Choosing an attorney to represent you is obviously an important task. The decision certainly should not be made on the basis of advertising alone. The Yellow Pages are filled with ads – all of which say basically the same thing. Anyone can buy a slick commercial, even if they have never done an estate plan before.
You also cannot rely solely on the recommendations of friends and family. The fact that Attorney Baker did a good job on Uncle Pete’s real estate deal or Cousin Ann’s divorce does not make him or her a qualified, experienced estate-planning attorney.
There are certain questions to ask that will lead you to the best professional legal advice for your family. It will involve some investment of time on your part, but it’s time well spent. Remember, this is a relationship that should last your lifetime.
The world of estate planning is much too specialized for someone who does not regularly handle these matters and cases that inexperienced attorneys have handled, sometimes end with devastating results.
So how do you choose? Here are some tips:
Tip #1: Beware of internet “directories” promising to get you a qualified lawyer. Firms are solicited almost daily by companies who offer to place lawyers in their directories for a hefty fee. Most of these “directories of specialists” are a joke and say nothing about the real quality of the attorney. It’s really just an advertisement.
Tip #2: Get a referral from your CPA, financial advisor or insurance professional. They will probably have attorneys they have worked with and who they trust to refer you to. Be sure to review their Website, LinkedIn, Facebook etc. where you can find out more about his or her qualifications and experience before you meet with them. Also, it’s better to choose an attorney who has roots in the community because she cares about her reputation and is more likely to be available in the future when you need help.
Tip #3: Professionalism. Has the attorney been the subject of any disciplinary proceedings by the State Bar? Every state has a state bar association and you should check there first for any disciplinary actions taken against the attorney you are considering hiring.
Tip #4: Membership in professional associations for estate-planning attorneys such as the WealthCounsel of the National Association of Estate Planning Councils indicates that the attorney you meet with is committed to staying current on the latest estate planning developments. These organizations provide members extensive technical education and networking with peers.
Tip #5: Legal malpractice insurance. Does the attorney hold a legal malpractice insurance policy? This is a sign of accountability. Anyone can make a mistake, but you should not commit the error of hiring an attorney who does not have malpractice insurance. Remember, in many states, an attorney is not required to carry malpractice insurance. Don’t get burned by an attorney who does not think enough of this or her clients to carry malpractice insurance.
Tip #6: Choose an attorney who specializes in estate planning. Other attorneys simply don’t have the knowledge, skill, judgment or experience to plan your estate properly. This is because the law has become specialized, much like medicine. When you need a doctor, you can find specialist in foot care, eye care, and everything in between. Law is much the same. You can find lawyers who practice corporate law, family law, criminal law and every other kind of law. And because they work in other areas of law, most of these lawyers don’t know estate planning. We’re looking for the attorney who is a respected source of information – one who has dedicated his practice to helping people understand their estate planning alternatives which means they ask for and receive detailed information regarding your family and assets.
Tip #7: Is the attorney a published author, teach any classes or speak publicly with any frequency? This often can be a sign that the attorney is actively engaged in his or her specialized area of law and is an authority on it.
Tip #8: Choose an attorney who offers free initial consultations. Shouldn’t you be able to talk with the lawyer for free before you decide whether to hire him?
Tip #9: Choose an attorney who creates your estate plan himself. If the attorney has an assistant create your estate plan, then why hire the attorney? Note, it’s not uncommon for lawyers in solo practice to ask a funding coordinator to transfer your property and other assets into your Trust. Even so, funding is a fairly routine function and you are well protected as long as the lawyer supervises the process.
Tip #10: Choose an attorney who welcomes your questions – and structures meetings by allowing enough time to answer questions. High volume practices have short appointments so they can move clients quickly through the process. I don’t know about you, but this is not the level of service I expect when I hire a lawyer.
Tip #11: Choose an attorney who will return your phone calls quickly. You should never hire a lawyer who won’t respond promptly to your needs.
Tip #12: Choose an attorney who charges fair fees. At best, you get what you pay for. Most people do not shop for the cheapest doctor. Instead, they focus on the doctor’s qualifications and experience. You should apply the same principle when selecting an estate planning attorney. If the fee is too low, the lawyer may be leaving something out. Make sure the fee you pay and the services you receive are of equal value. Get clear disclosure of the fee range before your appointment. Many estate-planning attorneys won’t disclose their fee ranges to you prior to your scheduled appointment time. This may make you uncomfortable. While it is impossible to quote you an exact fee ahead of time without knowing the particulars of your case, they should be willing to give you an estimated fee range. At the other end of the spectrum, be cautious with an attorney who quotes a fixed fee without talking to you about your case. They probably charge everyone the same fee because they pull an identical plan out of the file drawer for each client. This approach may or may not meet your family’s needs (also known as “trust-mill” law firms).
Tip #13: Choose an attorney you trust. Nothing is more important in a lawyer/client relationship than having a lawyer you trust. Does your intuition tell you your estate planning attorney is someone who will be there when you spouse or other family members die? This is someone with whom you will need to share your intimate family secrets, if you are going to develop a plan that is tailored to your family. You want someone who can be trusted and with whom you, your spouse, your children, and your other loved ones feel comfortable.