For almost 25 years, the Illinois REALTORS® Legal Hotline has provided legal information and guidance to association members throughout the state. Illinois REALTORS® offered legal services as early as 1983, but it wasn’t until 1994, when Betsy Urbance took over that it became the Legal Hotline we know today, one of association’s most valued member services. As Urbance, now the Illinois REALTORS®’ General Counsel, transfers the service to a new hotline attorney, we asked her to reflect on how the hotline has changed and what to expect in the future.
You took over the Legal Hotline in 1994. How was the hotline system set up then?
Answer. When I began as the Legal Hotline attorney, I operated with a phone and a desk. Email was not regularly used at the time. I was initially an associate with Sorling Northrup Attorneys, and was “contracted” to Illinois REALTORS® to operate the hotline on a part-time basis. I had very little knowledge about how the brokerage industry worked when I began and my first day on the job coincided with the first business day of the Illinois Residential Real Property Disclosure Act’s effectiveness.
What were the most pressing legal topics 25 years ago?
Answer. The biggest issue was the concept of presumed designated agency and buyer brokers representing their buyer clients’ best interests. Prior to that, it was all about the seller. The 1995 agency laws were a radical change at the time. The License Act codified statutory duties for real estate licensees that are analogous to fiduciary duties, but not exactly the same and are tailored to fit the real estate brokerage practice.
The Seller Disclosure Act was a big deal as were Lead Based Paint disclosures on the federal level and the beginning of radon disclosure requirements. Those disclosures are firmly entrenched within most residential transactions, and our brokers don’t even blink at those requirements for sellers and some landlords now. We have also been through one or two license law rewrites, and the basic agency concepts remain the same, withstanding the test of time.
Answer. While many of the underlying issues remain the same, the delivery of agency services, advertising, processing of documents and delivery of disclosures are evolving and changing as we speak. Physical offices are still a requirement for brokerage companies in Illinois. Now we have discussions about electronic documents and files. We are concerned about storage of data, privacy issues and document retention and destruction.
We are mindful of new ways that bad guys try to steal money using any number of wire fraud and cybercrime methods. Cybercrime wasn’t even a term when I began addressing Legal Hotline questions in 1994.
Technology and social media have been gamechangers, but many of the controlling legal concepts and requirements remain the same for broker licensees.
The constant challenge is how to apply existing laws, regulations and practices to the ever-changing methods available for providing brokerage services to clients. Licensees must adapt their businesses to their clients while staying compliant with so many regulations, the most basic duty of which is to serve their clients’ interests over their own.
What is one of the strangest/most memorable legal issues you dealt with from the hotline?
Answer. One strange disclosure issue that I can’t forget is about whether the seller needed to disclose that his neighbor was constantly mowing his lawn, completely in the buff. This question has gone down in Legal Hotline lore as the “naked lawn mower man” question. While this is not a latent physical material defect regarding the instant property, we did suggest mentioning the possibility to new buyers. Even if sellers don’t disclose, there is a 100 percent chance the neighbors will tell the new homeowners the weirdest facts or rumors they possibly can. This, my friends, is known as the Illinois REALTORS®’ Legal Hotline Attorney’s “Neighbors Always Tell Rule.”
How has the hotline’s mission and member reach grown
over the years?
Answer. Part of the hotline’s growth stems from longevity. In addition to the hotline, we have written for Illinois REALTOR® magazine and other publications and have held various outreach meetings with members. For example, during and just before the recession starting in late 2007, we went on a statewide legal caravan hoping to share information – and indeed warnings to our membership – about the volatility we were seeing in the housing market. I distinctly remember saying to our audiences, that the market at the time was built on a “house of cards” with too many sketchy loans outstanding.
In 2018, the Illinois REALTORS®’ Legal Services Team went in-house. Our team consists of three attorneys and one paralegal. In addition to our other services, we now offer an in-person outreach program called “House Counsel” where my colleague, Jeff Baker, and I will travel to your location at no cost for an audience of at least 100 members. Our hope is to reach as many members as possible.
We have offered legal webinars to our members. We produce short videos on important legal concepts (indeed, our attorneys have taken on animated avatars). Illinois REALTORS® provides meetings and courses via Skype and virtual meeting spaces. We blog. Our goal is to meet people where they are, either in person or electronically.
As a new hotline attorney takes over, what are your hopes for the future of the hotline?
Answer. Our mission remains the same: provide a service to our members by making an attorney available at no additional cost to provide legal information on an as-needed basis. While the Legal Hotline attorney can’t give specific legal advice to each member, the hope is we can help identify legal issues or offer a general sense of direction. Sometimes, there is an immediate answer from license law or the REALTOR® Code of Ethics for example. In other circumstances, the Legal Hotline can frame the legal issue(s) so that if legal advice is needed, attorney time can be saved by providing good information and direction.
I am abundantly grateful for having had the opportunity and honor to be the Illinois REALTORS® Legal Hotline attorney for such a long time. I am honored to continue serving Illinois REALTORS® every day in my capacity as General Counsel to this incredible organization, whose energy, enthusiasm and innovation is constantly fueled by its top-notch staff and the more than 50,000 smart, creative, passionate, engaged and entrepreneurial members which it serves.
I am ecstatic to hand the Legal Hotline reins over to my dear friend and new colleague, Anneliese Fierstos. I am confident she will serve our members as well or better than I have done. We pledge to evolve with the practice and the needs of our members. Anneliese will learn quickly; and Jeff and I will be right here by her side.
Meet the new Illinois REALTORS® Legal Hotline Attorney
For the first time in 25 years, the Illinois REALTORS® Legal Hotline has a new attorney to answer your legal questions. Anneliese Fierstos took over as the hotline attorney in February.
Fierstos is a Springfield resident and for the past 16 years, has been a formal hearing officer for the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. She has also worked on a contract basis for a law firm, specializing in employment law related legal research. Previously, she was an attorney with a title company.
Fierstos joins the Illinois Legal Services team that includes General Counsel and Vice President of Legal Services Betsy Urbance, Associate General Counsel and Director of Legal Services Jeff Baker and Ethics and Legal Services Manager Mindie Nesch.