What Now?! Using Technology to Survive the Transfer Tax “Repeal” (Part 1 of 2)
The federal government finally settled on permanent federal transfer tax legislation (to the extent that anything is permanent in Washington, D.C.). When last we left this issue in November/December 2012, we thought that the federal transfer tax system might truly return to its pre-2001 levels, including a $1 million exemption equivalent (indexed for inflation for generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax exemption purposes) and a flat 55% rate.
The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA) contains tax increases but confers substantial advantages for federal transfer tax purposes. Most commentators and practitioners were surprised that ATRA provides a permanent $5 million exemption (indexed for inflation for all purposes) and portability for married couples. The primary disadvantage is a flat federal transfer tax rate of 40% (a 5% increase over the 2010 tax act’s 35% rate). See generally Jane G. Gravelle, The Estate and Gift Tax Provisions of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, Cong. Research Serv. R42959 (Feb. 15, 2013), at www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42959.pdf.
ATRA has effectively repealed the federal transfer tax system for the vast majority of Americans, unless the current or a future administration changes this regime again. Rather than a comprehensive discussion of ATRA, this column will instead highlight technology that you should consider to sustain and hopefully build your practice, despite the likely lack of motivation among clients to deal with the remote possibility that they might face federal transfer tax issues—whether, for example, because of general wealth accumulation or even inflation, which might create plenty of additional taxable estates. The first installment of this two-part series will focus on ways to use technology and related resources to develop and market your practice, with the second focusing on specific tools that you should consider to run your practice more efficiently and ideally save costs doing so.
Lawyers often struggle to market their services. If potential clients are not aware of the professional services that you provide, how will they know that they should contact you when they need to solve a problem or address an issue? The electronic world can help.
As a preliminary matter, you should assess the areas of your practice. If you provide business formation or succession counsel, you should add or perhaps highlight that. You might consider emphasizing other areas of your practice that address some of the contemporary problems that clients face, including retirement planning, charitable gift planning, and real estate or other investment-related issues, all of which potentially affect a client’s income tax situation. Then you should share your updated information with clients, referral sources, and even family members who might not know that you focus on areas of law beyond trusts and estates.
Using Online Lawyer Profiles or Electronic Biographies
If you want to reach other lawyers or potential clients, you probably need to focus on Internet-based profiles or biographies. As many articles have chronicled, most clients and likely even most lawyers nowadays use Internet search engines or specific sites to find a lawyer or a colleague to whom to refer a matter. Most people no longer use printed telephone books, even if they know the name of a particular lawyer whose contact information they are seeking. Consequently, lawyers must provide Internet-based information on their background, experience, and practice areas—or risk the potential loss of a majority of inquiries or referrals, especially in light of the “new normal” in this area of law.
Traditional leaders in the lawyer profile arena, such as Martindale-Hubbell (part of LexisNexis, www.martindale.com or, for consumers, www.lawyers.com) and West Legal Directory (part of Thomson and delivered via FindLaw, www.findlaw.com), still offer these services. In fact, their basic listings are free. The free listings display limited information, but they are certainly worth considering, even for the most frugal lawyer who relies exclusively on old-fashioned—though arguably still superior—word-of-mouth referrals.
To use the more advanced features of one of the traditional leader’s sites, you must pay an applicable subscription. Many lawyers and law firms no longer pay for these premium listings. One free advanced feature is Martindale-Hubbell’s “Connected,” but few lawyers seem to participate, given surveys of Section members’ use of this and other social networking sites.
Other Modern Profile Sites to Consider
Beyond the typical lawyer profile sites, LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) is probably the leading business-oriented profile and networking site. In contrast to Facebook, LinkedIn focuses on the business community. LinkedIn offers many of the same features of a traditional legal profile service, such as work history, educational background, and even endorsements of business colleagues or clients/customers. Notably, it also offers a strong networking capability that allows you to identify existing business relationships and even build new relationships. In this editor’s experience, these LinkedIn relationships can lead to real clients—and real revenue.
LinkedIn, like many other networking sites, allows you to add direct contacts. You can search LinkedIn via one of your online address books, such as Google’s Gmail or Yahoo, to identify contacts who are already LinkedIn members. One fascinating free Gmail extension, available for all major browsers other than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, is Rapportive (http://rapportive.com). When composing a Gmail message or receiving one, you can simply move your cursor to (“mouse-over”) a person’s e-mail address to reveal whether he or she has a LinkedIn account, a Facebook account, or multiple other contact points and social media connections. You can even invite them to connect from that message via the Rapportive toolbar, which typically resides on the right-hand side of your browser when Gmail is open.
LinkedIn also sends you regular updates to inform you of contacts made by your own connections, which then allows you to make the same connections if you see someone whom you know. You can also read how your connections have updated their profiles. Other reporting and tracking features are available as well. You can change these settings if you do not want to share this type of information with others.
