By Scott Nelson, J.D., CPA
The opportunities for building professional networks are greater than they've ever been, thanks to instant communication and interactive computer technology.
Estate planning attorneys can add value to professional relationships with online access to recent estate planning developments, providing instant research and response to questions and inquiries. This article presents the process and issues to be considered in building a trust and estate attorney network, provides some examples, and addresses some common misconceptions about attorneys. I suggest that financial planners reading this article choose, from the ideas presented, those that best fit their own personality and their way of delivering service to their clients.
Putting Together a Team for Your Clients
As you probably know, in simple terms, a trust and estate attorney counsels clients on the transfer of their estate during lifetime or upon death. The objectives include achieving personal goals of the client, efficient transfer of assets, minimal tax cost, and family harmony. But the legal issues faced by clients of any age can be quite varied; part of the attorney's role is to determine the client's needs, manage the client's expectations, and present an understandable strategy for achieving the objectives. Although one of the major responsibilities of the attorney is to draft the documents, the process also includes disability planning, income and estate tax issues, planning for efficient distribution of assets, long-term care planning, retirement planning, and financial planning. Some attorneys may specialize in certain areas, while others may provide a more general focus.
It is important that all professionals work together to represent the interests of a particular client. In today's environment, the work of agents and financial advisors is integrated with the issues of estate planning, tax planning, retirement planning, and long-term care. As a trusted advisor, clients will turn to you for advice on whom to contact if they have other issues or problems that need to be addressed. To be perceived as a sophisticated and full-service provider, it is helpful for you to have the capability to put together a team including a CPA, attorney, and other professionals who will help address your clients' needs.
Coordinating Team Services
Aside from providing a comprehensive plan to the client or customer, your coordination of services ensures that all pieces of the process will mesh upon implementation. If the financial planner and attorney do not coordinate their efforts, there may be a disconnection between the estate planning documents drafted by the attorney and the way the client's assets are owned. Say, for example, that the attorney has structured sophisticated estate tax planning into the documents that provides a transfer occurs when one spouse dies. This strategy could be completely defeated by the spouses continuing to jointly own all of their assets. In fact, it is commonly recommended that spouses not continue to own assets jointly if they have significant net worth.
Once the attorney's documents for the client have been executed, the financial planner can be integral in making sure the ownership and beneficiary designations for each asset are consistent with the plan. The planner can provide service to the client by changing the ownership and beneficiaries to be consistent with the overall plan, a task that can be overwhelming to the client and expensive for the law office to handle.
Being the Point Person After the Initial Work Is Completed
Once the attorney's initial work has been completed on a client's estate plan, it is common for the financial planner to have more ongoing contact with the client than does the attorney. Although the attorney and client should review the plan every few years or whenever there are significant personal or financial changes in the client's life, the financial planner may need to consider changes that may require the input of the attorney. On a marketing level, the financial planner and attorney should be proactive in keeping in touch with each other about these changes, without necessarily requiring joint meetings with the client.
Building a Network of Diverse Expertise
Because of the wide range of potential expertise, you need to create a network of attorneys who can provide assistance in the areas most often needed by your own clients. Some suggestions for initiating new contacts: the local bar association, attorneys and other professionals you already know, listings of estate planning attorneys, and members of organizations such as the National Council on Planned Giving, the American College of Trusts and Estates Counsel, local estate planning councils, and other professional organizations devoted to estate planning.
Many metropolitan areas have an estate planning council that meets on a regular basis and which is devoted to bringing professionals of all disciplines together to discuss the broad topic of estate planning. For instance, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are councils that meet once a month for breakfast or dinner and feature a guest speaker. There is time for socializing as well as continuing education.
You can also check with county programs, lists of faculty members for continuing education, and Web sites for attorneys who identify themselves as trust and estate practitioners. Most importantly, you should check with your friends and colleagues to determine whom they have found reliable. Word of mouth and personal introductions continue to be the most economical and productive ways to create new relationships with other professionals, including attorneys.
