How to Hire an Attorney for Your Church
There are occasions when a church board must hire an attorney. Here are some examples:
• A church dismisses an employee who later sues the church for discrimination. The church board discovers that the church insurance policy does not cover employment practices, and so it is forced to hire an attorney to defend the church in the lawsuit.
• A church receives a $100,000 gift in the will of a church member who died recently. The church is immediately contacted by an attorney representing the deceased member’s heirs, demanding that the church renounce this gift in favor of the heirs. The church hires an attorney to represent its interests.
• A local tax assessor informs a church that a vacant tract of land that it owns is going to be placed on the tax rolls. The church hires an attorney to establish that the property is exempt from taxation.
• A local zoning board refuses to let a church purchase a tract of land for the construction of a new sanctuary. The church board hires an attorney to represent the church’s interests.
• A church would like to prepare an employee handbook. The church board hires an attorney to assist with this project.
• A church member demands to inspect virtually all of a church’s records in order to determine if the church is being governed properly. The church board hires an attorney to assist in responding to the member.
Church leaders often do not know where to begin when faced with the need to hire an attorney. Here are some tips that may help:
• Be aware that many lawsuits and legal claims will be covered by your church insurance policy. If so, then your insurer will provide your church with an attorney to defend you. You will have little or no role in the selection process. If you are sued, or threatened with a lawsuit by an attorney, you should immediately turn the lawsuit or correspondence over to your insurer to determine if it is a covered claim.
• If a lawsuit or legal claim is not covered by your insurance policy, then you need to quickly hire an attorney to represent you. An answer to a lawsuit ordinarily must be filed within a few days after it is served, and so you will not have much time. This is especially critical when your insurer spends several days evaluating coverage and concludes that the claim is not covered under your insurance policy.
• If you are looking for an attorney to assist with a specific legal issue, contact other churches in your community to see if they have used an attorney for a similar issue, and if so, ask for their evaluation of their attorney.
• If your legal issue requires a specialized knowledge of church or nonprofit law, then call several local attorneys and see if they represent any churches or nonprofit organizations. Ideally, you will want to stick with an attorney with experience in handling your specific concern.
• Unfortunately, few attorneys are able to specialize in “church law,” and so many church leaders are unable to find an attorney in their community with experience handling church legal issues. In such a case, you should consider retaining an out-of-town attorney. There are a few excellent regional and national law firms that have experience representing churches. In some cases, their fees may be higher, but this is almost always offset by their expertise. Does it make sense to pay a lower hourly fee to a local attorney who has to spend hours educating himself about your issue, or, to pay a higher hourly fee to a specialist who will work significantly fewer hours? In addition, you are much more likely to receive a helpful and accurate response from an attorney who specializes in church law.
• If possible, identify a few candidates for the job, and then solicit bids from them.
• Often, a member of the church board will be acquainted with a local attorney, and will want to use this person to represent the church with respect to a particular issue. This should not necessarily be the basis for hiring an attorney, especially if the local attorney lacks experience in working with churches.
Reasons to Hire a Lawyer for Church
Not every legal matter requires the use of an attorney. Fighting a speeding ticket and going to small claims courts are two examples. However, in many other situations involving a legal dispute, challenge, or deal, you may not wish to chance the risks of going it alone without the advice of an experienced lawyer who can help you out. In fact, while good legal representation may not be cheap, it can help get you out of a number of sticky situations. While each person’s legal situation is different, there are times when you really should hire a lawyer. In fact, failing to work with an attorney in certain instances can lead to broken agreements, lost claims, or even prison time. Below are the reasons to hire an attorney.
• The Law is Complicated: If you’re not a lawyer you probably have no business acting like one in certain instances. Even experienced lawyers typically do not represent themselves in court. Also, attorneys tend to specialize in one or more legal practice areas, such as criminal defense or tax law. A solid case can quickly unravel without the help of a trained and emotionally detached attorney. Similarly, failing to hire a lawyer when starting a business, reviewing a contract, or embarking on other endeavors with potential legal ramifications can result in otherwise avoidable pitfalls.
• Not Having a Lawyer May Cost You More: A criminal case may determine whether or not you spend time behind bars, while a civil case could hurt you financially. Besides, there are many civil attorneys who don’t actually collect a dime from you unless they win your case. Also, you may be able to claim legal fees as a plaintiff in a civil case, so hiring a lawyer can actually save or make you money.
• Lawyers Know How to Challenge Evidence: Without the proper legal training, you may not be able to know whether a key piece of evidence against you was improperly obtained or that the testimony of a witness contradicts an earlier statement.
