A couple of decades ago, estate-planning attorneys might have gotten by with a legal assistant or two. Today, you may need an army to provide excellent client service. I prefer to call my colleagues and assistants our estate-planning “team”.
My team starts with me and one of my law partners, who’s also board certified in wills, trusts and estates. We have an associate attorney who has an LL.M. in taxation, and we’ll be adding another associate attorney in the near future. The team also consists of two probate/trust administration assistants, two drafting assistants, three funding assistants, a scheduler, receptionist, bookkeeper, technology assistant and program manager, along with a variety of part-time help mostly in the form of local university students. We also outsource work that doesn’t require full time staff, such as networking IT support, marketing, public relations, web design and implementation and, occasionally, legal research.
Sure, there are larger firms that employ more estate attorneys who fill various roles. For a firm of our size, my philosophy is to put everyone to the highest and best use. Don’t use an attorney for tasks that a paralegal can complete, and don’t give a paralegal something that an entry-level clerical worker can’t handle. There’s also no sense in hiring full time help with tasks that are best managed by outside firms.
To have a team of this size a decade or more ago would have been unthinkable. How could my revenues support it? Certainly a team like mine can’t be built overnight. But I do believe that the old model of an attorney and an assistant or two won’t survive in today’s marketplace. Now, everyone demands individualized attention and first class service.
Clients Demand More
Take the example of funding revocable living trusts. In the old days, you might’ve gotten by with handing a client a sheet of instructions how to fund their own trusts and sending him on his way. We used to do that in my firm.
My experience is that the client either did nothing or completed only half the job, or what he did try to complete was wrong. I know that many of my colleagues throughout the country experience the same thing, since I inherit clients who move to Florida from somewhere up north, and while many have trusts, many of those trusts arrive to me completely un-funded.
Today, purchasers of goods and services demand more. We expect to be taken care of. That’s why we might purchase a Lexus or Infinity instead of a Toyota or a Nissan. We prefer how the luxury car dealer’s service department gives us a loaner car or picks us up and drops us off at work.
So, along those same lines, I built an estate-planning system where we do the funding for our clients. That required me to hire and train team members to complete those tasks. That meant additional overhead, but I compensate by charging a fee appropriate for the work involved. In fact, in my standard engagement, we allow for a maximum number of accounts/deeds/instruments for the fixed fee, with an additional surcharge for overage. This protects me, for example, from the client who has 25 certificates of deposit scattered about town that we must fund into her trust.
Occasionally I lose a client to a competitor who charges less. In most instances, that competitor doesn’t include funding in his estate-planning package, so the price comparison isn’t truly apples to apples. We educate the client so that she can make an informed decision. I’m currently in the process of writing a short book to give away to my clients that highlights the importance of funding. That book will be supported by podcasts and videos that I’ll include on my firm’s website.
Those clients who realize the value of the services my team is performing are usually more than willing to pay the additional costs associated with that task, as it’s tedious, time consuming and easily botched. And for those potential clients that don’t recognize the value - I don’t mind seeing them go to the Toyota dealership.
Building a Team Sets You Apart
By taking the steps to build a team that fully supports your practice, you set yourself apart. It takes courage to hire staff and incur that overhead. Like any project vital to your firm’s growth and development, it starts with a plan.
First, identify the services that your firm provides. What would it typically take to consistently provide your clients a first-rate finished project? Do you rely on your client to complete any of those elements? If so, what team members would you add if money were no object?
Next, you want to budget. Figure out how much more in overhead you’ll need to spend to start building your dream team. Then divide that extra overhead into the number and types of files you normally serve in a year. Now you have a rough estimate of how much you’re going to need to add to your charges to cover this increased overhead.
You may save money by outsourcing tasks. I’m in the process of creating a funding outsource that will complete this work for other attorneys. There are a variety of options out there if you don’t want to hire your own full time assistant. In any event, have the confidence that you can provide additional services and get paid for those services.
Don’t be Afraid to Market
Finally, you’ll want to build a marketing program around your abilities. It might be guerrilla marketing in the form of lunches with your centers of influence, seminars to prospective clients or including web-page descriptions. Getting the word out takes time and patience. Over time, however, I’ve found that the A+ clients will gravitate to those that offer something more.
Marketing will also increase your overhead, and that’s another cost that you can price into your services. Don’t be afraid to do it. Prospective clients find it difficult to differentiate between firms these days. It no longer matters whether you’re firm’s been in business since 1924, as mine has. Clients are looking for value. That doesn’t necessarily mean discounted fees. Value means providing leadership, relationship and creativity, as I wrote here.
There are hundreds of ways to spend marketing dollars to get the word out. Is there a silver bullet out there? If so, what is it?
I’ll discuss that in my next column. Until next time.