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Setting the Bar High

Stephen M. Hladik serves as Partner at Hladik, Onorato & Federman, LLP. Formerly a Deputy Attorney General in Charge of the Harrisburg office of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection, Hladik brings a broad range of experience to his mortgage foreclosure, bankruptcy, tax sale, and UDAP legal practice. A graduate of the Pennsylvania State University, Hladik obtained his law degree from Widener University, with honors, where he served as Internal Managing Editor of the Law Review. Hladik gained significant expertise in lending law enforcement while serving in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, handling UDAP, FDCPA, RESPA, and TILA cases. He has served the role of Legal League 100 (LL100) Chair since 2021.

J. Anthony Van Ness is the Founder and Managing Partner of the Van Ness Law Firm, a Florida default and litigation law firm with locations in Deerfield Beach and Miami. The firm has represented national mortgage lenders and servicers since 2004, making it one of the older default firms serving Florida and likely the only certified, African American one. The firm has won several performance awards over the years and takes pride in becoming Fannie Mae retained counsel in 2010 (until program ended). Van Ness serves on multiple boards for trade, associations, and charity, including as Vice Chair of LL100 since 2021.

As we closed out the final days of 2021, Hladik and Van Ness spoke with DS News about the challenges LL100 will face in the coming year, as well as the victories and milestones the group has celebrated in recent months.

To begin, could you tell me why serving in a leadership position within LL100 was important to each of you?
Hladik: I truly value the membership in the Legal League. Our firm has been in it for a long time now. We were active members, then I got onto several committees, and then I became a Chair of a committee. I worked my way up to the Advisory Council and now have the humble responsibility of being the overall Chair. It’s been a progression of well over a decade, but it’s been very valuable to our firm. We’ve truly valued our membership, what we’ve gotten out of it, the contacts, the things we’ve been able to do, the people we’ve been able to meet, the network of attorneys that you get to know.

The discussion of important topical legal issues is always beneficial. The new debt collection regulations just went into effect. I have heard from multiple firms that it’s helpful to discuss those topics and see how different firms around the countries are dealing with the issues. We’ve benefited from a terrific webinar program throughout the last year, as well as the Legal League Quarterly, with the material it publishes. It’s all very valuable information to firms and to servicers. I truly enjoy the opportunity to give back to the industry.

Are there any key lessons learned or initiatives you were particularly proud to participate in during your time in LL100 so far?
Van Ness: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is how important it is to be engaged. Especially as a firm partner or owner, you can lose focus on what’s important to the clients or to the industry. I’m not saying you have to write white papers necessarily, it’s more about participating on event panels and the sessions—engaging. You can learn so much and clients can hear from you. It continues your legal education, and I think it makes you a better attorney, a better member, and a better default industry executive.

Hladik: [Legal League 100 membership has] been very valuable, especially in light of what we have all gone through in the last two years with COVID. Things were changing so rapidly. Things were coming out from the governmental entities and agencies, CFPB regulations, moratoriums, new statutory mandates; everything was changing on a state, county, and local basis. Being in the Legal League and being able to receive and circulate that most recent information was a valuable part of that membership. Just finding out and being on top of the regulatory changes, as well as what enforcement things were going on through the CFPB. It’s a valuable educational tool.

There’s an inherent part of this trade group that connects you to the industry, not just on the mortgage servicing side, but on the government regulatory side. That’s incredibly valuable in terms of keeping you up to speed. Our past Chair, Roy Diaz, was a tremendous leader in that area, in terms of dealing with the governmental agencies, as well as other regulatory bodies.

What are some of the top achievements or milestones you feel LL100 achieved since the advent of the pandemic?
Hladik: The biggest and best milestone was meeting live last September at the Five Star Conference. To have actually achieved that and have a well-attended, successful, in-person conference was very nice. But even in spite of COVID, look at how much the Legal League did in the last 18 months and how fast it adapted. We did have the live event, but we also had several very successful virtual events. We have a robust and excellent webinar committee going now, where we’re putting on solid topics that we have mapped out through 2022. Our Legal League Quarterly is continuing to thrive. I’m sure Tony will speak to this, but our goals are even loftier for 2022. We want to bring back more members to the League, increase its visibility, increase its advocacy on behalf of its law firm members, increase its educational opportunities for mortgage service and industry, as well as our continued advocacy and engagement with the regulatory bodies.

Van Ness: Also, our Special Initiatives Work Group (SIWG) came out with a couple of whitepapers. We have a paper now that’s going to help clients navigate vacant properties and how to deal with them. That group alone has become a real weapon to help us navigate the changing landscape of the default industry. We can charge the SWIG with missions that will illuminate questions we may have in certain topics.

