On the second anniversary of the SJC’s important ruling in Real Estate Bar Assoc. (REBA) v. National Real Estate Information Services (NREIS), which banned “witness-only” notary closings in Massachusetts, the Office of Bar Counsel has issued an important advisory opinion to Massachusetts real estate closing attorneys. The advisory opinion can be found here.
In the advisory, Bar Counsel first reaffirms the SJC’s pronouncement of the critical and mandatory role that Massachusetts attorneys play in a real estate purchase, sale or refinance transaction. The core functions at a real estate closing — certifying good, clear and marketable title, ensuring that title is properly conveyed, and holding and disbursing funds under the good funds law — are all acts constituting the practice of law and must be handled by a licensed Massachusetts attorney. Accordingly, as the SJC held, Massachusetts attorneys must “substantially participate” in all facets of the real estate conveyance transaction.
Following the SJC’s requirement of “substantial participation,” Bar Counsel advises attorneys that they must closely manage and oversee each conveyance transaction:
“It is not the appropriate course for the lawyer’s only function to be present at the closing to hand legal documents that the attorney may have never seen to the parties for signature, and to witness the signatures…A witness only appearance by an attorney would necessarily be inadequate, professionally and ethically, except in the perhaps unlikely event that the attorney is first assured that steps constituting the practice of law are being or have been properly handled by other Massachusetts attorneys.”
There are some closing attorneys and conveyancing mills who hire inexperienced contract attorneys to run around the state to do closings. These attorneys are nothing more than glorified paralegals. Bar Counsel’s advisory opinion calls this unfortunate practice into serious question, unless the managing attorney can ensure that the contract attorney is familiar with the title and file (which is unlikely as Bar Counsel notes).
Bar Counsel is clearly tightening the ethical standards on real estate attorneys. And this is good thing for the profession and consumers alike.