Consider continuing education opportunities in other professions. For example, most if not all state bar associations will sponsor "estate planning" continuing legal education, which is open to other professionals. The breaks and lunch portions may be an excellent opportunity to network with the attorneys in attendance, while learning about the latest issues and planning techniques in the trust and estate arena.
Maintaining an Ongoing Dialog
Once you have established contact with attorneys, it is important to maintain that personal contact and nurture the relationship outside of specific client situations. In other words, discuss case studies and share information that you learn about specific issues with the attorneys you know. Maintaining an ongoing dialog makes it more likely that the attorney will be quick to think of you the next time an opportunity arises. Attorneys also appreciate the opportunity to discuss specific fact situations, giving them a forum to apply theory to practice.
My personal experience has been that it is increasingly difficult for the experienced attorney to promise much in the way of referrals, since the attorney in many cases is the last advisor to be retained by the client. In other words, by the time they deal with legal issues, the client may already have an insurance agent, financial planner, a tax preparer, CPA, and others in the picture. The attorney will be looking for advisors who are willing to consult on particular issues and join the attorney as part of the team representing the client. The attorney in turn can be relied upon to work with a financial planner to provide a package of services that the client recognizes as valuable, as well as help you develop or expand your business.
Making Joint Presentations
For those interested in public speaking, a seminar co-presented with an attorney can be a fun and productive way to educate clients and potential customers. One idea that appears to work well is an annual or semi-annual "appreciation" seminar with guest speakers, such as a trust and estate attorney or elder advocate from a state organization, to inform your contacts about specific legal, tax, or retirement planning developments.
Finally, I would like to comment on some misconceptions about working with attorneys. One is that we bill for every minute of our time. In most cases, this is not true. We recognize the need for marketing time, for general questions from clients, and for letting people or other advisors know the options at little or no risk for fees. However, remember that attorneys are responsible for the specific advice they give, and even if the conversation is short, the value of the legal advice may justify a charge independent of the time involved. Some attorneys are also willing to quote fixed fees for some of the services, which eliminates the concern about time-based billing.
A second misconception is that attorneys do not like insurance or annuities for their clients. Like the general population, attorneys are a diverse group with individual opinions based on knowledge and experience. I believe most would treat insurance and annuities as an option to be considered as part of the overall landscape. They are options in your toolkit and can be important components to risk management and wealth replacement.
Another misconception is that trust and estate attorneys do not deal in other areas of the law. Many that represent themselves as "trust and estate attorneys" truly devote their practice to trust and estate work. However, the needs of your clients are just as varied as any other demographic group and a lawyer's practice depends on knowledge, experience, and interest in a particular area. Some will have a highly specialized practice in a specific area of estate planning, such as trust administration, and others may cover a broader array of expertise, such as estate planners who work with individuals, business owners, and elderly clients.
Finding a Good Match
As a professional who has tried many approaches to developing business and generating referrals, the overriding method for success has been personal relationships. You need to find attorneys who you can trust and who you know will make you look good in front of your clients, while providing the expertise needed by your particular client. Aside from technical competence, however, it is also important that the personality of the trusted professional will match that of your client: Clients regard these services as very personal and intimate.
To match the right attorney with your client, you need to personally know the attorney you will be recommending. Obviously you do not have this luxury when initiating contacts with a new attorney; therefore, at that stage you need to rely on the recommendations of other professionals who have worked with that attorney. If you make contact without a referral, you may wish to ask the attorney for references.
It takes time and effort to build your professional network, but in the long run it is necessary for growing your practice and establishing permanent relationships with your customers. There is no instant gratification in this process, but as with many aspects of life, it is patience, wisdom, and caring that are ultimately rewarded.
Scott Nelson, J.D., CPA, is an attorney working with businesses, individuals, and nonprofits to design and implement succession and estate planning strategies, assist with planned giving, legacy design, entity and trust options, administration and elder law planning. He is licensed as a CPA and as an attorney in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. He is a shareholder in the firm of Lommen, Abdo, Cole, King & Stageberg, P.A., a member of the International Lawyers Network (ILN). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; (612) 336-9320; (800) 752-4297; or 2000 IDS Center, 80 South Eighth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402; www.minnesotaestateplanningattorney.com or www.lommen.com.