Hladik: We’ve also now formed the Government Affairs Committee, which is going to be chaired by Roy Diaz and Caren Castle. They’re going to continue to focus on the mission of advocacy before the governmental bodies. I know with their outstanding backgrounds and dedication to the industry that this Committee will prove to be quite valuable to both LL100 members and the mortgage servicing community.

What are the primary headwinds or growth areas you see for the League in 2022?
Hladik: We do still face headwinds. I was talking to somebody the other day about how remarkable it is where we have come from in the last 24 months, how the law firms had to modify the way they do business, increase technology, and quickly adapt to a virtual world. A video call like this never would’ve happened 24 months ago, and now, they are routine daily events for court proceedings. And of course, we are going to see the expiration of the various moratoriums come January, and that will create a different sort of headwind.

There are a lot of pre-COVID defaults out there on mortgages that will need to move through the system. As Tony mentioned, there are vacant and abandoned properties that still need to move through the system. There are a lot of defaulted loans that must move through the system. The headwinds I see are managing all of that: finding quality staff and having the time to adequately train them. We’re going to have to ramp up with additional employees. We’re going to have a lot of additional costs being advanced that the firms are going to have to deal with. We’re going to have to deal with court systems that are backlogged.

You’re going to have to deal with third-party vendors, too: title searchers, process servers, or other critical vendors who downsized significantly in the last 24 months. They’re going to have to ramp up, and we’re very reliant upon them for title searches. When they get inundated with orders in January, will they be able to properly fulfil those orders?

I am optimistic about the future of the industry in 2022, but I do think that January and February are going to be incredibly busy. One of the biggest challenges is finding quality staff right now. We are moving to upgrade our firm trainings in every area. We’re going over everything with our staff, from new Fair Debt rules to CFPB issues, to mortgage servicing and regulations, to just going back and retraining everyone on the foreclosure process, because there’s been a lot of areas that have been dormant for the last 20 months. We want to make sure our staff is prepared and ready to go for the new year.

Van Ness: Basically, we’re kind of stretching our legs coming out of a coma for two years. We’re going to have to deal with moving forward again, how much staff we’re going to need. We just don’t know. Some people think it’s going to be in avalanche of files; some of us think it’s not going to be quite as much. I’ve also heard that there will be initial bursts, yes, but then it’s going to slow down dramatically, because there’s not as much in default as you might think.

As far as the clients are concerned, they have the same challenges we do. They’re concerned about exceeding expectations of the CFPB and others in regard to compliance to include Regulation F. We also had the Fair Debt case that came out, centering around having third-party mailing companies sending out correspondence. We have some new stuff out there that’s concerning, and you may have to adjust your practice accordingly, so we have to address that.

Finally, are there any initiatives or areas of focus that you’re going to be pushing the League toward heavily this year?
Van Ness: Well, this is a great thing about Steve and I, because we’re both very close friends and we both bring different things and objectives to the table. For me, I’m looking forward to using the resources of the Five Star to get a good CLE (continuing legal education) program out there, so it’s easy for members to get CLE credits. I think that would be a real value add for our membership. Our whole goal is to attract attorney members and provide an added value.

We are also looking to add new events for networking outside of the Spring and Fall Summits.

Hladik: Let me say that, first, it is an absolute privilege to serve as the Chair for our members and for this industry. It’s been a rewarding experience already and I’m looking forward to a bright ‘22. It’s truly a pleasure to work with Tony, who has been so active and brings so much to the group. It’s great working with him on these challenging issues that the industry faces. As far as 2022, I believe in setting the bar high, and I want to see an increase in the membership for our organization. First and foremost, let’s grow our membership. There’s strength in numbers, so let’s grow our base.

Two, let’s build on our advocacy. Let’s be the best advocate out there for the member firms and the mortgage servicing industry.

Third, let’s provide the highest level of educational opportunities for our servicers and our members. Let’s continue that advocacy and promote that education to our industry. And again, let’s provide the highest level of live events; that’s a continuing theme. Let’s have the best Spring Servicer Summit that we’ve had. The more you can connect and the more you can meet in-person at those kinds of events, it helps not just from a marketing standpoint but it increases your connection to the industry and how we can work together. Our goal is to provide the best membership experience for our members and also assist the mortgage servicing community.

About Author: David Wharton

David Wharton, Editor-in-Chief at the Five Star Institute, is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, where he received his B.A. in English and minored in Journalism. Wharton has nearly 20 years' experience in journalism and previously worked at Thomson Reuters, a multinational mass media and information firm, as Associate Content Editor, focusing on producing media content related to tax and accounting principles and government rules and regulations for accounting professionals. Wharton has an extensive and diversified portfolio of freelance material, with published contributions in both online and print media publications. He can be reached at [email protected].

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