Local News Columnist
7:46 PM CST, February 25, 2012
Did you hear the one about the lawyers with the slick TV ads who sued the Better Business Bureau for false advertising?
No joke. Kaufman, Englett & Lynd, the Orlando law firm known as KEL, sued the bureau last month in a huff over the firm's F rating from the bureau. It's just the latest twist in KEL's woe-is-us saga.
The firm is battling complaints about its practice filed with the Florida Bar.
A judge's order temporarily banned it from practicing in local bankruptcy court.
And scores of consumer complaints allege the firm took thousands of dollars in upfront payments for mortgage modifications but did little or nothing to help them — allegations the firm vigorously denies.
Though KEL insists its successes far outnumber complaints, there appears little doubt the firm has left many people very, very frustrated and angry.
But this isn't a rant about why people hate lawyers. It's a reminder that most people just don't need 'em.
Foreclosure filings hit a lull in Florida during the last year. The robo-signing scandal caused many banks to put new foreclosures on hold. That's coming to an end, and we can expect filings to jump again.
Homeowners will be looking for help. It's tough to navigate the system alone. Asking a bank for a mortgage modification can get complicated. And it seems as if government programs aimed at helping homeowners are too many to count, much less understand.
The process isn't just hard. It's scary. We're talking about getting kicked out of your home.
Here's the good news: There is a lot of help available in Central Florida for free. That's right. On the house. Gratis. Complimentary.
Organizations certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should be the first stop for people who have fallen behind on their mortgage or are worried they're about to.
These nonprofit groups are great resources for people who want to know whether they might qualify for a mortgage modification such as an interest-rate reduction. And most of these places keep up with the latest government programs so they can help decipher which borrowers might be eligible.
Central Florida has more than a dozen such organizations.
There's no guarantee the nonprofits will produce the results borrowers want. But at least they don't take your money in the process.
"If a client had $2,000 or $3,000, we'd much rather see them put that toward their home than toward [attorney] fees," said Allie Braswell, CEO of the Central Florida Urban League, which provides free, HUD-certified housing and foreclosure counseling.
The Urban League counseled more than 400 people locally last year, he said.
CredAbility, a national credit- and housing-counseling group with offices in Central Florida, takes phone calls 24 hours a day.
"We don't advertise — we go on word of mouth," said Regional President Richard Schram.
He said the group would rather spend its money on programs to help consumers.
There is something, though, to the power of advertising. That's why attorneys go on TV to play to consumers' worst fears and assert that they can help.
Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, another HUD-certified group, sees it all the time when clients come in after they paid a law firm for assistance they never received.
"There's people who look on TV and see one of those I'll-save-you ads and do it," said spokesman Larry Glinzman.
Even Community Legal Services, a group of lawyers, acknowledges legal representation is not always necessary for a mortgage modification. But for cases that do require legal help, Community Legal Services offers free representation to homeowners who meet certain income requirements.
It's actually illegal in Florida for companies to take money upfront in exchange for mortgage modifications. Lawyers, however, are exempt from that rule.
Far be it from me to say that lawyers are never needed. Legal counsel is an important part of some foreclosure cases.
But watching people plunk down thousands of dollars for help they can get elsewhere for free is just sad.
It's like seeing people suffer from the housing meltdown not once, but twice.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5448