• “What is your relevant experience?”
A condemnation case represents the property owner’s only opportunity to be compensated for the taking of some or all of his or her property. For many property owners, it is the most important lawsuit they will ever be involved in. The most impactful decision the property owner will make is the attorney who will represent them. Before hiring an attorney to represent you in a condemnation case, you have to be certain the attorney has relevant experience handling these specific kinds of cases. The first lawyer who contacted you may not always be the most experienced. Likewise, the lawyer with the most information about the project that resulted in the taking of your property may not have the most relevant history handling these kinds of cases. The only way to know for sure is to ask.
• “How many condemnation cases have you tried to a jury verdict on behalf of property owners?”
Many cases are resolved before the jury trial stage. However, experienced practitioners will tell you that some cases simply have to be tried to achieve the compensation to which the property owner is entitled. You need to know how many times the attorney has been to the courthouse representing property owners. If the answer is less than twenty, that particular attorney probably does not have the relevant experience to represent you in your case.
• “How many special commissioners’ hearings have you attended on behalf of property owners in the last two years?”
All condemnation cases go through an administrative hearing before three special commissioners, who are appointed by the trial court to make a preliminary determination of compensation. The number of hearings an attorney has attended on behalf of property owners is another indication of whether that attorney has relevant experience to take on your case.
• “What percentage of your work is devoted to the representation of landowners in condemnation cases?”
Condemnation is a specialized area of the law. Because of the many loopholes and complexities involved, it is not an area that lends itself either to the dabbler or to the general practitioner. Your attorney should be able to represent to you that he spends more than 50% of his time representing property owners in condemnation cases.
• “Have you been involved in any reported decisions involving condemnation cases?”
This is another indication of an attorney’s relevant experience. Just as some cases must be tried, sometimes cases are appealed. Your attorney should be willing to pursue your case to the lengths necessary to obtain the compensation to which you are entitled. The best indication of whether any attorney is willing to do this is whether he has done it before.
• “Have you handled cases like mine before?”
Condemnation cases are like properties: no two are the same. However, similar issues arise in similar cases, and it can be helpful if your attorney has handled the same type of case as yours. For example, power line or pipeline cases present very different issues from highway or roadway condemnation cases. Additionally, whole takings cases are very different from partial takings cases, particularly where there are issues of damages to the remaining property after the taking. Takings from improved properties present very different circumstances and issues than takings of raw, vacant land. Finally, the particular highest and best use of your property is important to how it will be impacted by a taking. Issues that are important to an industrial property may not have as much impact to a retail property, and vice versa.
• “How will the attorney’s fee be calculated?”
Any attorney you hire will expect to be compensated for the time and effort necessary to obtain the compensation to which you are entitled. It is important to understand that a property owner cannot recover his or her legal fees and expenses incurred in a condemnation case; all property owners can recover in the typical condemnation case is compensation for the taking. Some attorneys will charge by the hour, others will charge a contingency fee. While the appropriate fee arrangement will depend on the facts and circumstances of the case, you need to be aware that when an attorney charges by the hour for the time expended on the case, you run the risk that the fees paid to the lawyer may exceed any increase in compensation obtained through the attorney’s efforts. Worse, the fees may exceed the amount originally offered. In most cases, an experienced condemnation lawyer will represent the property owner for a percentage of the amount recovered over and above the original offer. Under this arrangement, the attorney’s fees will never exceed the increase in compensation.
• “Do you have any clients I can talk to as a reference?”
An experienced attorney in this area should be able to provide a number of references from clients who can give you their own perspective of the attorney’s ability and reputation in this practice area.
• “Are there any appraisers I can talk to as a reference?”
Almost every condemnation case will require the property owner to hire an appraiser to estimate the compensation the owner deserves. Like condemnation law, appraisal in condemnation cases is a specialized practice, and there are a limited number of appraisers with the required experience in both appraising property and testifying as to valuations. The result is that the appraisers who work on condemnation cases have more knowledge than most about who the most experienced attorneys in this area are.
• “Who are other experienced attorneys in this practice area?”
Because there really are a very few attorneys with the relevant experience in condemnation law, they are usually familiar with each other. An experienced attorney should be willing to give you the names of other experienced attorneys in this area so that you can make a fully-informed decision as to the best fit to represent your interests.
The selection of the right counsel in a condemnation case may be the most important decision the property owner will make in the whole process. It is a decision that should be made with care and with as much information as possible.
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