This isn’t a political post, at least not intentionally.

The Wall Street Journal on Saturday carried a story about the legal troubles of the Wasilla sports complex which was built under Sarah Palin’s watch (the story isn’t new, see these links). It gives us a good window into the two main types of "legal advice" a lawyer can give to an organization or business — i.e., advice for avoiding certain legal risks and advice that weighs different possible legal outcomes — and how organizations and businesses should respond to that advice. The story’s been picked up as an example of poor executive judgment by Sarah Palin; it may be, but it’s not that simple.

Short story: in the late 1990s Wasilla reached an agreement to buy a 145-acre lot for $126,000. The seller then went with another buyer, Wasilla sued, won initially, began construction, was reversed, and had to eminent domain the most important 80 acres. At the end of the day, Wasilla paid $250,000 in legal fees and was ordered by an arbitrator to pay $836,378, plus $336,000 in interest, for the land.

Since all land is unique, failed-and-repurchased real estate deals rarely fail for a fraction of the original price. They fail for a multiple of the original price. So it’s not surprising that, once the deal failed the first time, Wasilla ended up getting a little over half of what they "bought" for ten times the price they negotiated. Lawyers and real estate brokers know that happens.

In essence, two things went wrong for Wasilla:

  • Wasilla never finalized the initial deal;
  • Wasilla relied on a federal district judge’s order in 2001 in their favor, which was later reversed.

The former is a classic example of an avoidable legal risk. When lawyers study for the bar exam, few things are pounded in their heads so forcefully as the need to follow precisely the requirements for the transfer of real estate. For example, the failure to ‘record’ a real estate purchase typically voids the putative buyer’s title. It’s that serious.

So it’s a bit surprising to see this paragraph:

City officials negotiated a price of $126,000. Months passed without the city’s securing a signed purchase agreement, according to the city’s attorney, Tom Klinkner of Birch, Horton, Bittner & Cherot.

An oral agreement to purchase real estate is unenforceable, barred by the statute of frauds every state, including Alaska. Little wonder the seller (the Nature Conservancy) thought it could sell it to another buyer, and the buyer thought they could buy it.

The real question is: who let a fully negotiated real estate deal sit around? Did their lawyer fail to tell them they had to get moving if they wanted to make it enforceable? Did the city sit on its hands, perhaps fretting about tendering the cash? Someone dropped the ball; it’s that simple.

After Wasilla sued to enforce their unenforceable deal, I haven’t the foggiest clue how they convinced the Federal District Court Judge to rule anything in their favor, but apparently they did.

Which brings us to the latter, which was likely either a failure of the lawyer to weigh the legal risks appropriately or a failure of the executive to appreciate the consequences of those legal risks once presented to her. After the order in Wasilla’s favor,

Ms. Palin marched ahead, making the public case for a sales-tax increase and $14.7 million bond issue to pay for the sports center, which was to feature a running track, basketball courts and a hockey rink. At the time, the city’s annual budget was about $20 million. In a March 2002 referendum, residents approved the mayor’s plan by a 20-vote margin, 306 to 286. The city cleared roads, installed utilities and made preparations to build.

Not necessarily the wrong decision. They had an order in hand, plus unlimited eminent domain power if something went wrong. If they wanted the land, they were going to be able to get it, the question was just how much they would pay (including legal fees) and how long until the ordeal was over.

But recall the circumstance — a failed real estate deal — in which the eventual price may need to be many multiples of the original deal. Those numbers aren’t insignificant in this context, and they had the capability to explode into a significant fraction of the city’s budget. Order or not, both the lawyer and the city should have been concerned.

"[T]he city believed it would prevail …" I haven’t seen the briefs or the order, so I have to speculate. Wasilla had prevailed in the first instance, which itself makes it reasonable to think it could hold up on appeal.

But a lawyer is held to a higher standard than what could be reasonable; they’re hired not to make plausible judgments, but to make sound ones. Did the lawyer not advise the city of the high odds of reversal of their enforcement of an oral real estate agreement? Did the city ignore that advice and then not bother with less risky/costly solutions, like settling with the other buyer before committing $14 million to that lot?

Maybe the City was advised of, and considered, the risk of reversal followed by an expensive eminent domain process, and charged through anyway, firing up the bond issue, construction, et cetera. That’s not necessarily a bad decision, though it may be rash given the numbers involved.

At the end of the day, I just can’t help but think that at least one, and possibly two or more major mistakes in judgment were made in this whole endeavor.

Someone let the initial purchase agreement lapse, as simple and plain an error as ever was. It wasn’t even a bad judgment call; it was a failure to minimize an obvious legal risk.

Then someone didn’t properly weigh the risks of the litigation, a more subtle, but here more costly, error.

There’s a distinction between "weighing the risk of litigation" and "predicting the outcome." No one can do the latter, nor should they try. The former, though, must be done, and it involves two separate exercises of judgment: the legal judgment of the lawyer in determining the possible outcomes and their likelihood, and the business / administrative judgment of the city in assessing the effect of those outcomes on the city and the best course in context.

One of those two was missing here. Which one?