Volume 19, Number 5
Welcome to GP Mentor, GPSolo's new column expressly for law students-but some of you seasoned lawyers may find some helpful information as well. Look for our column in every issue of GPSolo. Want to see a topic covered in GP Mentor? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Developing an Estate Planning Practice
By Dorcas Gordon and Robert Whitman
If you are considering joining or setting up a small general practice after you graduate, you probably will not have to wait long for your first estate planning clients. Death is an issue everyone faces, and family and friends will likely seek you out for estate advice. Nevertheless, you may want to know a few key ways to develop an estate planning practice. Here are seven building tools that will help you get the business and help you keep it.
- Join local business and charitable organizations. Local involvement is a great way to network. People already involved in the Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club, for example, often are widely known and well regarded in the community-making a favorable impression here could lead to new contacts and business prospects. Aside from making valuable connections, dedicating time and resources to local service organizations can be personally fulfilling and can even contribute to raising the tenor of the community as a whole.
- Offer free estate planning consultations. Lawyer advertising is still a contentious issue for some, but a small, tasteful advertisement in a local newspaper can reach an audience of potential clients-especially at the opening of your practice. Offering a free estate planning consultation does encourage potential clients to set up an initial appointment. Be sure the local publication has an older readership-call them for readership survey results.
- Volunteer to speak at adult/senior community centers. These facilities are often eager to sponsor programs for their members (of course, you will clarify that you are not giving "legal advice" during your talk). And your target audience is guaranteed! A collaborative presentation with other estate planning professionals like an accountant or insurance agent can be particularly effective. Be sure your presentation contains substantive estate planning material. Remember, people are not attending an advertisement about your practice; they need practical information they can use. Allow time for questions at the end.
- Join-and get involved with-professional organizations. The American Bar Association offers membership and publications for every area of law practice-as do many state and local bar associations. In addition to networking opportunities, membership gives you a regular source for current estate planning trends. Sign up for paper and electronic mailings and newsletters; subscribe to relevant legal literature; and interact electronically via listservs and web-based conferencing like those available at www.abanet.org. The clout of an organization like the ABA can give weight to your professional ideas about legal reform that might otherwise be ignored from an individual.
- Charge a fair fee. Fees for initial estate planning work should be reasonable. Be upfront in offering clients choices and allowing them to decide how costly an estate planning scheme they want. Also, know when it is appropriate to pass up a fee. An initial client contact for estate planning purposes can turn into a long-term relationship that can lead to other types of legal work. Once you create an estate plan for a client, she will likely think of you as "her lawyer" and seek your assistance in other matters: buying property, appearing before a zoning board, or bringing a personal injury action.
- Expand as your practice builds. A sharp paralegal or legal assistant can save you from hours of redundant drafting of documents and inventorying and accounting for complicated probate estates. Support staff can help you with the reams of paper generated by estate planning-and you can bill paralegal services at lower rates, creating welcome savings for your clients.
- Know the tax law (and human nature). An understanding of the tax consequences of various actions and arrangements is critical to estate planning. Seemingly insignificant estate planning moves can have big tax consequences, and the practitioner who minimizes this does so at his peril. As your practice grows and the clients you attract have more complicated financial arrangements, you may consider obtaining an LLM degree in estate planning or taxation. You may find your role as "counselor" expanding as you work within complicated family relationships, but in the long run that is what will make you the lawyer of choice in your community.
Dorcas Gordon is a law student and Robert Whitman is a law professor at University of Connecticut School of Law in Hartford, Connecticut.