What Should I Look For in a Lawyer?

What Should I Look For in a Lawyer?

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose
-Zora Neale Hurston

"I just need a simple will," the woman on the phone said. "How much will that cost?" she asked. I'll call her "Wilma," and she called me, saying she had been referred by a mutual friend.

We had not yet discussed Wilma's situation at all, but it seemed that she'd already decided her will would not be complex. I felt that if I pushed Wilma on her view, before answering her question on costs, she would conclude I was trying to "up-sell" her on a more expensive plan.

Since Wilma was referred by a mutual friend, I suggested we speak in person. In addition, though she was set on getting the work done, I didn't want her to feel pressured or obligated and, as I often do, I offered a free initial consultation to determine what she wanted to do. I suggested that we discuss face-to-face an estimated cost, and exactly what the work would be.

When we met, I told her that a simple will could be all she needed, but I was concerned about properly assisting her with her estate planning. I wanted to know about Wilma's family situation. I wanted to know about her goals and her intended direction, not only in giving her property away, but also on managing the estate. I explained the relationship between non-probate property distributed after death outside of probate, and probate property distributed through her will.

Wilma replied that she was married, with no children. She had an existing will, but there were some questions about it so she wanted a replacement for that document. When I discussed the purpose of other planning documents that we often prepare in addition to a will, Wilma replied that she already had all those other documents, and she was satisfied with them. Wilma did not want to share these with me because that was, in her opinion, an unnecessary expense.

I learned that Wilma's gifts she wanted to include in her will were clear and direct, and she'd already taken additional steps on how to direct her property that was not be subject to the will (such as her bank accounts and investments).

By the end of our conversation, Wilma still insisted that the only document she wanted was a "simple will." I concluded Wilma had enough information about the estate planning, so I told her I would prepare the will just as she requested initially. And I gave her an hourly fee price estimate that would include preparing the will, our related communications, and our meeting to execute the will when it was completed. She agreed to the work.

As I have a habit of doing in any case, I prepared the will using a template form as a starting point. The template included language unnecessary for her circumstances in the Powers of the Executor, but I left that in, because I didn't want to bill Wilma for the time it would have taken me to edit out the unnecessary language. More importantly, the unnecessary language consisted of extra provisions that granted broad powers to her Executor over particular types of property Wilma did not own. Having those provisions didn't hurt her at all, and it might actually be useful later on if she acquired that type of property.

On completion, the document came out to nine pages, which I sent to Wilma on completion of my draft for her review.

Wilma called me the next day, and she was very angry. She wanted to know how much the document would cost her. She reiterated that all she had asked for was a simple will.

I explained that the will was longer than she anticipated due to the unnecessary language in the Powers of the Executor. I explained that I'd saved time by keeping the language in the will, because eliminating the language would have been more work in altering the form used. I also related that the extra language did her no harm and it could even benefit her estate planning if her circumstances changed in the future.

Once Wilma settled down, she realized that the document presented was superior in providing for powers in administration of her estate. We executed the document and, when the process was completed, Wilma expressed satisfaction with the result.

Wilma had the benefit of our normal discussion about planning, and, having had that conversation, she decided to redraft only her will. As I've said earlier, not everyone needs the same documents for estate planning. But all people should have the benefit of knowing why they are choosing what they choose.

Discussion with legal counsel about estate planning choices is very important before making decisions.

An experienced estate lawyer will be able to explain all your options.

Even if you choose not to pursue some options, being informed will help you know that the course you do choose is the right one. The most useful service provided, in my opinion, is the discussions shaping the plan, and education of the clients.

The legal document that resulted from Wilma's decisions was only part of her plan. The other part was her awareness of actions that would affect her assets. She understood the difference between probate and non-probate property, and she'd planned accordingly.

The legal document that resulted from Wilma's decisions was only part of her plan. The other part was her awareness of actions that would affect her assets. She understood the difference between probate and non-probate property, and she'd planned accordingly.

All of which is to say: Finding the right attorney to plan your estate is crucial.

When we work with clients on estate planning goals it involves planning over a long period of time. Planning is an evolution; nothing stays the same in life and the only thing we can count on is change. Though some clients' lives are more predictable than others, our objective is to anticipate risks and inevitable future events, and to plan to achieve our clients' goals.

Therefore, you should be critical when you assess any attorney you are considering to handle something as important as your family and your estate. You should schedule an initial consultation with any attorney you are considering hiring, and you should ask the following questions.

Is the attorney experienced in estate planning?

Often people make the mistake of thinking that any attorney can do an equally competent job, especially when they expect that their will is going to be standard and simple. But estate planning is a specialty practice of law. State laws are highly specific, and wills, trusts and other documentation must satisfy every technical requirement. It's essential to get these documents right, because even small errors can have significant consequences. Usually mistakes aren't even noticed for years after the plan, when it's too late. So we recommend that you look for an attorney who does this every day, rather than someone who just does a handful of wills in a career.

How many years of experience does the attorney have?

The more experience the attorney has, the more the attorney will have seen essential estate planning documents in action. Experienced attorneys have an easier time spotting potential pitfalls, possible targets of litigation and prepare for all of these. They also are better able to know innovative ways to structure estates that will protect you and your beneficiaries.

Can I see myself working closely with this attorney?

If you aren't comfortable with the professional you are working with, chances are you won't be happy with the attorney's work because you will limit your connections. It's better to determine this sooner rather than later. Move on until you find someone you trust with personal and financial information. Your counsel is or should be a trusted advisor, with whom would share sensitive personal information that perhaps you might hesitate to share even with your family or friends. Your attorney's job includes a special obligation of confidentiality that only you can waive, which promotes a full discussion of your wishes and goals. You may have other trusted advisors, such as financial planners, or accountants, but these relationships lack the legally protected duties of your attorney to protect your confidences and carry out your plans.

What About Initial Costs and Continued Services?

When consulting with your attorney, be sure to ask about the expected costs; these should be readily available, and likely a conversation will be required before a meaningful response may be provided as to your situation and expense for planning, like Wilma's situation, mentioned here.

For example, is there a flat fee or hourly charges? Is a retainer required, or must funds be placed on deposit in a Trust account for the work? What specifically does a flat rate include? If it is hourly, what work is included, and what is the anticipated costs, all things going according to a typical plan, not that yours will do so, but what if?

Beyond the initial services, what are costs for continued consultations? Are there regular reviews of prepared documents, in light of changing laws, assets and more? How are those handled?