How To Choose The Best Tenant Lawyer

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During the coronavirus pandemic, very few people needed free tenant lawyer advice. Because of eviction moratoriums, the eviction rate dropped to practically nothing. Now, the eviction rate has shot back up to over 8 percent. This figure is much higher in some states. South Carolina’s eviction rate is over 21 percent. This figure also doesn’t include “soft” evictions. If a tenant owes rent or the landlord suspects, but cannot prove, a lease violation, the landlord refuses to renew the lease.

Most landlords have basically two rules: pay rent on time and keep quiet. Unpaid rent violations are often straightforward. The tenant paid or didn’t pay. Fortunately, in most cases, landlords don’t want to evict these tenants. They want them to stay and pay. Not-keeping-quiet violations are different. The landlord has the burden of proof in these matters.

Frequently, small mom and pop landlords don’t have lawyers at eviction hearings. Larger landlords usually have corporate lawyers who know little about the case at hand. So, a dedicated and experienced lawyer can often keep tenants in their dwellings. For example, many states have diversion programs that allow tenants to catch up on rent over time, so the landlord and tenant can at least part ways as friends and tenants don’t have evictions on their records.

What is a Tenant Lawyer

In a nutshell, a tenant lawyer is a tenant advocate, both in court and around the negotiating table.

The legal eviction process in most states is much more drawn out than landlords make it out to be. An eviction notice, which has no legal force and effect, is basically a warning shot. Next, the landlord must file an FED (forcible entry and detainer) action in a justice court. If the justice of the peace sides with the landlord, the judge must then sign an order.

Attorneys represent tenants at every phase. At the eviction notice stage, most landlords accept offers like half the delinquent rent now and half over time. Next, lawyers represent tenants at FED hearings, so tenants have their day in court. JP hearings are very informal. They’re basically Judge Judy without the cameras. Finally, although a lawyer cannot stop a judge from signing an order, a lawyer usually can appeal the matter to county court, where the whole process begins again.

How To Choose The Best Tenant Lawyer

If you want to know what to look for when hiring a tenant lawyer, look for the same qualities you look for in a family law attorney or other kind of lawyer.

  • Dedication: Tenant law is a niche area, so not many attorneys are entirely dedicated to this area. But these lawyers are out there. As outlined above, landlord/tenant law is so complex that you really don’t want a dabbler. So, take a little extra time and find a dedicated lawyer.
  • Accessibility: Tenant attorneys may not be physically accessible, but they’re professionally accessible. Most of these law offices are small operations with one or two lawyers and one or two assistants. Furthermore, if a lawyer is willing to meet with you at a place like a library study room, that effort solves the accessibility problem.
  • Experience: Many tenants’ rights attorneys are former landlord lawyers. That’s usually the kind of experience you want. These lawyers aren’t just familiar with your legal options. They also know how to anticipate and overcome landlord objections.

Many tenant lawyers are available through free community legal clinics. These attorneys are the tenant law equivalent of a court-appointed lawyer. These public interest lawyers represent, well, public interests, as opposed to individual clients. But a free tenant lawyer is better than nothing.

How Can a Tenant Lawyer Help You?

To address this question, let’s go back to not-staying-quiet violations and delinquent rent violations.

Landlords often use not-staying-quiet violations as excuses to dismiss troublesome or unwanted tenants. That’s especially true if a new owner takes over the property and wants to clean house. Assume two tenants hosted loud parties. Tenant A got a warning and Tenant B got an eviction notice. Such housing disparate treatment discrimination (treating different people differently) is a very serious matter.

Additionally, a not-staying-quiet case is usually a he said, she said case. These matters could hold up in justice court. The procedure is informal and the burden of proof is low. But a lawyer knows how to undermine the landlord’s evidence in such matters.

In the post-coronavirus world, many rent evictions may be eligible for diversion programs. The Texas Eviction Diversion Program (TEDP) is a good example of how these programs work.

The TEDP may provide up to 15 months of rental and utility assistance for eligible tenants who are behind on their rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have been sued for eviction. Both the tenant and the landlord must agree to participate and meet program requirements.

These programs don’t have much money anymore. Therefore, a tenant must usually pony up some of the delinquent rent to sweeten the pot and make the deal attractive to a landlord.

When Should a Tenant Hire a Lawyer?

Delinquent rent tenants probably shouldn’t hire a lawyer until the aforementioned appeal phase. Many landlords believe that the brief FED hearing is the final round. Once they learn it was only Round One, they’re usually willing to make favorable deals. Additionally, most tenants can represent themselves in People’s Court-type FED hearings. But they shouldn’t represent themselves in formal court hearings.

Alleged not-staying-quiet violators probably need attorneys sooner. Since lawyers are good negotiators, an attorney can often derail one of these eviction hearings before it even leaves the station. That’s especially true if the matter has any discriminatory housing overtones.

How to Find a Tenant Lawyer Who Offer Free Tenant Lawyer Advice

We touched on public interest vs. private lawyers above. Now, let’s go into a little more detail in this area.

Accessibility is the main difference between these two kinds of tenant lawyers. Public interest lawyers often only meet with clients once a month, at the legal clinic. Furthermore, public interest lawyers come and go. Most likely, the lawyer you started with won’t be the lawyer you end with.

How Much Does a Tenant Lawyer Cost

Tenant lawyers usually charge flat fees in these matters. A common flat fee structure is X for pre-FED representation, X+Y for FED representation, and X+Y+Z for appeals representation. Attorneys set flat fees based on factors like the time involved, the lawyer’s experience, the matter’s complexity, the “prevailing rate” in the area, the opportunity cost to the lawyer (i.e. a high workload in one case means a lawyer can’t take other cases), and the client’s ability to pay.

Fees vary significantly in different cases and locations. We recommend that you shop around. Remember two things as you shop. The best tenant lawyer isn’t necessarily the most expensive tenant lawyer, and you get what you pay for. Look for someone in the middle.

Also look for an attorney that offers free tenant lawyer advice. These matters usually aren’t too complex, so there’s no reason to sink money into the deal upfront

Picture of Bret Thurman

Bret Thurman

Bret is a former lawyer and full-time writer who knows how to simplify complex topics. He received his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin. For over twenty years, he handled a wide variety of cases, including criminal defense, personal injury, family law, and consumer bankruptcy.

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