Attorneys. We get the reputation as being the “happy lawyers” or that real estate is “Happy Law”. And in a sense – that really is true in terms of the product that is turned out at the closing table; the transaction of a wonderful new home for a family, a sale with a big financial return for a seller or dream of a future property development for a group of investors.
But in the busy buying seasons – beyond the candy carts and the handshakes and locked behind the staff room door – one can almost feel the hiss and steam of fear, pessimism and hypervigilance. Your closing & title lawyer and his staff are tasked (under very time-sensitive conditions) to assess for a variety of morphing title or mortgage fraud schemes, stay ahead of wire cybercrooks, comply with an alphabet of federal and state mortgage banking laws, follow the terms of each purchase and sale agreement and lender instruction package and avoid broken title chains at every turn. Don’t blink, don’t upset anyone, and hey – smile!
The switched-on, hypervigilant roles of the real estate attorney and paralegal are not unlike that of the lifeguards at the beach, who stretch and scour the landscape on high alert for rogue waves, hungry sharks and greedy riptides as children frolic in the surf — blissfully unaware of the dangers lurking around them.
Wow, that’s an awfully negative view of things, isn’t it Andy? Is it really that bad? Hear me out. You want us a little bit scared. You need us freaking out a little bit.
A brilliant colleague of mine speaks routinely about professionalism and ethics in the practice of law, a lawyer by the name of Matt Mashburn. He spoke to a group of title agents recently and suggested that “if you think about it, all of due diligence is based on pessimism. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals – that non-lawyers are blissfully blind to – is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by doing so, protect clients from dangerous events.” Mashburn went on to quote a University of Virginia study that showed more pessimistic-natured law students outperforming the more optimistic in grade point average and law journal success.
In fact, real estate agents and their clients often ask me to review their sales contracts and run through the different “what ifs”. We quite often spend most of the time talking about all of the different things that could go wrong, and very little time celebrating “how awesome this deal is!” After all, that’s one of the things you hire a lawyer for — their pessimism. Plan for the worst case.
Yet an even more fascinating study quoted by Mr. Mashburn likened the daily tasks of attorneys, and real estate attorneys and paralegals in particular, to the jobs of combat soldiers and police officers, who must develop a skill to recognize when “things just don’t look right” in order to survive.
Yep, sounds about right. Every day, hurried decisions about whether to pass on a title issue or make a stink about it and hold up a closing. Watching for fraud at every turn. Hypervigilance in the face of experienced, trained cyber thieves often working on behalf of foreign governments. Responsible for it all.
This all takes a toll on you, man.
The symptoms of suffering from long-term exposure to an environment like this mirror that of combat veterans who come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Depression. Irritability. Substances abuses. Self-destructive behavior. Problems with concentration. Sleep disturbance.
When I first heard Mashburn speak on this, tears welled up in me, I felt like he was talking not to me, but could be talking about me.
Knowing I am certainly not alone, it got me thinking a bit deeper — about the bigger issues and how I handle stress in general; what will be the long term effects of this career on my health and lifestyle? How is my family affected? And how about my clients and friends in real estate (sharing the same high levels of stress) — and my attorneys and paralegals in particular? How do they manage their perspective on life in the face of what they are asked to do here every day at the firm. Managing personal challenges in the family, maybe a personal health issue weighing heavily on the mind at the same time. A child with special needs requiring extra parenting attention. A dying father/hero perhaps. I have been there.
So – with gracious participation from a couple of my colleagues here at Hartmanlaw – I am submitting a special series of The Hartbeat blog perspectives; sharing how we handle stress, redirect energy and “blow off steam” in between real estate closings, title exam reviews and the myriad other tasks of life. It is meant to be at times lighthearted and sometimes revealing and thoughtful; but mostly a way to generate a discussion and an inward-looking and forward thinking process for staying healthy and (pardon the platitude) – keeping it all in perspective. Stress. Life. Work. Health.
And with a nod toward National Photography Month, we are of course also highlighting the brilliant work of my friend Jerry King @ JKing Images within the article submissions. I could write an interesting piece on How Photographers Torture Their Subjects after this experience. But I won’t. Maybe.
Stay tuned next week for insights from attorney Christina Adams.
In the meantime, in the comments, can you share one great and perhaps one “not great” way that you handle stress in your life? Are you ever worried that you’re not winning the battle for the “balance”?