Estate Planning: A Practice Management Primer
by Matthew L. Mitton
Invest in Yourself
I made a presentation last year to the Young Lawyers Division on practice management tips for new estate planning attorneys. I decided to tailor the presentation around practice management issues rather than to attempt to present a comprehensive primer on estate planning.
I mentioned to this group of new lawyers that the most rewarding thing I do as an estate planning attorney is meet with people with diverse, interesting and challenging needs and objectives. Like many of my colleagues, I am privileged to meet fascinating people who are happy to engage my services. I can’t think of a better way to practice law. I spend most of my days in consultations with clients that range from two to three hours. Why bring this up? I believe it’s critical to understand early in your practice what your strengths and weaknesses are before you find yourself in a state of torment. I know attorneys who don’t enjoy spending hour after hour in consultations with clients; they would rather spend hours in front of the computer drafting estate planning provisions or researching complex tax matters. If you are a technician, find a practice area where those talents and strengths are needed, and where appropriate, find colleagues that can add other dimensions to your practice where you lack.
The greatest complaint clients have expressed to me as they meet with attorneys is the inability to communicate complex legal terms and ideas in a “language” they understand. The estate planning experience can be emotionally charged and complicated to begin with. If the client doesn’t understand how their attorney and counselor at law can solve their legal challenges, the attorney-client relationship will fail and the efficacy of the plan will be at risk over time.
One of the best things that ever happened in my early practice was the opportunity I had to present estate planning topics to countless associations and groups throughout the state. Take every opportunity in your new legal career to speak and teach. Make certain you practice and hone the craft of effective communication. This skill may serve you better than any other skill I know. The other skill new lawyers must fight to develop is the ability to listen when you need to listen. After three years of law school, we are anxious to tell people what we know. In my opinion, the key to every successful estate planning engagement is rooted in your ability to be an empathetic listener and effective communicator. Don’t be afraid to discuss these skills with and solicit honest and constructive feedback from friends and family, or other colleagues.
Invest in Good Forms and CLE
If you are in a well-established firm with an existing estate planning practice group, you probably have great forms at your disposal; however, even the best forms can become outdated over time. Make it a point to review and update forms as a practice group at least once a year, if not more frequently.
In a small firm or solo practice, one of the most critical “practice management” decisions an estate planning attorney will make is choosing solid estate planning software and forms. In a recent conversation I had with a local banker, he remarked that most attorneys in the same geographic area would ultimately draft a “common” or “shared” trust agreement. While that might have been the case years ago, the proliferation of estate planning documents through myriad internet and publishing sources has led to a very robust “forms menu” for lawyers in every imaginable practice. The American Bar Association routinely sells estate planning documents and conducts CLE workshops in this area of practice. Practice management groups like WealthCounsel (wealthcounsel.com) and the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys (aaepa.com) cater to lawyers and firms who not only want forms, but are also willing to pay for assistance in other practice management areas. These companies provide marketing assistance, law firm profitability analysis, case mentoring, and assistance with staffing and ongoing education support. It is not inexpensive to join and pay the monthly dues for this type of service, but each lawyer needs to decide how the “business” of their practice will operate.
The American Bar Association is a great resource for estate planning forms and CLE. You can purchase materials to assist with drafting trusts, wills, powers of attorney, and other estate planning-related documents. I recently discovered a website that “links” together estate planning web sites from around the country (estateplanninglinks.com). It was through this website that I found several great estate planning resources that I use almost daily in my practice. Whether I need May’s applicable federal rate or an estate planning contact in Maine, estateplanninglinks.com and other websites provide tremendous assistance.
Your ability to stay current, relevant, and educated in this practice area is largely based, in my opinion, on your participation in CLE events. The Salt Lake Estate Planning Council meetings take place the third Wednesday of every month and the Estate Planning Section of the Utah State Bar meets the second Tuesday of each month. Well-established attorneys in this practice area generously share with their colleagues invaluable information that you may not be able to find from any other source. ALI-ABA, NBI, Lorman, and others offer classroom and online CLE events. These sources are fairly expensive, but may offer, in certain circumstances, important information for a complicated case or unique estate planning topics.
