How Not to Get Ripped Off: A 6-Step System for Finding the Right Estate Planning Firm for You

Jackie Bedard
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Attorney, Author, and Founder of Carolina Family Estate Planning

How do you find the right firm for you?

We had a prospective client come to our office after visiting multiple other law firms in the area. At the end of his Vision Meeting, he pulled a stack of papers from his briefcase. “You’re the firm I want to work with,” he said. “And here’s why…”

The papers he pulled out of his briefcase were a set of questions and answers he had put together for choosing an estate planning attorney. We asked our client for permission to share his system. And after a little bit of simplification, we are pleased to present to you, a 6-Step System for Finding the Right Estate Planning Attorney for You.

Step 1: Familiarize Yourself with What Estate Planning and Long-Term Care Planning Can Do

A lot of people think estate planning is just about who gets your stuff when you die. And while that is part of the puzzle, consider that planning is also about determining things such as:

  • Who you trust if you end up in the hospital and a) need help moving money between bank accounts to pay for care or b) need help making decisions about your care and your health and well-being;
  • How much government involvement you want in determining your incapacity and settling your estate when you do pass;
  • How you can protect your spouse or children from going broke due to their own long-term care costs, divorce, or lawsuits; and
  • Whether you appoint helpers to assist your spouse or children with managing any inheritance they receive.

There are lots of resources out there for getting a basic background on these topics, including those available on our website at resources.carolinafep.com.

Step 2: Determine What’s Most Important to You In an Attorney

Before you start searching the Internet and/or asking friends for recommendations, I suggest making a list of personal priorities for evaluating a candidate to be your attorney. In our firm, when hiring a new employee or vendor, we create a scorecard with our core values and key competencies we’re looking for. In my personal life, I do this for any major service provider I am hoping to hire. Make a list of characteristics, and rate each characteristic on a scale of 1-10 how important it is to you. It should look something like the scorecard below.

Sample Scorecard for Choosing a Will or Trust Lawyer

Characteristic

Importance

Score

It is important to me that my law firm has an established reputation within my community and the field of estate planning, asset protection, and long-term care planning.

 

 

It is important to me that my law firm has adopted a set of written core values that are congruent with my own personal values.

 

 

It is important to me that my law firm invests in the continuing education of its employees, so that they can stay abreast of changes in the law and techniques for best serving their clients’ needs.

 

 

Is it important to me that my law firm has a documented system for creating my estate plan, so that my planning does not get “lost in the shuffle” or sit on an attorneys desk for weeks at a time without action being taken on it.

 

 

It is important to me that my law firm works with me to understand my goals for myself and my loved ones before making a planning recommendation.

 

 

It is important to me that my law firm uses flat fee billing, so I know what the cost of my planning will be before I begin.

 

 

It is important to me that my law firm has a written guarantee on the work they provide.

 

 

It is important to me that my attorney has a team to assist them with day-to-day tasks, such as fixing the copier, that don’t require an attorney’s skills, so my attorney can focus on my legal work.

 

 

It is important to me that my attorney provides assistance re-titling bank accounts and updating beneficiary designations to coordinate with my estate plan.

 

 

It is important to me that my attorney has a maintenance program to keep my planning up to date.

 

 

It is important to me that my law firm will continue communicating with me after I have signed my documents.

 

 

It is important to me that my attorney is the least expensive service provider I can find.

 

 

Additional Concern:

 

 

 

 

Additional Concern:

 

 

 

 

Step 3: Gather Names of Potential Lawyers

As you’re doing your research, start compiling a list of lawyers in your area. While searching the internet, you’ll likely come across articles and websites for local law firms. In addition, ask your friends and family whether they’ve worked with an estate planning attorney—but be careful! If you’re going to ask your friends and family who they worked with, you may also want to ask them what research they did in selecting the firm. Make sure they share your values, which you determined in Step 2.

Step 4: Research and Ask Questions

Here is a list of potential questions that you’ll want to check during your research or ask during your meeting along with my notes as to why I suggest asking them. (By the way, you can read how our firm answers these questions here.):

How long has the law firm or lawyer been handling exclusively estate planning and elder law matters?

Don’t be fooled by broad statements, such as “I have been practicing law for over 10 years.” Make sure that experience is relevant to your specific needs.

Is estate planning and elder law exclusively what the firm practices?

Just like you probably wouldn’t want your primary care physician performing open-heart surgery on you, you want to make sure that the lawyer or law firm is not a generalist and is truly dedicated to your specific needs.

What is their educational background?

