'Right thing to do': Seminars give public chance to freely 'Ask the Lawyer'

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By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Free legal advice is always good, especially when it comes from an experienced attorney in a specific field of law.

And the Genesee County Bar Association (GCBA) has been a leader in providing qualified attorneys to address a number of topics throughout the year with its popular "Ask the Lawyer" free public seminars.

Recently, the GCBA concluded this year's program with a session on rules and regulations all landlords and tenants should know before signing the bottom line of a lease.

"We do a lot of foreclosure work, and it's amazing to see many people come in and see how much misinformation they've received from their neighbors, from the Internet, from relatives or other sources," said Chris Christenson III, a Flint lawyer who also holds builders, appraisers and real estate licenses.

"We find out there's a lot of things that people don't realize, things that they have a right to do or things they don't have a right to do, so it's important the community knows that they have a source that's reliable and available to them," he said.

He is a partner in the law firm of Christenson & Fiederlein, which focuses on real estate and construction litigation and related issues, as well as business litigation, probate matters and criminal defense work. And he said his firm is one that handles cases for both landlords and tenants.

Christenson, 40, conducted a seminar for landlords and tenants at the Flint Public Library. A Genesee County native who graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint and Cooley Law School, he is well-versed in the trials and tribulations of both landlord and tenants.

And as a long-standing member and past president of the GCBA, Christenson knows how important these free seminars are for the public, and for the attorneys who participate.

"We do it because it's the right thing to do," he said. "And I think that is the philosophy of all the attorneys who give their time."

Christenson said about 20 people showed up at the seminar, including a mix of landlords and tenants who had questions about the ins and outs of renting and leasing. After a brief presentation and outline, and describing his background, he took question from the group for about 90 minutes.

He spoke of the importance of checklists for landlords and tenants, detailing the condition of the residence both before they move in and after they move out. He addressed the rules and regulations of security deposits, and some of the dos and don'ts common to both sides.

Other topics he addressed included written or verbal leases, timelines for addressing problems, and how each side must go about handling disputes.

"Some questions were really basic, but others were specific to their individual problems," he said.

A recent flood in the Flint-area compounded some issues for landlords and tenants, who had problems before the flood that led to bigger headaches.

Christenson said landlords in attendance paid attention to issues they heard from tenants, even though they may not have been related to their individual cases, but for future reference and general knowledge. And tenants gained an insight of what to do, what to look for and what to expect should they lease in the future.

He also provided a handout for those in attendance, and provided a link to the Landlords and Tenants Practical Guide, a 68-page book that addresses nearly everything each party should know.

Although the guide is not printed, it can be found at www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/publications/tenantlandlord.pdf.

Christenson said the main disputes arise from landlords, who say tenants are not paying their rent, and tenants claiming the property is not being properly maintained.

"Those are the two most common things they fight about, and many times they fight about those issues at the same time," Christenson said.

If landlords go about an eviction by taking it in their own hands, rather that going to court, problems can erupt. Same with the tenants. Pushing and shoving matches can escalate into something more violent, and Christenson said in recent months, a frustrated landlord, handcuffed by a slow legal system, tried to evict a tenant and was injured.

"We're worried about that because if people can't get their redress in court, rights will be abused and it will be a bigger mess," he said.

The "Ask the Lawyer" seminars were started in 2009 after the GCBA held single sessions the previous years following Law Day activities and found that it needed to be expanded to a number of seminars on different topics throughout the year, said Tatilia Y. "Tina" Burroughs, executive director of both the GCBA and the Genesee County Bar Foundation (GCBF).

Although about nine yearly sessions were held at first, with topics ranging from child custody, support and alimony, tax-related issues, neighborhood politics, small claims issues, foreclosure, consumer issues, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and even pet laws, Burroughs said only four were held this year after looking at past events and determining which had the best attendance.

In addition to the landlord-tenant seminar, others held this year included a combined session on family law, divorce, paternity, child support and custody, which included about six attorneys; a small claims seminar; and one on debt collection and bankruptcy.

She said the GCBA's legal committee plans to continue the series again this fall, but a schedule for times and topics has not yet been determined.

"We'll go over events from the past several years, look at which ones had the greater response rate, and examine topics of concern in our community before deciding," she said.

The program is coordinated through the efforts of the attorneys of the GCBA, who volunteer their professional skills; the cooperation of the Flint Public Library, which hosts the events; and Legal Services of Eastern Michigan. Assists come from the GCBA Law Committee, and funding comes from a GCBF grant.

Burroughs said this is just another way the attorneys of Genesee County give back to the public. She said the GCBA exists to not only serve the professional needs of its members, but to improve the justice system and educate the public about the law and the role of attorneys.

"I enjoy putting on a program the public can benefit from, and hearing people walk away with the answers they needed," she said.

"And I thank and commend all the attorneys who participate and for reaching out and helping the community," Burroughs said. "We have the best attorneys here in Genesee County."

Christenson said the GCBA has been providing services like this to the community for years.

"This bar association has been around for more than a century, and our goals are to provide a service not just to lawyers, but also for our community," he said.

"It's important that we provide that service and let people know we are involved and that we'll provide good information at these outreach events so people can help themselves, and know we're also available to give them help."

Published: Tue, Jun 26, 2012