Comments From The Chair-A Fifty Year Search of our History as a Section

By Chad Henderson

Chad Henderson
Recently, someone searching online for our model opinion letter stumbled across an historical artifact. Among their search results was the very first Real Property Law Section website, launched in 2005 and apparently never updated. It was a time capsule of sorts, archived by the original web hosting service and preserved there more or less intact. As much as I wanted to explore this treasure trove, I knew I had to get back to work, but history was at the front of my mind as I reviewed the next title report on my desk.

Like most of you, most of the titles I deal with day to day are pretty vanilla. Rarely are any of us required to dig deeply into the chain of title going back much farther than the most recent arms-length insured transaction. We begrudgingly examine the history, but only because it’s required to determine what we’re really concerned with, which is the present state of title, and the future deal we hope to close.

We are always looking forward, rarely backward, as perhaps it should be. This is certainly true for the leadership of the Real Property Law Section. The RPLS has a number of forward-looking initiatives, from our pro bono projects to the seminars we sponsor. We concern ourselves much more with pending legislation than with legislative history, as indeed we should. We have a committee that monitors recent appellate decisions but no official historian, and our newest committee is called the Innovations Committee.

But like a thorny chain of title, the 50+ year history of our section is worth examining and holds a few surprises. Most of what I’ve learned about the history of our section is from a lengthy essay written in 1999 by the late Bruce Cohen, one of the founding fathers of our section. This essay was buried among the “web pages” preserved on our archived website and has now been uploaded to our current website. It can be found in its entirety here: https:// www.garealpropertylaw.com

I learned from Bruce’s essay that our section was created in 1965, at a time when most law offices were within walking distance of a courthouse. Manual typewriters were slowly being replaced by electric. Some of the larger firms had “Xerox machines” (which were the size of a small jeep) but most were still using carbon paper for multiple copies. All documents were delivered either by mail or courier. And the State Bar of Georgia had just recently become a mandatory bar for Georgia lawyers, spawning numerous new sections to be formed, including our own.

In the mid-1960s, closing statements were calculated manually, and each lender had its own forms. Most lenders were locally chartered and operated. There was no HUD1, and no RESPA or Truth In Lending Act. Nor was there much of a secondary market for residential mortgages, so the uniformity we have today among various lenders and their loan documents did not exist. There was perhaps more uniformity in legal fees, however, since without any real antitrust concerns, fee schedules were common among various segments of the bar, including the real estate lawyers.

Unlike today, in the mid-1960s the deed records in metro Atlanta counties were considered more reliable by the title insurance underwriters than other outlying counties. As a result, title insurance premiums were often lower for properties located in Atlanta and other metro areas than in rural counties. In Atlanta at least, Lawyers Title Insurance was by far the largest and most comprehensive title plant, and thus the starting point for most title searches. The memos issued over the years by Lawyers Title, on how to clear common title problems, became the foundation for George Pindar’s treatise, which was not published for the first time until 1971. The vast majority of all title searches were still completed by attorneys, who certified their searches to the title company underwriters, who in turn issued the title binders and policies.

During the 50+ years since our section was formed, our industry has navigated an incredible amount of change and disruption. For starters, a steady stream of technological advances has exponentially increased our capabilities, efficiency and productivity, and thus the expectations we all place on each other. New technologies sometimes have been resisted and sometimes embraced, but always eventually have been adopted by us practitioners and the investors, developers, lenders, governments and other entities with whom we interact and do business. This historical perspective will serve us well over the next months and years as we begin to grapple with the wave of esigning, e-notary and remote notary services that are knocking at the door of the Georgia real property bar.

As we grapple with these and other changes, we can also reflect on how competition from within and outside the state, and from within and outside the bar, has forced us over the years to reevaluate the business side of our profession. Over the past 50+ years, residential closings have evolved from a budding practice area in the larger firms in each major county seat, to a boutique practice area, to a retail service geared toward the convenience of homeowning and homebuying consumers. Barriers to entry in all areas of real estate practice have been reduced over the years with the advent of the Attorneys Title Guaranty Fund, standardization and automation of loan documents, and online resources that have eliminated the need for proximity to a law library, courthouse or title plant. Meanwhile, lenders, brokers and lay title agencies have made inroads into areas which were once (and are still) recognized as the practice of law.

As we adapt to these changes, we must continue our long-term fight for the crucial role that trained, experienced real estate attorneys have always played in all matters affecting title to real property in Georgia. We are trustees of the ground that was laid by our predecessors, the foundation they built, and myriad improvements they made over the years. The current leadership of our section is committed to continuing to build upon that foundation over the coming year and beyond, with help from each of you who count yourselves among the members of our bar and its largest section, the Real Property Law Section. We strive to continue the work of those who came before us, with the expectation that our profession, not just our business, will thrive, and with the hope that our successors in interest will look back as we do, fifty years from now, with pride and appreciation.

Chad Henderson

Chad Henderson graduated from Emory Law School in 1997, and also earned his M.B.A. from Emory’s Goizueta Business School. In addition to practicing law, Chad has taught law, business and real estate courses since 2000, as an adjunct professor in Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business. Chad also serves on several civic and nonprofit boards. He is the 2018-2019 chair of the Real Property Law Section, which at 2,700+ members is the largest section of the State Bar of Georgia. He is licensed to practice law in Florida and Georgia. Chad lives in Druid Hills with his wife and their four children.