LinkedIn’s free service is very good in this editor’s experience. For example, this editor’s Google search results—searching simply for first and last name—yielded over 3 million pages, with the first one being the free LinkedIn profile. With the free service, you cannot use the more advanced networking features of the system, such as sending numerous “InMail” messages (e-mail via LinkedIn’s own proprietary system). Most lawyers are not likely to use those features regularly anyway. Other enhancements, including a “Pro” offering that displays your status as such, are also available.
Another site that you should consider is Justia (www.justia.com), which is affiliated with Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute (LII) (identical web site, http://lawyers.law.cornell.edu—“POWERED BY JUSTIA”).Justia offers one of the best on-line lawyer profiles. It resembles profiles such as Martindale-Hubbell, but is more advanced in that it subdivides your profile information into numerous well-designed, collapsible (or expandable) sections, such as an overview section, which include professional experience, education, professional activities, awards, fees, certifications, jurisdictions, and various excellent links to your web site(s), social networking profiles (with small icons to boot, which look professional), and legal profiles (with the same small icons); a publications section, in which you can list your articles and other works; a blogs section, which links directly to nearly every blogging tool imaginable with the ability to display your recent postings; a Twitter and feeds section; a videos section; a contact information and mapping section (powered by Google); and an administrative settings section. To illustrate the level of design and sophistication of Justia, the contact section automatically generates an electronic business card (“Download vCard”), based on the information included in your profile, which visitors can download. They can also view your locations via Google Maps or Google Earth.
The full features of Justia are available for free. If you are interested in enhancing your search results, you should include as much information as possible in your profile, consider supporting the LII (see http://lawyers. justia.com/badges?ref=cornell), or write a legal blog. A contribution to LII has historically been reasonable for the lower-level premium search enhancement, known as a “bronze badge” (formerly $250 per year). It is unclear, however, if these enhancements (“badges”) are still available and how they now work.
Other profile sites worth considering include Avvo (www.avvo.com—a newer lawyer ratings site) and JD Supra (www.jdsupra.com). Because this area changes almost daily, you should review other articles and resources to determine if another site has been developed or addresses your needs in a better way.
Social Networking Sites to Approach Cautiously
Lawyers should also consider more “mainstream” social networking sites and profiles. One of the primary risks with one of these sites is that many people view them as personal sites. For example, many people throughout the country and now the world use Facebook (www.facebook.com) to provide primarily personal updates to their families and friends, including everything from the birth of a child to remarks regarding the cool new car. That is not to say, however, that lawyers should not use Facebook. On the contrary, Facebook allows you to create a corporate-based page that can be linked to your individual Facebook account and profile. There you can post upcoming events, such as educational seminars or related presentations that you will be delivering, along with plenty of additional information on your law firm and practice.
You can use Facebook effectively if you intentionally choose to use it for your general business development or similar purposes. If you want to use it to connect or reconnect with family and friends, share photographs of children, or something along those personal lines, this editor recommends creating two separate individual Facebook accounts: one that you use for business and the other purely for personal purposes. Facebook is free and creating two Facebook accounts will not create a cost issue.
Facebook pioneered modern social networking. You can connect with others and then, depending on their privacy settings, potentially connect with their “friends” (or connections as LinkedIn would describe them—another illustration of the differences in the two sites’ respective audiences). If you later decide to disconnect from someone, you can “unfriend” them.
Twitter (www.twitter.com) is another site that deserves consideration, but with the same cautionary recommendations. For example, the rest of the legal community honestly does not want to hear about your child’s soccer game. This editor would again recommend that you decide how you want to use Twitter and then proceed accordingly.
You might also want to use tools such as ShareThis (www.sharethis.com), which is one of my favorite Internet browser tools. You can create a ShareThis account and then, via an Internet browser plug-in (or other means if you choose), simultaneously share links or other information to your blog, your Twitter account, your Facebook account, and more. You can also share something again very easily, all without leaving the page that you just found interesting. This editor routinely shares links to legal news and updates via ShareThis to clients, colleagues, and friends.
Especially in light of ATRA, lawyers practicing in the trust and estate area must consider ways to develop and further educate existing and potential clients. You should at least consider a few of the leading profile web sites—both legal- and business-oriented sites—to list your profiles, typically at no charge. These profiles feed into all major search engines and will likely lead potential new clients and referral sources to your firm or you. Caution is warranted, of course, with particular concerns for confidentiality of client identities and information, advertising rules, and other ethical rules governing the legal profession, which do indeed vary from one jurisdiction to another. Overall, though, you should consider expanding, highlighting, and updating your profiles to reach potential clients and referral sources that need your services.