Practice Pointers Probate

Practice Pointers—Probate Editor: Diane Hubbard Kennedy, 4911 E. 56th Street, Indianapolis, IN 46220,

Practice Pointers—Probate offers suggestions for improving estate planning and probate practice. The editors of Probate & Property welcome suggestions and contributions from readers.

With a Little Help from Your Friends

Perhaps more than any other practice area, estate planners labor alone. For the most part, planning and administration work is done without any interaction with other lawyers. Unlike litigators who face other attorneys in the courtroom and often represent a client as a team or corporate lawyers who negotiate deals with other lawyers, estate practitioners usually complete tasks without the involvement of others. While this solitary practice is often without the stress of confrontation, it can substitute the stress of isolation.

Isolation can be mitigated in a number of ways. For those who are physically isolated, listservs through the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section and state bar associations can provide sources of information and advice on both technical and practical issues (“Does anyone have a form of disclaimer they are willing to share?” “Are there any unusual local rules for Washington County?”). Formal estate planning councils are a good way to interact with practitioners from legal and other planning disciplines. Informal study groups can be a forum for questions that could be awkward in other settings (“I heard that John Smith was charging $300 an hour. Does that strike you as high or low?”).

For larger firms the estate planning group within the firm can and should serve this function. To make such sessions productive, each member should be encouraged to bring a specific question, rather than a general topic, before the group for resolution or discussion. The sessions can be formal, periodic meetings or informal, brown-bag lunches. They should not be a setting for showing off or intimidation but should be designed to provide opportunities for brainstorming and problem solving.

Beginning lawyers must develop resources. The easiest way to start may be by becoming active in the local and state bar associations because the first step is to meet other attorneys practicing in the area. A young lawyer can learn significantly by participating in association activities. Relationships established between beginning and older attorneys should be carefully nurtured by both. Younger lawyers should not abuse the relationship by relying too heavily on the knowledge of the older practitioner, and the older practitioner should give adequate thought to the questions posed by a younger colleague.

From large firm to sole practitioner, mentors are invaluable. Even a seasoned lawyer needs someone to call in times of confusion or turmoil. The colleague may be in the same city or across the country. An estate planner may even have different mentors for different issues—one for probate practice questions, another for complicated tax issues, another for ethics matters, and yet another for issues of family dynamics. Perhaps the most precious colleague is the one who is called with the question, “Should I notify my malpractice insurance carrier?” for the attorney who never worries about having acted properly is very rare and probably deluded.

Although estate planners have mostly solitary practices, they need not operate in an intellectual vacuum. Lawyers in this area are generally very helpful to their colleagues and provide much-needed encouragement, validation, and advice.