Going Solo and Running a Small Estate Planning Practice – Part V

Going Solo Part V

This week’s topic is “Going Solo and Running a Small Estate Planning Practice – Part V”.

In Part I of this series I discussed some introductory thoughts about going solo, practicing with precision and practicing efficiently.  In Part II of this series I continued the discussion of “Practicing Efficiently” and began my coverage of “case management”.   In Part III of this series I continued the discussion of case management.  In Part IV I discussed some practical considerations surrounding opening a new law practice.  I was going to continue to address opening a new office and focus on office systems but have changed my mind. Instead I want to blog about communicating with clients. I will return to office systems (because it is such an exciting topic!) at some point in the future.

Before I turn to discuss communicating with clients, I want to share an experience I had in the opposite context – public speaking.  Last Monday I was a speaker at a legal CLE seminar with 2 other attorneys.  The truth is – I really don’t like speaking publicly and, frankly, am not a very effective public speaker.   However, speaking publicly generally comes with the territory of being a lawyer and I feel it is something to strive to become comfortable with, or, as a another blogger recently stated – is something to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable doing.  So every year I try to participate in at least one public speaking engagement and it does seem to get less nerve racking the more I do it.  Additionally, speaking publicly on a topic is the best way to ensure that I take time out of the practice and learn or relearn in detail what I am speaking about.

While listening to one more senior and seasoned speakers, I was impressed by his ability to connect to the audience members and his easy way of pausing to allow the audience to process what he was communicating.   He tried to cover less material than I did and made effective use of examples.  It wasn’t difficult to see that he was a natural teacher or had several years of experience teaching.   In short, it was obvious to me that while he was communicating with the audience, I was merely talking to the audience.   It was a humbling experience.

When speaking to a group I tend to assume my audience is following along even if they in fact are not.   I also tend to assume that the gap between my experience and knowledge level is smaller than may in fact be the case.  I suppose I simply assume no gulf exists and don’t attempt to build an effective bridge before I start trying to talk across the gulf. Should I be surprised if my words are carried off by the traversing winds?

I use to struggle with this same issue in client communications too, and perhaps still do, but feel I have over the years become more adept at communicating legal ideas in the smaller group context – even if I still flounder at the large group level.  I think my improvement has been the result of conscious efforts and reflection as much as anything else.  Still – I think I have a lot of room for improvement in both the small group as well as large group settings.

As a solo or attorney in a small firm, there are less opportunities to work with another lawyer in a small group setting.   I, like a lot of you, have developed an approach or style that seems to work and go with it and it may be years before a conscious effort is made to examine that approach.  In contrast, in the large group setting we have more opportunities to observe other speakers and to compare and contrast styles of speaking or ways to effectively engage the audience.  I think this situation is unfortunate, as it is in the small group setting that the most important opportunity for communication occurs.  Are we, am I, just blowing it in the small group setting and not even realizing it?  Isn’t that a terrifying thought?

At the start of my materials for the seminar I mentioned above I included, ironically, a section on communicating with clients – though I did not have time to actually speak on that topic.  Before I close the book on those seminar materials I thought this blog might be a good place to share some of what was provided in those materials and to use them to further probe my own shortcomings as a speaker, probably as a lawyer and perhaps more fundamentally as a human being.  Thankfully I think there is time to improve!

Now that estate taxes are a minor issue in estate planning, communicating the other complexities of the planning landscape seems more important than it ever has been.  The de-emphasis of the death tax in estate planning has, and will continue, to lull clients into a dangerous “I don’t need to plan zone”.  Consequently, I feel compelled to try to communicate more clearly about fundamentals and to rethink my overall approach to my practice these days more than I have in the past.  The practice landscape has changed, and it makes sense to me that styles of practice might need to be reviewed and revised too in the wake of this change.

With that said, let’s consider the initial attorney-client meeting.  I think this situation can be represented visually by the illustration attached. attorney – client

What this illustration tries to depict  is the box (self-imposed behavioral reactions to preconceived notions)  in which the client exists, which box contains the clients belief about the law, lawyers, what they  think they need, or what they think is  reasonable to pay for X,Y, Z service, etc.

When a client interacts with a lawyer, part of our role is to help them overcome those self-imposed behavioral reactions to what they believe is true, or what they think they need and to help them entertain new truths, truths which may be a little overwhelming or scary.   In short, our role is to get clients to think and sometimes act outside of their box.  Of course, we ourselves are in a box (some of us more than others) which may make it difficult to connect with the client.

You can’t help a client achieve the right estate planning course of action when their reaction is based on a preconceived idea which may or may not be known to you.   Notice I didn’t say “purpose” or “goal” because these are properly left to the client to determine. Our role, as planners, is to show the possible routes to achieve the purpose or goal of a client, not to tell them what that goal or purpose should be.   To know that, we only need to ask questions and listen, and where necessary, avoid the obstacles of misunderstanding or lack of knowledge.

Someone once told me that if I want to electrify or turn on the client, I should visualize that they are the receptacle or electrical outlet and that I am the plug.  The outlet can’t move, the plug has to come to them.  That is to say, the plug has to figure out “where” the client is and come down to their level to connect.  It doesn’t work the other way around. Since every client is different, that can be difficult to do in an hour or 2 hours!  In the context of the seminar I was discussing earlier,  I made a related mistake of simply not mentally acknowledging who or where my audience was and by expecting them to  connect with what I was trying to convey.  The result was that I just talked at them for about an hour.  Not a great feeling after spending a lot of time preparing for the seminar rather than working.

Having acknowledged this, I think it is important to also acknowledge that, initially the client’s comfort level at initial meeting may be low.  It is important to stop and just acknowledge this and to contemplate ways to set client at ease if necessary.  For some reason I find this much easier to do this when working with an individual or couple but tend to blow this connection at the larger group level.

Some clients are quickly at ease.  Clients that have been referred by a friend or trusted professional are common examples.  They have adopted the trust another has in you.  I think this is why referred clients make the best clients because they come to us with a level of trust built in that makes it easy to work with them.  Additionally, as a class, referred clients might generally be the trusting sort.

If a client has not be referred to you by another professional or friend, or you get that sense that you are being interviewed, or that the client is not a ease, it may be more important to test the waters of their concerns to see where you might find dry land on which to start to establish trust.

  1. What initial concerns do they have generally
  2. Have they worked with an attorney before?
  3. Was that a positive or negative experience?
  4. If negative, what was the issue and is it something I can help address in this relationship to ensure that we are able to work together productively?

Concerns that a new client likely will have at the top of their list may include:

  1. Billing? How much will “this” costs?
  2. When do I have to pay?
  3. Who you are and what is your background and experience
  4. Will you still be around in a year, 5 years or 10 years to help me or my family?
  5. How long is this going to take (they may have other appointments)?

My point here is to simply bring to mind the importance of connecting with the client before devolving into what you can offer them.  Sometimes finding and presenting the right strategy simply depends on setting the client at ease, timing and/or on asking the right questions.

Depending on the client, they may need some – or a lot – of education as to what their options are and may need additional time to adjust to new ideas. They may have preconceived ideas that you are not aware of and need time to fully appreciate and understand.  I guess I am saying that when it comes to presenting strategies – don’t rush it. Take time to connect and get a sense of who your client (or in the seminar context your audience) is and how you might best connect with them.

About Smilie G. Rogers

Elder law, life care planning estate planning, probate and tax attorney located in York, Maine. Licensed in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
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