Look for relevant experience and a good rapport
Selecting the right estate planning attorney is important. Not all estate plans are created equally, and an inferior plan can lead to unfulfilled intentions, strained relationships and wasted time.
So, what is the key to finding the best person? “Be selective and ask the right open-ended questions,” says Stacy Singer, national practice leader for Trust Services at Northern Trust. “Boilerplate plans are not sufficient for most people, and you will need to feel comfortable confiding in this individual,” she explains. “This means finding someone with both relevant experience and a compatible demeanor.”
The process for finding this person does not need to be long or difficult, but Singer recommends asking your accountant or financial advisor – rather than a friend or family member – for referrals and performing ample due diligence. To help, Singer suggests the following interview questions as a starting point.
As a general rule, look for attorneys who focus primarily or entirely on estate planning. This indicates a broader and deeper estate planning skillset.
Replace the “like me” with your unique needs, such as closely held businesses, a disabled child, a premarital agreement, significant prior gifting, etc. This goes one step further than the prior question by focusing specifically on expertise relevant to you.
As a follow-on question, try to understand how they have approached similar work. It is one thing to tell you they have pertinent experience; it’s another to provide concrete examples. Good answers will likely include specific solutions they have implemented for clients like you. This question may also help you evaluate less tangible attributes, such as work style and creativity.
Look for someone open to working with your other advisors, such as accountants, investment managers and additional attorneys. Estate plans often inextricably link with other parts of wealth management, and multi-disciplinary coordination typically produces better results. Good attorneys know they are not experts on everything and appreciate the expertise of others.
Continual changes in the estate planning landscape, such as new rulings and changes in tax law, require a high level of industry engagement. Look for attorneys with greater participation in professional organizations and forums, as their practices are more likely to reflect industry best practices.
It is completely reasonable – and often in your financial best interest – for an associate rather than a senior partner to work on your plan. Recognize this upfront, but confirm that a more senior member of the team will be meeting with you and reviewing the associate’s work.
While selecting an attorney based on fees alone is generally not the best strategy, price does matter. First and foremost, look for attorneys who are open and transparent about their fees. One structure is not necessarily better than another – some offer fixed fees, some charge hourly and others do both – but approach small, flat fees warily. They indicate boilerplate templates insufficient to address your unique situation. But if you like two attorneys with similar qualifications equally, by all means, choose the one with lower fees.
The best attorneys usually have clients willing to vouch for them. This indicates strong relationships and a history of successful results.
Look for attorneys who will not charge for an initial meeting if you decide not to use them. While it is perfectly reasonable to include this time in billable hours if you do become a client, committed attorneys appreciate due diligence and are willing to invest in meeting you regardless of the outcome.
Bonus Question for You:
This is a deal breaker. If you do not feel comfortable confiding in someone, no amount of credentials or experience will matter. While there are many high-caliber estate planning attorneys, you will simply like some more than others. And there is nothing wrong with that.
Your estate planning attorney is one of the most important service professionals you will hire. The good news is that many excellent candidates exist, and with relatively straightforward due diligence, you can find the right fit – both professionally and personally.