A couple months ago, we started sending out a booklet with our Vision Meeting confirmation letters. It's called Forward. You might consider it our Client Handbook. We have found that it's helpful to start with a mutual understanding when we start working together.

A prominent section of Forward explains that our firm has Core Values. These are non-negotiables. After nine years of business, we realized that we have a "type." Clients and team members who we enjoy working with, who also enjoy working with us. They all exemplify and hold dear our Core Values--though most of them didn't even know they did. Want to know what our Core Values are?

  1. We respect each other.
  2. We help people.
  3. We do what we say we will do.
  4. We use time effectively.
  5. We work as a team.

These aren't the same as marketing taglines, though we do believe making them public helps attract like-minded people. Our Core Values are meant to be a touchstone. When all else fails--when we don't have a policy or procedure to guide us--we can rely on our core values to determine our next steps.

Throughout this series of articles, I'm going to review each of our Core Values in more detail. For clients who have worked with us in the past, I know you will see yourselves in these descriptions. Anytime I work with another professional, I want to know what their core values are. Do they mesh with my own? If so, I know we'll be able to find common ground on most issues.

The concept of core values isn't unique to CFEP. In fact, we set out to determine our core values after reading the book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. The book is the product of the authors' attempt to find out what visionary companies have in common. A fundamental principle shared by all of the visionary companies was the need for a core ideology: a central purpose and core values by which they operate.

Our central purpose, by the way, is to help our clients find relief, happiness, and confidence in the future by making plans that work.

"We Respect Each Other"

So let's talk about our first core value: respect. "We respect each other" is meant to apply to every relationship we have, interacting with clients, each other, and other professionals. Everyone we meet has unique gifts. Every human being has value.

Respecting each other means treating others at least as well as we wish to be treated. We appreciate that our clients have often overcome the forces of hesitation and uncertainty to arrive at our office. We appreciate that no one's life or family situation is perfect. And we do our work as if we were completing our own estate plan, probate, or trust settlement.

We understand and honor the training and hard work that other professionals have put into their craft. We are not CPAs, professional healthcare advocates, or investment advisors. So we work closely with the best professionals around to help our clients. It's not purely altruistic: one of my greatest pleasures in life is to observe experts at work.

Respect also involves willingly meeting people where they are. Everybody has a bad day. Even the kindest person falls short from time to time. Respect means having the grace to forgive. Nevertheless, to protect the firm, every once in a while, we have to draw the line and end the relationship when a client, professional, or team member is persistently rude. Fortunately, it doesn't happen very often.

Respecting each other naturally leads into our next core value: we help people.

"We Help People"

On the surface, it seems obvious that this should be a value of any business that you work with. We truly believe we help our clients live a happier life. We see it all the time: when we first meet, clients are nervous and concerned. Visiting a lawyer is intimidating. Probate clients have recently lost a loved one. Often, the loss of a loved one is what gets people to finally decide to get their ducks in a row. But once clients complete their planning, they're relieved. And it's almost like they walk a little taller, because they are confident that they have done a good thing--making sure their family is protected, or carrying out a loved one's last wishes.

But there's more to it than the legal work that we do. We strive, in everything we do, to make sure the services we provide are congruent with our clients' own values. During our Vision Meetings and Initial Consultations, we spend over an hour trying to get to the heart of the person we're meeting with. What are their values? What do they want to achieve. We take great pains to offer services that are tailored to clients' needs and hopes, and that give them a value that exceeds the fee and the time invested.

But that's not all!™ Take a look at the last word of this Core Value. We help people. Not, "We help our clients." Every day, a few people call our office in need of services we don't provide. Whether it's help with a criminal matter, or an estate in Maryland, or finding an appraiser for rare coins, people call us to get help. What should we do? Hang up? Of course not. We are constantly amassing a database of resources that we can use to help anyone who calls our firm. That's one reason we participate in groups like Eldercounsel and Planning & Protecting. That's what our Team 100 referral program is all about.

So we help people at Carolina Family Estate Planning. To the best of our ability. As best as we can.

Next, we'll talk about one of my favorite Core Values.

"We Do What We Say We Will Do"

In my prior career before joining CFEP, I was a program manager for a manufacturer of high tech electronics for the defense industry. It seems like in tech there is an unreasonably strong pull toward overpromising and underdelivering. As a program manager, I felt it too. In a meeting with our customer, I'd set a deadline for delivering this or that report. Days later, it'd be on my list, but other things seemed to get higher priority. Until our quality manager pulled me aside, put my feet to the fire, and forced me to schedule a meeting with her to complete and send the report. Politely and coyly, after we made the appointment, she said to me, "I just want to make sure we do what we said we would."

At the time, "OUCH!" But it's a value I've carried with me ever since. And it is one of our Core Values at Carolina Family Estate Planning. To some extent, it's not just our Core Value, it's the law. The State Bar requires that we follow through with the commitments that we put in our engagement agreement that we sign with every client. But there's the letter of the law, and then there's the spirit of the law. Doing what we say we will do starts with setting clear expectations and making sure we follow through with them. In everything we do.

Setting clear expectations is one of the reasons we put such a focus on education at our firm. Often, there is more than one way to approach an estate plan or estate administration. We take the time to explain the tradeoffs between the available options. When we meet for the first time, we set a clear agenda, and we explain how each step of our process works. At the end of each meeting, we go over homework and what to expect at your next meeting.

