Having practiced in this area for a while, here are some practical tips for selecting an estate planner. I promise that this is not a thinly-veiled way of describing my practice. Although we have many of these qualities, I believe that these tips have universal value.
1. Select an attorney who is an excellent listener.
Too often clients are telling their story to a lawyer who is busy planning based on what they think is going on with this client, and not listening to what the client actually has to say. I find this practice is often the case with a “wills factory” where the attorney is itching to pass your case off to a paralegal and get to his or her next intake meeting.
Good estate planners will listen to you during an initial interview and continue to listen to your concerns throughout the process and into the future. Which brings me to….
2. Select an attorney who doesn’t bill you for every 5 minute conversation, fax and mailing.
This one kills me. I’m always wary of a professional who is more concerned with “nickel and dime-ing” his clients, than he is about providing value at every opportunity. I suggest you steer clear of the former.
Instead, I suggest that you engage an attorney who flat-fee bills for the estate planning work, including all of the interviews and meetings that need to occur to get the estate plan done. While estate administration is akin to litigation in that the time involved is difficult to predict, and therefore hourly billing is a better model for both parties, estate plans are fairly predictable matters in the resources they will consume. They vary in their complexity from client to client, but a lawyer worth his or her salt should be able to quote you a flat fee for that work, and that fee should include phone calls, meetings, etc.
3. Select a lawyer or law firm that plays an activel part of your (or his) community.
This tip is less about reducing your commuting costs and more about stability and long-term planning. You want a lawyer who will remain in the area (and in the practice) long enough to address your growing concerns and needs. You want a trusted advisor who will remain available to you when you need him the most.
This is best achieved by selecting a lawyer who is a pillar of the community in which he (and/or you) reside. This attorney should be involved with local schools or charitable organizations (whether or not in his or her actual practice), and should be known by others in the community. This is good news for you, the client, because it means that (a) the lawyer has a reputation to uphold, which means he’ll most likely treat you right, and (b) the lawyer has planted roots in the arean will be around for the long haul.
4. Select an attorney who fits your personality.
Some clients are looking for a lawyer in a stuffed shirt and standoff-ish attitude to do their estate plan. If you are one of these clients, please let me introduce you to a few colleagues of mine – there are many who will fit the bill.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for someone to listen to your concerns and work with you in an intimate manner to help achieve your objectives, make sure that the attorney across the table from you is someone who you instinctively trust and with whom you feel comfortable. They say that your first instinct is usually the right choice, and I believe that’s especially the case with the lawyer who will serve as your family’s legal advisor.