Estate Planning: Playing Matchmaker

What you should look for when selecting a lawyer for your client.

In the course of your business as a broker or financial advisor, you may be called upon to find a lawyer for your client, or you may determine that one is needed. Your customer will need a lawyer to protect a client's assets and ensure that his or her wishes are carried out in the event of disability or death. As we learned from September 11, legal documents are important to determine intent when a client is merely missing. And legal documents can be used to spell out a client's wishes when the client chooses to delegate more decision making over his or her assets.

Put nicely, you need an attorney who values what you do, understands what you do, and will carry out the legal work in a complementary manner and coordinate with you. What you will want to do if ever asked by a customer to recommend a lawyer, or in the alternative, if you reach the conclusion that your customer needs a lawyer, is to match the lawyer's personal and professional abilities with the type of legal issue your customer has encountered.

You do not need Michelangelo to paint a fence. So, estate planning for a client with $500,000 in assets and a simple family situation does not need the chair of the trusts and estates department of a 1,000-plus-lawyer firm. But if the customer has $500 million and a complex family situation, it's worth thinking in terms of Michelangelo.

How do you find the “right” attorney? Many people ask their colleagues for recommendations. If that fails you, every bank or trust company knows which lawyers are doing quality work at reasonable costs, and can make a reliable recommendation. They can also, when you describe your customer's personality, match personal qualities of the attorney with your customer — an important consideration.

If you're looking for a list of the top trust and estate lawyers in the nation, check out the American College of Trusts and Estates Counsel (ACTEC). Membership is limited to attorneys who have been recognized by their peers, and generally, any member of ACTEC is qualified technically. These lawyers are located throughout the United States and ACTEC has a directory of all of them on a current basis. To find a member in your area, try the organization's Web site: http://www.actec.org. Your client may also need a divorce lawyer, a litigator, a corporate lawyer, or whatever, and local bar associations maintain lists of lawyers and their specialties.

How lawyers charge for services can be mysterious. Most charge for their services by hourly rates, but others will charge a fixed fee. Never let your customer hire a lawyer without an engagement letter that, among other things, sets out the lawyer's methods of billing and gives an estimate of the fee of the work contemplated. It is also appropriate to ask for references and to talk to others whom the lawyer represents and who consent to such “checking.” If you check each attorney carefully before the engagement, including references, you have your best chance of a matchmaker making the right match.

You may also be in the opposite situation — where a lawyer brings you a customer. It is ethical now in New York, with the proper agreement and disclosure, for you to share your fees with the lawyer if, for example, the lawyer refers a lot of business. But you may not share in a lawyer's fees for your referrals to the lawyer. New York attorneys will be familiar with this practice and can give you the particulars. About 13 other states are considering adopting this fee-sharing practice.

Remember the “smell test.” If you sense that the lawyer is not right for your customer, or vice versa, you should probably follow your intuition. But augment your intuition with careful referral checking, interviews, assessment of qualifications, and so forth. The lawyer will, quite properly, do the same digging about you.

Although a rascal is here or there in either of our professions, for the most part, with care, you will render an enormous service to your customer and find many attorneys with whom you associate to want what is best for your customer, to be skilled, to be ethical, and to be committed to high quality and prompt service to your customer and to you.

Writer's BIO:
Roy M. Adams is a partner in Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in New York and chairman of the editorial advisory board of Trusts & Estates.

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