So you have the engagement and are busy drafting your client’s new estate-planning documents. The initial consultation went well, and you believe that you’ve laid the foundation for a successful attorney/client relationship. Much has been written about creating client value – but what exactly does that mean for an estate planning law firm? Drafting superior documents? Implementing avant-garde strategies? Being receptive to client calls and inquiries? Yes. Yes. Yes. But it’s more than that. According to Dan Sullivan, creator of the Strategic Coach program, “creating client value in a service industry is about three things, and each of those things you can apply to any discipline. Those three things are: leadership, relationship and creativity.” How do we apply the framework of leadership, relationship and creativity to an estate planning firm? Let’s examine together each element separately.
Leadership means providing direction, eliminating dangers, focusing on opportunities and implementing strategies. Clients often appear at our doorstep believing that their estate plan is simple, until you delve into the details. It’s fairly easy for a client to express his goals, but it becomes more difficult when he must decide how to best accomplish those goals while you’re pointing out some of the dangers associated with the various strategies. All of a sudden, things aren’t so simple anymore. A great example of this is illustrated with a client in her second marriage, who has a significant portion of her net worth in individual retirement account assets. “I’ll name my husband George as the primary beneficiary of my IRA, and then my son and daughter will be named as the contingent beneficiaries,” she might say, believing that her dispositive intent would be properly satisfied. You promptly point out that if George survives, he can name whomever he wants as his beneficiary once he rolls over her IRA. Even if George does name her son and daughter as his primary beneficiary, if he should remarry without a nuptial agreement, then the account may still be at risk of benefiting an unintended beneficiary. You advise that additional planning steps are necessary to satisfy your client’s intent. By exposing previously unconsidered but vital issues, while mapping potential solutions to those issues, you exhibit true leadership.
Relationship means providing comfort and clarity as opposed to creating confusion. We all know attorneys who paint estate planning as a muddled picture only they can decipher in an attempt to enhance their own stature. Exactly the opposite is true. We provide the greatest value when translating complex matters into the simple. Consider the plethora of information available on the Internet, and how that can overwhelm clients. Who hasn’t researched a loved one’s medical issue only to become more confused by conflicting advice found online? The same holds true when your clients begin to research legal, tax and financial questions. When you use your knowledge and wisdom to help your clients sift through the vast amounts of data and information to focus in on the relevant issues, you’re creating a tremendous amount of value. A strong attorney/client relationship serves to build client confidence and clarity. This is something that neither online document preparation services, nor lesser law firms provide. I’ll be discussing unique processes in future columns, but will share with you one step of our estate planning program in which we transfer client assets, accounts and properties into the trusts that we create for them. Rather than handing them an instruction sheet describing how to fund their trusts, we increase their certainty and confidence by doing it for them. To ensure that their trusts remain properly funded, we instruct our clients to keep us in the loop when opening new accounts or acquiring new assets, solidifying our relationship with them.
Finally, being creative provides client value. Does this mean that even the most routine revocable trust should somehow be avant-garde? No. It doesn’t. Creativity means providing capabilities to your client that she didn’t possess before. This is much easier than it sounds. Most of us who’ve been practicing estate-planning law for any length of time fail to realize that our most basic knowledge is unfamiliar to most of our clients. “Do durable powers of attorney cease at death?” “Wills avoid probate, right?” “I can just put everything in joint name with my daughter, and she can share it with her sisters.” Creativity speaks to our specific skills, knowledge and wisdom. Of course, it will be different for each one of us. My unique abilities aren’t the same as yours. Creativity also speaks to creating and implementing systems and processes.
The challenge when creating value is to do so consistently and systemically, for each and every client. Because our clients come to us with different backgrounds, assets, goals and concerns, you might think that creating one system for all of them is impossible. It’s not. If you take the time to consider the steps that you took when counseling your three best clients from the time that they called your firm to the time that they signed their documents, I bet that you can find many commonalities in the process. It started with your client intake process and moved on to the way that you conduct your initial consultation. From there, it progressed to the way that you draft documents and review them to ensure they’re correct. Finally, you somehow keep them up to date with changes to the law and to their own personal financial and family circumstances. Each one of those steps involves both back stage and a front stage processes that demonstrate your creativity, leading to client value.