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Estate Planning Is Going Places

Don't fear for estate planning, even if some prominent law firms pull back from the business.

The nation’s leading estate planning conference is the week-long Heckerling Institute, sponsored by the University of Miami Law School, every January in Orlando. I was there last month with all of my firm’s client service managers, 10 of us altogether.

Heckerling draws more than 2,500 participants, the vast majority of whom are lawyers. Our firm’s group stands out in several ways. In the first place, we aren’t attorneys. We are financial planners who offer estate planning as part of a broad, yet tightly integrated approach to managing wealth. For us, estate planning is not an isolated event that occurs when someone drops in to talk about writing a new will; we do it as part of the continuous process of determining how an asset should be managed, for what ultimate goal, and for whose ultimate benefit. The same considerations guide our work in many other areas, from investing to income tax planning.

In the second place, even by the standards of the Heckerling horde, our group is huge. Our entire firm only has about 25 employees, yet we send most or all of our senior advisers to the conference every year. It is a big investment in time and money to pull our top people out of four offices across the country for an entire week. Yet we get a lot out of it – some from the conference itself, but even more from the time we spend discussing our business and the advanced planning concepts that dominate Heckerling sessions.

Our week at Heckerling has become a sort of family reunion, even though we’re not technically a family. We have most of our meals together. By tradition, I take the entire group to a movie one evening. (This year we combined dinner and a movie at the new AMC Fork & Screen at nearby Walt Disney World. I pre-empted our usual negotiation over the choice of film by getting advance tickets for Zero Dark Thirty.) One dinner is reserved for an outing to Bubbalou’s Bodacious BBQ near Universal Studios; another regular venue is Jiko, the restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, because some of our folks love its Taste of Africa appetizer. A few of us who live in Florida bring our cars to provide transportation. Half the group can fit in my ancient minivan, known affectionately as the Magic School Bus.

Other firms don’t approach Heckerling the way we do. Organizations 10 times larger than ours typically send only a handful of attendees, usually senior partners or, in the case of non-law firms, partners and officers. Usually the big firms rotate the people they send, while attorneys who practice by themselves or in small partnerships are more inclined to be Heckerling regulars.

The New York Times referred to Heckerling, though not by name, in a story this weekreporting that Debevoise & Plimpton, “the prominent white-shoe law firm,” is eliminating its trusts and estate practice.

(No, they don’t wear white shoes to work at Debevoise & Plimpton, or any other law firm, nowadays. I don’t think anybody uses the term except journalists who make their readers guess what they mean by it. My guess is that it means a well-known law firm that is older than the journalist in question, whose partners could afford white shoes if they ever wanted to wear them.)

The thrust of the story is that an estate planning law practice does not fit well with law’s modern mega-firms, where hard-charging young associates and workaholic partners pull all-nighters to get deals done before sending a six- or seven-figure bill to a corporation’s general counsel.

It’s a stereotype, but not without a grain of truth at its core. Estate planning is a thoughtful, introspective process of trying to fit a client’s very personal goals – not always clear, even to the client – into a framework of law and tax and finance. At higher wealth levels, estate planning does not lend itself well to mass production by armies of newly minted law graduates. It does not tend to produce a lot of all-nighters, although the weeks leading up to the end of 2012 were a dramatic exception: There were a lot of shell-shocked attorneys at Heckerling this year who scrambled to help clients beat potential changes in the law that, we learned on New Year’s Day, were not going to happen after all.

There were, and are, many great estate planners at large law firms. I don’t think a pullback at Debevoise or similar firms is going to change this any time soon. But there are two good reasons why the most corporate-oriented firms would tend to neglect this area, even as others would be delighted to pick up top-flight estate planning talent.

The first reason is economic. Because it requires more time from experienced senior lawyers, estate planning is just never going to be as profitable as more corporate-oriented work like mergers and acquisitions. You can’t pay enough associates $100 or $150 an hour while billing them to clients at $500 an hour.

The second is demographic. Estate planning is really more about families than about money. It is often closely tied to other matters, such as succession planning for a family business. Huge law firms whose clients are mostly public corporations don’t see as many business owners who need sophisticated estate planning. At most, they see executives who need help dealing with employment contracts and stock options. Smaller firms, which serve family-owned businesses, are more likely to need advanced estate planning more often, especially if those family businesses are large and valuable.

Being a non-lawyer estate planner is interesting, at Heckerling and in day-to-day life. My colleagues and I are often called upon to work closely with our clients’ lawyers, some of whom are themselves top-notch estate planners, and some of whom aren’t. Some lawyers welcome the knowledge of our clients’ finances and families that we bring to the discussion, and are happy to exchange ideas with us; others question whether anybody who did not attend law school should even attempt to discuss estate planning. Sometimes this skepticism goes away after we make a valuable suggestion (often gleaned from a Heckerling conference we attended that the lawyer did not), but not always.

We may approach estate planning a bit differently than many lawyers, or with different information because of our other work, but excellent trust and estate lawyers are both great planners and great lawyers. They translate the ideas we offer our clients into legal reality, and they make their plans resistant to human error and IRS challenge but also adaptable in case of changing circumstances. And they have a lot of good ideas of their own, from which I and my colleagues have learned much over the years.

Regardless of its future at firms like Debevoise & Plimpton, estate planning is going places. To new firms. To Heckerling. In my case, it’s going back to Bubbalou’s next year, because a week in Orlando in January would not be the same without some baby backs and corn bread.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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