Attorney Hans Wahl tends to keep a low profile in his neighborhood. That is not to say he’s anti-social, in fact, quite the contrary. He’s a very affable guy. Wahl just doesn’t want to be known as “the local community association expert” in his neighborhood, inviting the inevitable questions and requests to settle HOA disputes where he tries his best to relax away from work.
Of course, this is said somewhat in jest. While it’s true Wahl would prefer to remain just another homeowner within his own neighborhood, he’s only too aware of the myriad issues brewing just below the surface in any planned development community association guarded by the covenants and restrictions of an HOA.
“It’s similar to having anyone with a specialty living down the street from you, people tend to want their opinion and I really don’t want to insert myself into the disputes of my own HOA and neighbors while my kids are playing with their kids,” he says with a smile. “Naturally, I’m very involved and concerned about our community but I wouldn’t want my neighbors to consider me the ‘expert in residence’ for HOA issues at home. I’d prefer to leave my work at the office and enjoy my personal time and family when I come home.”
A partner at the prestigious firm of Cobb & Gonzalez PA, Wahl is a much-admired expert in his field that includes full-service community association law; real estate development; and business and commercial litigation matters. He is licensed in both Florida and Georgia and is Florida Bar board certified in condominium and planned land development law. Wahl leads Cobb & Gonzalez’s community association practice group.
Interestingly, Wahl admits he wasn’t “one of those kids who aspires to become a lawyer” but rather found his way to law by following his natural instincts and interests.
“The law is really my second career,” he explains. “I was a finance major at the University of Florida and worked in the financial industry for about 10 years until the disastrous housing market crash around 2008. People all around me were getting laid off and I thought I needed to find something else to do.”
As he considered various options, even seeking out advice from career related books, a friend suggested law school. He took the LSAT within six weeks and was in law school the start of the next school year.
“In hindsight, I wish I had taken that path earlier,” he says, “I really loved law school. By the time I went to law school, I was 10 years older than the other students, which helped me better succeed. Being a bit older, allowed me to block out all the noise and nonsense and just focus on my studies. I was a law school nerd.”
What Wahl describes as being a nerd others see as a dedicated and accomplished law student who earned his Juris Doctor from Florida Coastal School of Law, graduating magna cum laude and in the top 3 percent of his class. He additionally served two years as board member and treasurer for the Christian Legal Society at Florida Coastal School of Law, was on law review, and a member of both moot court and mock trial teams.
As much as he enjoyed his law school experiences, Wahl also came away with some very definite ideas on how the curriculum might be improved.
“I did my best through extracurricular activities to get some real-world experience on how to practice law while in school,” he says. “I think they should change the structure of law school in the way it goes about educating aspiring attorneys. They’ll teach you how to research and how to write like a lawyer, but most people come out of law school not knowing how to do a deposition, how to respond to discovery, or do a mediation, how to conduct a trial or really even how to speak to a client.
“I think the last half of law school should really be more like medical school where you’d do a six-week or so residency in seven or eight different law firms just to get the real-life experience. Just sitting there in a classroom reading case studies and taking exams really doesn’t prepare you for actually being an attorney.”
This is where Wahl’s previous career gave him a little bit of an advantage, having worked for Fortune 500 financial institutions, he at least knew how big business operates and how things actually work in the real world.
Concentrating on community associations, such as HOAs, condos and other planned development communities, Wahl considers himself to be a general counsel and litigation counsel for these clients. He says he has the utmost respect for those volunteers who give their time and energy to make sure their communities run smoothly and that property values are maintained.
One of Cobb Gonzalez’s main practice areas is construction litigation.
“If you do construction litigation, you just naturally have community association clients,” Wahl says. “HOAs and condos often have construction defect issues resulting from the pool, club house, other common areas and so on. But those association clients have other legal needs specific to community association law. When I was a first and second-year attorney that work was passed on to me by partners who were focusing more on the construction litigation needs for those clients.
“That’s how I got started in this practice area,” he adds. “We had a lot of condo and HOA clients, and I became immersed in community association law in order to be a full-service law firm for our clients. Fast forward a few years and I had enough experience that I was part of the inaugural class in 2018 of attorneys board certified by the Florida Bar in this practice area.”
Regarding community associations, “I don’t think people realize how much is required of those who give so generously of their time and have to learn and understand so many rules, processes and laws to be an effective board member,” he says. “There might be some unfavorable perceptions of HOA and condo board members who are seen as the watchdogs, but these are really dedicated individuals who are not being compensated in any way for all the time they give back to their communities in this role. These people are performing a very valuable community service, who really care about their neighbors and community and want to protect those who live there and their property values.
“Of course, every association has a handful of people who can’t get along, and quite frankly that’s what keeps me employed,” he adds with a smile.
Along the way Wahl says he realized he had found his niche. “It might not be for everyone, but I really love the work I do and am very thankful I fell into community association law. For me, it’s very rewarding to help those individuals who volunteer their time and energy to serve on these boards to improve their communities. As I’ve said, I have tremendous respect for them, it’s not an easy job and it’s often thankless. It’s certainly not a way to win a popularity contest in your neighborhood.”
“The people who serve on their community association boards often have no idea how much work it is or the amount of corporate and property law knowledge that is needed. They quickly realize they need prompt and sufficient legal guidance, and I love being that resource for them. It’s very rewarding professionally to help those people improve their communities and navigate through the difficult legal issues that inevitably arise.
“It’s a unique practice area,” he adds. “You don’t need any type of special experience or qualifications to serve on a community association board. Many who serve don’t have any prior experiences with property law, property management or leading a corporate entity. In what other industry can you be a volunteer solely in charge of a corporate entity with six-figure annual revenues that is in the business of maintaining property, which is often valued in the millions of dollars? It’s really a fascinating and unique concept. It’s awesome to assist those people and their communities in that type of structure and environment.”
At home, Wahl and his wife have three rambunctious sons ages 5, 8, and 9 and the family enjoys many outdoor activities together.
“I was born and raised in Jacksonville,” he says, “I love it. It’s got a small town feel and I enjoy exploring all that this community has to offer with my family. There aren’t too many places where you have a river and a beach to enjoy and if you’re an outdoors person, like we all are, it’s really ideal.”
Looking to the future, Wahl says he expects community association laws to continue evolving as they always have over the years, but looks forward to finding creative and effective ways to continue providing the best legal service and guidance that he can for his clients.