Should you hire an attorney who specializes in real estate?

It’s an oft-repeated truism that you should hire an attorney who specializes in real estate to represent you in connection with your real estate purchase. You should.

You should never, however, hire an attorney who describes himself as specializing in real estate, as many local practitioners do on their websites.

The ethical standards for Illinois attorneys are set by the Rules of Professional Conduct promulgated by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Rule 7.4 makes it an ethical violation for an attorney to hold himself out as a specialist:

(a) A lawyer may communicate the fact that the lawyer does or does not practice in particular fields of law.

(b) The Supreme Court of Illinois does not recognize certifications of specialties in the practice of law, nor does it recognize certifications of expertise in any phase of the practice of law by any agency, governmental or private, or by any group, organization or association. A lawyer admitted to engage in patent practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office may use the designation “Patent Attorney” or a substantially similar designation.

(c) Except when identifying certificates, awards or recognitions issued to him or her by an agency or organization, a lawyer may not use the terms “certified,’’ “specialist,’’ “expert,’’ or any other, similar terms to describe his qualifications as a lawyer or his qualifications in any subspecialty of the law. If such terms are used to identify any certificates, awards or recognitions issued by any agency, governmental or private, or by any group, organization or association, the reference must meet the following requirements:

(1) the reference must be truthful and verifiable and may not be misleading in violation of Rule 7.1;

(2) the reference must state that the Supreme Court of Illinois does not recognize certifications of specialties in the practice of law and that the certificate, award or recognition is not a requirement to practice law in Illinois.

Before hiring an attorney to represent you in your real estate purchase, check him out online. If his website states that he is a specialist in or specializes in real estate, find a different attorney. An attorney who hasn’t taken the time to understand his ethical obligations is unlikely to be fully competent in other areas of the law, and there’s a very real risk that he doesn’t understand his obligations to his clients either.

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