Adviser? Advocate? Arbiter? Ally? Conciliator? Counselor? Consultant?

Credit unions routinely approach me for an “opinion” on a scenario they paint. Often, this consultation occurs after they’ve signed the contract, frozen the member’s funds, sent out the advance written notice, or terminated the employee. Sometimes, credit unions don’t like the opinion I give them. They seek a second opinion from me, as if my answer varies based on whim, or they try to get me to concede that their scenario is an exception from my opinion.

I don’t blame them. After all, they are paying for my opinion, so shouldn’t I give them the opinion they want, the opinion that makes their lives easier? I wish it were that simple. Nobody enjoys being the one who always says “no,” but the reality is that a good credit union attorney’s job is to minimize risk by keeping credit unions as much within the confines of the law as possible.

Of course, good credit union attorneys must also help credit unions explore the limits of those laws and provide as much flexibility to their clients as possible. How do attorneys accomplish this dual objective? How can credit unions most effectively utilize their attorneys?

Involve your attorney in the process as early as possible. Don’t wait until the contract is ready to be executed for legal review. The more the attorney understands the context and the real world ramifications of the contract, the easier it will be for your attorney to spot issues that need to be addressed internally by the credit union and between the parties to the contract. This will reduce frustration and most likely even costs.

Don’t be afraid to disagree with your attorney or to take a different approach. A good credit union attorney is going to give you the most conservative path. Your attorney is charged with the responsibility of apprising you of your risk. Like it or not, operating a credit union today requires quite a bit of risk analysis. If in your business judgment the cost outweighs the risk then make the decision that you feel is in your credit union’s best interest.

With that in mind, a good credit union attorney is not going to amend his or her opinion to appease you. And a good credit union attorney certainly isn’t going to put something in writing with which he or she disagrees, regardless of how persuasive you are. Attorneys must strike a delicate balance with their clients: alienation vs. protection.

Be painfully honest with your attorney. Attorney/client privilege exists for a reason. Don’t be afraid to tell us the truth, even if it reflects poorly on you. Attorneys can help you most effectively when they have all of the facts. Nothing is more detrimental to a credit union’s interests than when their attorney finds out new facts half-way through a negotiation or litigation.

In the end, always keep in mind that your attorney has a stake in the future of your credit union. We want to see you prosper, but we try to ensure that you don’t do anything to jeopardize your credibility with your members and regulators and your safety and soundness with vendors and business partners. It is truly a special role to play–attorney to credit unions.

John Porter, an attorney with Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co., submitted this guest blog entry.