Invest in and Design a System
While it’s a cliché to say that we never learned “this or that” in law school, we have the ability to forge our own unique law-practice course. It’s perhaps just as well that no one formula for practicing law is presented in law school. As a new attorney, I was fortunate enough to learn from dozens of seasoned lawyers what it meant to create a “systems-based” practice. In a traditional business environment, a system is typically an unflinching course all employees and management pursue to send a product or service out the front doors. Why should it be any different in a law practice? As a service-oriented practice, an estate planning attorney should create and manage a system that provides a predictable service and product for a client. While every system is different, there are fundamental components that should never be ignored. Another way to approach this is to put ourselves in the client’s shoes and analyze if they have questions like these: After our first consultation, I’m still wondering what’s next? The meeting with the attorney went well, but I am still not sure what it will cost or how long it will take to complete the documents. Should I call the attorney to ask these questions or will a staff member call me to follow up? Once a client begins to ask these and other questions about the engagement, the level of confidence drops and the attorney’s ability to keep a happy client begins to disintegrate.
Creating a system around the entire client relationship not only holds the attorney accountable for the client experience, but just as importantly, it holds the client accountable to participate in a confident and purposeful way. A good system should clearly address questions about fees, how estate planning forms are delivered and completed, the amount of time to complete the project, client-staff interaction, and more. I will say it again, if the client is asking, “I just don’t know what happens next,” the system is broken, or no system exists.
Decide how you will charge your clients. Will you offer a free initial consultation, conduct annual reviews, or bill for phone calls and e-mails? Whatever you decide, make sure you have a clear understanding with your clients, and when appropriate, put it in writing.
Invest in Your Staff
If Kathy or Carie ever leaves my practice, I will retire immediately. Kathy and Carie are members of my staff; however, I view them as my practice partners. My law practice success is directly correlated to the interaction they have with my clients. I spoke earlier about business systems in this article. Kathy and Carie continually guide clients though our estate planning “system” and remind me when I stray from the system we work hard to implement and follow. They have been critical in shaping and changing, as needed, the systems that guide our clients through the estate planning process.
As I mentioned above, the members of your estate planning practice should be performing duties that correspond to their strengths and talents. In other words, let the technician do the technical work in your practice.
While this goes without saying, never, ever forget to offer thanks and words of encouragement to those who make your practice successful. Whether it’s a bonus that was expected or unexpected, flowers during professional assistants’ week, or a sincere expression of gratitude, we need our team members’ help more than they need our help. The respect and appreciation present within a successful practice group will always translate into better client-attorney relationships, practice efficiency and firm profitability.
Finally, I can’t think of a better way to make a living and I certainly can’t think of a better practice area. Good luck.
Young Lawyer of the Year 2011-2012: Gabriel K. White
Each year, the Young Lawyers Division has the difficult job of choosing one recipient from a stack of letters nominating outstanding and deserving candidates for the Young Lawyer of the Year Award. It is inspiring (and humbling) to read about the accomplishments that young lawyers have achieved early in their careers. This year Gabriel (ÒGabeÓ) K. WhiteÕs nomination stood out from the competition. Gabe is one of those rare individuals who has taken to heart the motto ÒSuccess comes to the person who does today what others were thinking about doing tomorrow.Ó Seeing a need go unmet, Gabe acts quickly to address it regardless of any obstacles.
Shortly after graduating from the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 2007, Gabe joined the law firm of Christensen & Jensen. He quickly became a rising star as one of the firmÕs litigation and trial lawyers.
Despite his thriving practice and heavy workload, Gabe has gone out of his way to serve young lawyers and underrepresented minorities. Among his other accomplishments, Gabe single-handedly created the Wednesday Night Bar program through Young Lawyers Division in 2009. Wednesday Night Bar is a semi-monthly legal clinic that provides low-income, Spanish-speaking Utahans with free legal advice. Gabe persisted in holding Wednesday Night Bar even when he was its only volunteer, and he is still a constant presence at the clinic. Under GabeÕs leadership, the program has expanded from the Salt Lake Valley to include hundreds of Utahns throughout Northern and Central Utah. Gabe hopes to eventually grow the program to serve Southern Utah too.
Gabe has also played a pivotal role in bringing the Practice in a Flash CLE Series to Utah. This program is designed to help the record number of young lawyers that are going straight from law school to starting their own practices. In addition to in-person and online free CLE training covering a variety of basic legal issues that young lawyers commonly encounter, Practice in a Flash participants will have access to an online database and flash drives donated by Lexis. The database and flash drive will contain practice forms, practice area specific training, and practical business advice for the small business entrepreneur.
When Gabe is not busy with his practice or saving the world, he loves to spend time with his wife, Wendy, and their daughter, Percy. Together they enjoy traveling.
Thank you Gabe for your service and example.