- A church dismisses an employee who later sues the church for discrimination. The church board discovers that the church insurance policy does not cover employment practices, and so it is forced to hire an attorney to defend the church in the lawsuit.
- A church receives a $100,000 gift in the will of a church member who died recently. The church is immediately contacted by an attorney representing the deceased member’s heirs, demanding that the church renounce this gift in favor of the heirs. The church hires an attorney to represent its interests.
- A local tax assessor informs a church that a vacant tract of land that it owns is going to be placed on the tax rolls. The church hires an attorney to establish that the property is exempt from taxation.
- A local zoning board refuses to let a church purchase a tract of land for the construction of a new sanctuary. The church board hires an attorney to represent the church’s interests.
- A church would like to prepare an employee handbook. The church board hires an attorney to assist with this project.
- A church member demands to inspect virtually all of a church’s records in order to determine if the church is being governed properly. The church board hires an attorney to assist in responding to the member.
Church leaders often do not know where to begin when faced with the need to hire an attorney. Here are some tips that may help:
1) Be aware that many lawsuits and legal claims will be covered by your church insurance policy. If so, then your insurer will provide your church with an attorney to defend you. You will have little or no role in the selection process. If you are sued, or threatened with a lawsuit by an attorney, you should immediately turn the lawsuit or correspondence over to your insurer to determine if it is a covered claim.
2) If a lawsuit or legal claim is not covered by your insurance policy, then you need to quickly hire an attorney to represent you. An answer to a lawsuit ordinarily must be filed within a very few days after it is served, and so you will not have much time. This is especially critical when your insurer spends several days evaluating coverage and concludes that the claim is not covered under your insurance policy.
3) If you are looking for an attorney to assist with a specific legal issue, contact other churches in your community to see if they have used an attorney for a similar issue, and if so, ask for their evaluation of their attorney.
4) If your legal issue requires a specialized knowledge of church or nonprofit law, then call several local attorneys and see if they represent any churches or nonprofit organizations. Ideally, you will want to stick with an attorney with experience in handling your specific concern.
5) Unfortunately, few attorneys are able to specialize in “church law,” and so many church leaders are unable to find an attorney in their community with experience handling church legal issues. In such a case, you should consider retaining an out-of-town attorney. There are a few excellent regional and national law firms that have experience representing churches. In some cases, their fees may be higher, but this is almost always offset by their expertise. Does it make sense to pay a lower hourly fee to a local attorney who has to spend hours educating himself about your issue, or, to pay a higher hourly fee to an specialist who will work significantly fewer hours? In addition, you are much more likely to receive a helpful and accurate response from an attorney who specializes in church law.
6) If possible, identify a few candidates for the job, and then solicit bids from them.
7) Often, a member of the church board will be acquainted with a local attorney, and will want to use this person to represent the church with respect to a particular issue. This should not necessarily be the basis for hiring an attorney, especially if the local attorney lacks experience in working with churches.