What about follow through? You may not know this, but we use a lot of checklists and written policies, systems, and procedures behind the scenes to make sure we get the details right. We review and update them regularly. Even so, every once in a while, something falls through the cracks. There's a system for handling that: 1) apologize and take full responsibility, 2) fix the immediate problem, 3) figure out how it happened, and 4) fix the system so the problem doesn't happen again.

We've recently been working with our team to add a few additional check-in steps, to get feedback from individual clients as we're working with them and make sure that we're on the same page all along the way. In short, to make sure that we are doing what we say we will do.

Next, let's talk about using time effectively. Spoiler alert: using time effectively involves systems, and it goes back to helping people and working together as a team. Expectations set. Now to follow through.

"We Use Time Effectively"

When I first tell people that we use time effectively, sometimes the first reaction is "Oh no, I'm going to be rushed through all of my meetings with this firm." After they've worked with us, however, many clients have told us that quite the opposite was true: they never felt rushed. They felt like they always had enough time to explain their concerns and to get a full explanation--even if it required some extra meetings or emails back and forth.

And that's what using time effectively is all about. We want to be fully present when working on a client's case, whether we're meeting with you or working behind the scenes. It does require some discipline, however. Except in emergencies, our attorneys and paralegals cannot take unscheduled meetings. The picture above is our color-coded time template. We use it to manage 4 conference rooms and 11 people's schedules. All empty appointment blocks are put on the calendar at least a month in advance. We do this so our team can know who needs to be where ahead of time. And when they are working on your case, you have their undivided attention.

We've also defined what an emergency is at our firm. If we've designed but not signed an estate plan for a client and death or incapacity is imminent, we will do everything we can to help get that plan signed while the client has capacity. Having good systems helps us do that. Most of the time, however, we can avoid emergencies. And that lets us "chunk" our time, give clients our undivided attention when we're meeting with them, and respond to non-urgent questions at a set time every day. Of course, someone has to recognize when an email is urgent. Client Welcome Specialists are trained to recognize these and command the appropriate attention from our team--but we'll talk about teamwork in a moment.

Using time effectively is probably our most controversial Core Value. We as a society have grown accustomed to getting instant likes on Facebook and instant responses to text messages. I am here to tell you that that is "sub-optimal." When you ask a question, a well-researched response is better than a knee-jerk response. When we draft documents during a "drafting block" fewer mistakes get made. And your planning or probate gets completed faster, your file doesn't get lost, and your attorney or paralegal is prepared for her meeting with you. What's more, using time effectively actually makes us more capable of handling emergencies in the rare circumstances they come up, because there are no lurking surprises on our calendars to prevent us from responding appropriately.

By using time effectively, we can help people better. We can follow through on our commitments. And we can work well as a team. Which is what we'll talk about next.

"We Work As a Team"

Tuh duh tuh duh tuh duh dmmm (that's supposed to be a drum roll). We have arrived now at the fifth and final CFEP Core value: We work as a team.

Working as a team means that clients work with several people throughout the span of their case. I know that this makes some prospective clients uncomfortable at first, but I want to explain why this is actually good for clients. Remember when Michael Jordan played Major League Baseball for a while? Don't get me wrong, he was still a lot better than I could be… but would you rather have him on your baseball team or your basketball team? Along those lines, consider that your attorney may not simultaneous be the best person to provide immediate answers by telephone, sus out your goals, keep files organized, process credit card payments, clean whiteboards, work directly with your bank, AND provide you with estate planning-specific, expert, accurate legal advice.

It turns out that even though they are all amazing individuals, no one on our team--or the planet, for that matter--is an expert at everything. So our staff works together as a team to deliver an exceptional client experience. It's not without strenuous work. Teamwork is actually one of the hardest Core Values to achieve and maintain: it takes good systems and training; it takes constant monitoring and tweaking; and it takes the brightest and best people. We often interview for several months for open positions.

But this Core Value is about so much more than what we do internally. Because we will work as a team with all of the professionals you and your family work with. We enjoy working with financial advisors, CPAs, geriatric care managers and healthcare advocates, bankers, and other professionals--especially when they are every bit as committed to excellence and serving our clients' interests as we are. We approach these relationships similarly with the understanding that we are all experts in our respective fields.

Finally, consider that you are on the team as well. We can achieve the best results when clients expect the best from us and we can have honest discussions with one another. Those reading this who have done estate planning with us: can you imagine trying to make a plan based on little more information than we could find out in the phone book? This, by the way, is one reason we're not shaking in our boots about online document software: currently there's no way $99 software can capture the nuances and "metamessaging" that happens during a client meeting.

The upshot of this is that we play according to the "Win-Win or Go Home" rule. We truly want our clients, when we've closed their case, to feel relieved, happy, and confident. If we don't feel there is an extra high likelihood of achieving this goal, we will refer out the case. By doing so, we hope to be able to help people (core value #2), even if it's not by directly providing them with legal services.

Teamwork makes the dream work. And when we can all work together, everybody wins.

I hope you've enjoyed getting to know us a little better through our Core Values. I know many families who have their own set of Core Values, and I want to encourage you to write them down, display them proudly, and talk about then. The truth is that they exist even if you don’t have them written down.

Does your estate planning law firm have a set of core values? Don't you think they should, if you're going to trust them to help you plan your future? If you'd like to work with a group of professionals who respect and help people, who do what they say they will, who use time effectively, and who work as a team, please call us at 919-443-3035. We find that even when people come to us stressed out, confused, and anxious, we can help them get to a place where they're relieved, happy, and confident in the future.


Dan Bedard
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