• Filing the Wrong Document or Following the Wrong Procedure Could Ruin Your Case: If you’re not an attorney, you may struggle with the deadlines and protocol for properly filling out and filing certain legal documents. One late or incorrect filing could derail your case, delay a given legal procedure or worse – have the case thrown out altogether (and not in your favor).
• They Have Access to the Witnesses and Experts You’ll Need on Your Side: Attorneys depend on an extended network of professionals to help their clients ‘ cases. Most non-attorneys don’t personally know the types of professionals who can help with discovery or challenge evidence or testimony by the opposing party.
• A Lawyer Can Present Your Strongest Case: Pleading guilty or admitting fault isn’t the only choice, even if there’s evidence pointing directly at you. When you hire a lawyer, they can explain all of your options and can help you avoid potentially severe penalties even before a trial begins.
• It’s Always Better to Avoid Problems Rather Than Fix Them Later: You may have heard the saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Well, hiring a lawyer in many instances will help you avoid potential legal headaches down the road. Do you really understand the fine print of that contract you are signing and what it will mean for you down the road? A lawyer will.
• Lawyers Know How to Negotiate Settlements and Plea Bargains: An experienced lawyer probably has seen cases similar to yours or at least knows enough to make a calculated guess about how it might get resolved at trial. Sometimes a settlement is the best choice, while other times it makes more sense to see your case through to trial. An attorney can also help negotiate a fair settlement with the opposing party.
• The Other Party Probably Has Legal Representation: Non-attorneys are generally at a disadvantage when squaring off against opposing counsel or doing business with another party that has legal counsel. As explained above, the law is complicated and an attorney representing your adversary (or even a non-adversarial party entering into a legal agreement with you) will take advantage of this inequity.
• Lawyers Often Provide a Free Consultation: Since many attorneys will meet with you for free during a face-to-face consultation, there is really no harm in talking with one. Not only will a free consultation give you an idea of the type of case you have and its likely outcome, it will help you decide whether you actually need to hire a lawyer.
When Does A Church Need An Attorney?
When someone is starting or joining leadership in a religious institution, legal considerations are often towards the bottom of the priority list. However, religious institutions of all faiths need to be aware of areas where they may need advice from a licensed attorney in order to best serve their membership and carry out their faith. Here are some of the most common areas where a church or other religious organization should consult an attorney.
• Governing Documents: The majority of religious organizations operate under the direction of one or more governing documents. It is absolutely vital that these documents be kept up to date and reviewed on a regular basis. An attorney will be able to provide valuable advice and suggestions about what to include in these documents to give the maximum protection to the organization.
• Real Estate and Land Use: If your religious institution needs to move locations or expand its current location, an attorney will often be necessary. In this case, an attorney can help with reviewing your real estate transaction documents, determining whether your land use is permitted in the proposed location, or securing a variance or special use permit from the municipality if necessary.
• Employment: When hiring and firing lay employees, religious institutions must consider state and federal employment law. Discussing particular employment situations with an attorney before acting can save an organization thousands of dollars and an immeasurable amount of negative public perception. Further, an attorney can help prevent difficult situations in the first place by providing your organization with a clear and comprehensive employee handbook.
• Litigation: This is the obvious scenario where an attorney is needed. If a religious institution is presented with a lawsuit, it should immediately seek out an attorney with experience representing religious institutions, as the unique culture and issues in these types of lawsuits often call for a specialist. An attorney specializing in representing religious institutions will be able to better understand issues that are important to the organization, and will be familiar with the special challenges and opportunities presented.
• Denominational Relations: In today’s changing culture, many of the traditional denominations in Utah are changing also. It is inevitable that some congregations will feel called away from their past denominational affiliations for one or more reasons. When separation is being considered, it is vital to consult an attorney who is familiar with the process of leaving a denomination. Various legal issues will need to be considered before undertaking a separation and an understanding and knowledgeable counselor will ease the transition for all involved.
• Organizational Discipline: Many faiths have unique practices for disciplining individual members when necessary. However, there can be potential for some inter-organizational discipline practices to create legal issues. Having an attorney review organizational policy and provide advice on a particular issue can prevent unintended legal consequences.
• Advice on Current Legal Issues: As the culture changes rapidly, new legal issues arise frequently. Religious organizations must be prepared to operate in the light of these new realities. In these cases, an attorney will be an invaluable resource as a counselor who understands both the law and the client, and will be able to shed light on an otherwise confusing situation.
When you need attorneys to help you with your church, please call Ascent Law LLC for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506