Do I provide what my clients really want?
It has been suggested that estate planning lawyers rely too heavily on what they think clients want, providing services that are the easiest and most economical to give, rather than listening to what our clients really want.
As a result we give our clients hefty estate planning binders containing long documents covering every imaginable situation, and lengthy instructions that give our clients the impression that this work is too complicated for anyone other than professionals, so they need to come back to us to interpret the documents we prepared for them. But as important as they are, revocable living trusts, pourover wills, financial durable general powers of attorney, health care powers of attorney, living wills and an assortment of related documents are all simply tools of the trade. They should not be the end result.
I’ve met many people who tell me they have a great estate planning attorney, but I’ve met very few who can tell me why they think so.
I’ve been an attorney since 1979 and have concentrated on advanced estate planning techniques and strategies since 1998. I have litigated contested probate cases that go awry when the planning fails. And I have testified as an expert witness on trust matters that almost always arise because the lawyer did not adequately listen to the client’s needs and desires. The listening failure often occurs because the lawyer failed to ask the right questions. I’ve interviewed many clients, and I bring my unique experience to each client experience; yet I still find the most difficult part of my job is getting clients to express what they really want.
Right now I want to rededicate myself to creating estate plans that work. To me, a good plan is one that accomplishes my client’s objectives in a cost efficient manner. Cost efficiency means avoiding as much estate tax, administrative expenses, and legal fees as possible. It begins with the initial client meeting and isn’t finished until the assets are safely distributed as desired by my client.
I believe the process must begin by intimately knowing what my client owns and values, how each family dynamic works, and my client’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations for how these assets accumulated over a lifetime can be used to assure the comfort of my client, the future success of my client’s descendants, and the support of my client’s favorite causes.
Although a good clear set of documents is a necessary tool, establishing a strong ongoing relationship is even more important, and the linchpin to any successful plan. If you are relieved at “completing” the estate planning process merely because you sign your documents, but don’t identify your estate planning lawyer as among your most trusted advisors, I haven’t done my job. If you sign a will or trust and then check it off your to do list to never think of it again, then I haven’t done my job.
However, if you are able to think about your estate plan without becoming melancholy, then I have done my job. If you relish knowing you can call me whenever you have a problem, without fear of the “meter running,” then I have done my job.
These are a few of the things I believe go into a good relationship. Now I’m interested in what you want in a good client attorney relationship. I’m listening; please share your thoughts with me. Your comments will help me be a better advisor for all of you. I look forward to hearing from you online or in person.