From two eminence grises of the legal world comes this article those of us in the RE.net thinking about raising levels of professionalism in the real estate industry might want to think about. The money graf:
There is, of course, no turning back: Law firms must be run in a businesslike manner. But they should not just be run for the greatest possible economic return. Law firm leaders must emphasize other values as they reorient their firms with respect to their clients, their partners and their associates. And they should redefine their own personal responsibilities and commitments. At the end of the day, they and their partners should restate, for the younger generation, the historic concept of what it means to be a legal professional, which has generally meant that private lawyers have public responsibilities beyond their immediate self-interest and beyond the needs of their immediate clients. (Emphasis added)
The two authors of this article are not pajama-wearing bloggers in the basement… like yours truly. Ben Heineman is the former general counsel of GE, and teaches at Harvard Law School and at the Harvard Kennedy School. Bill Lee is the co-managing partner of Wilmer, Hale — a multinational megafirm based in Boston — and also a professor at Harvard Law. Like Todd Carpenter, they’re kind of a big deal.
It is interesting how the legal profession is trying to rediscover itself, at the same time the real estate community is trying to define itself. Technology and the economic realities are driving both towards unprecedented self-examination.
The question for real estate, however, is an interesting one.
The Public Interest
I had forgotten it myself, but there is little doubt that the notion of “professional” contains within it the idea of public service. As the highlighted portion of the Heineman & Lee article states, “private lawyers have public responsibilities beyond their immediate self-interest and beyond the needs of their immediate clients.”
What would this mean for real estate? What would such a thing look like? What public interest does the realtor (small-r) serve?
One possible public interest is “promoting homeownership”. If you believe, as NAR does (PDF), that homeownership has significant social benefits, then perhaps real estate agents are fulfilling a very important public interest by facilitating homeownership.
I wonder how this particular public interest works for listing agents, who represent homeowners who are looking to sell, rather than folks who are looking to buy a home, since overall homeownership is not particularly impacted by a seller.
Duty to the Public Interest?
Assuming that the promotion of homeownership, which leads to social benefits, stronger democracy, stronger community involvement and the like, is the public interest that realtors serve… is there a duty to that public interest that “goes beyond the self-interest of the realtor and the immediate needs of the client”?
Lawyers, for example, take on pro bono cases — usually poor clients who can’t afford lawyers, although sometimes they take on cases designed to make a political point. Doctors often treat indigent patients for free, or at very reduced rates.
What should realtors do?
For example, should realtors work pro bono on loan modifications for homeowners who are way underwater? Should there be some class of buyer clients who should be represented for free? (Maybe a family finally working its way out of some inner-city ghetto to a modest home of their own?) I don’t know what pro bono real estate (long a favorite topic of Joe Ferrara, who needs your help by the way) looks like, but interested in hear people’s take on it.
Or does professionalism in real estate mean something entirely different than “professionalism” in other industries?
Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.