Young Lawyers Network: Answers for Students Interested in Practicing Trusts and Estates Law

Contributing Author: John R. Strohmeyer, Strohmeyer Law PLLC, 2925 Richmond Avenue, 12th Floor, Houston, Texas 77098, For more information on the RPTE YLN, please contact: Josh Crowfoot, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, P.C., Liberty Tower, 605 Chestnut Street, Suite 1700, Chattanooga, TN 37450.

For this issue of Young Lawyers Network, we field questions law students may have about becoming a trusts and estates (T&E) lawyer.

What do T&E attorneys do? They help ease life transitions by helping clients plan for death and incapacity. Estate planning generally includes the preparation of wills, assignment of fiduciary duties, and planning for guardianship. It also frequently includes creating and administering trusts. T&E attorneys assist fiduciaries with estate and trust administrations. T&E work also includes identifying tax consequences and potential problems that can arise in estate administration, such as any assets or beneficiaries that may trigger a taxable event, and can include assisting the elderly in planning for government benefits. Tax issues include income tax planning, trust tax planning, and estate and gift tax planning.

As in other practice areas, T&E law has both transactional attorneys and litigators. Usually, T&E attorneys are either exclusively transactional attorneys or exclusively litigators. Some T&E attorneys have a hybrid practice and even get involved in mediation.

The market for basic T&E planning (planning without assessing the tax or Medicaid implications) is a shrinking area. Although self-help forms were always available, the internet has made it easy for clients to get work done without an attorney, either doing the work themselves or helped by sites like Legal Zoom. Rather than competing with those options, transactional T&E attorneys should develop additional skills to better serve their clients, such as tax experience.

What courses should law students take to prepare them for a career in T&E law? Courses such as Wills and Trusts and Estate Administration are essential to the practice. Because the focus of most T&E transactional work is in tax, students should take basic income tax and trust taxation. Aspiring T&E attorneys should consider an LL.M. in taxation. Though you can get tax knowledge through CLE, the focused year in school will help shorten the learning curve.

What challenges do law school graduates face trying to enter the profession? One of the biggest challenges law school graduates face is that they have knowledge, but no legal experience. You learn the law and techniques in class, but experience with clients comes only through hands-on learning. A good way to gain such hands-on experience is to clerk with a T&E lawyer while you are in law school, participate in a clinic, or volunteer with a program that does relevant work, like the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program offered by the IRS.

Another challenge with entering the T&E profession is finding a job focused on T&E. Most large law firms are not expanding their T&E divisions, and many have abandoned the practice entirely. As a result, the market for T&E attorneys is shrinking to small and mid-sized firms and in-house positions, typically at banks and trust companies.

How are T&E attorneys compensated? How much do they earn? Because of the growing trend of large law firms not expanding their T&E divisions, first-year attorneys entering the T&E practice can expect to find jobs in small or mid-sized firms. The starting salary for a first-year attorney hoping to practice T&E law is typically between $60,000 and $80,000.

What organizations would you recommend joining to prepare for a career in T&E law? Joining organizations that focus on T&E law is a helpful way to gain exposure and to network with practicing T&E attorneys while still in school. The ABA Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law is a leading national forum for attorneys focusing on all aspects of trusts, estate planning, employee benefits, and probate and trust litigation. You can also join your state bar’s T&E section to develop connections locally.

What should you consider when applying for your first job? Apply to a firm focused on T&E. Some firms only do T&E work as a “bonus” practice, meaning that T&E work is rare, and only when a client asks for it—this won’t be a good option. During interviews, ask what percentage of the attorney’s work involves T&E work. If it’s less than 50 percent, consider it a sign that the firm isn’t focused on that area.

Your resume and course work should reflect your interest and experience in T&E. Showing that you’ve actively participated in groups and organizations (and not just joined the group) related to the T&E practice area will help you show the firm that you’re committed to the practice.