Review the backgrounds of the lawyers at the firm—again, is there a pattern of being dedicated to estate planning and elder law? Can they think critically? Can they do the math to figure out how to best protect your family’s assets? What about after law school? Have they kept up their education?

What affiliations, designations, and awards do they have related to estate planning and elder law? Are they legitimate?

Is there a pattern of dedication and interest in estate planning and elder law? Are they involved in the community? Do they have client testimonials to share with you?

Check the law firm’s reviews on Google, Facebook, Yelp, and Avvo.

If you’ve never heard of Avvo.com, it’s a website that rates attorneys on a scale of 1-10 and also notes whether the lawyer has ever been subject to discipline by the State Bar. While Avvo is a big tight-lipped about how they go about calculating each lawyer’s score, their website indicates that is based on a combination of public data collected form the State Bar, regulatory agencies, court records, and published sources on the internet (including attorneys’ websites).

A word of caution: Do know that while Avvo provides a breakdown of the types of cases the attorney handles by percentage, this information is self-reported by the lawyer. In other words, just because the profile now says they practice 100% estate planning and elder law, it is possible that they previously practiced in another area such as litigation or real estate where they earned a high rating and they may have recently updated their profile to change their practice area estate planning, meaning that they didn’t actually earn that high Avvo rating for their estate planning experience.

You may need to dig a little. Remember those Who’s Who letters they used to send out to seemingly everyone? You’d receive a letter in the mail explaining that you were eligible to have your name published in a book, like Who’s Who Among North Carolinians Willing to Pay to Have Their Name Listed in a Bound and Printed Book. All you had to do was send them money for your copy of the book, and in a few weeks, you’d get a book in the mail listing all the people who also paid to have their name listed. (Don’t feel bad if you bought the book. I may still have a copy somewhere on my bookshelf from high school. You don’t know what you don’t know.)

My point is this: Beware that the practice of vanity publications is alive and well in the legal industry. On a regular basis I get bombarded by mailings congratulating me for having been named to some award or list that I’ve never heard of, and if I just pay $300, they’ll be happy to send me a plaque with my name on it. Make sure the award that attorney is bragging about is backed up by some sort of peer review or voting process.

Do you carry malpractice insurance? Have you ever had to file a claim?

Surprisingly, not all lawyers or law firms carry malpractice insurance. Be sure to ask.

Have any of the lawyers in the firm ever been disciplined by the state bar?

Ideally, you already vetted this during Step Four, but if not, be sure to ask. (You can verify this online at…)

What is your process?

Is there a clear, written, organized process to assisting you with your planning. How do they ensure that nothing will “fall through the cracks”?

Do you offer any sort of guarantee?

State Bar ethics rules prohibit lawyers from guaranteeing any specific result of a case, but that doesn’t mean that the law firm shouldn’t be willing to provide some sort of guarantee that they will be attentive to your needs.

Have you published any articles, guides, or books for consumers or other attorneys?

Are the materials in plain English or is it a bunch of “legalese”?

Do they have support staff to assist you?

There is a lot that goes into running a law office from the “visible” tasks such as answering the phones, meeting with clients, producing the legal work product, drafting and sending correspondence, and similar. To the less visible or invisible tasks such as legal research, bookkeeping, office management, ordering office supplies, managing technology, negotiating and furnishing office space, networking and marketing, ordering, obtaining, and maintaining various forms of health, liability, and malpractice insurance…the list goes on and on.

Beware if the first person who answers the phone is your attorney. On the surface, it might seem nice for you to be able to reach your attorney at any time just by dialing his office. But let me ask you something: if they’re dropping what they’re doing every time the phone rings, what kind of attention are they devoting to their clients’ planning? How efficiently are they able to work? And if they have enough time to be both receptionist and attorney, will their office be around years from now when you truly need them urgently?

You want to work with a law firm that has appropriate support staff so that they can be responsive to your calls and the lawyers can focus on the legal work without getting pulled off task. When your lawyers are working on your matter, you want your lawyer’s undivided attention. In order to give you the attention you deserve, your lawyer should (1) structure his or her schedule carefully and (2) use a team approach, so your planning can continue to move forward smoothly while the firms’ other clients also get their undivided attention.

What is their hiring and vetting process for support staff?

Estate planning, elder law, and asset protection planning often require disclosure of detailed personal and financial information to provide thorough and effective legal services. You’re sharing sensitive information that is generally privy to all lawyers and staff of the law firm. Make sure that the law firm does its due diligence in the hiring process.

What is their communication policy (e.g., phone and email)?

As mentioned above, at a busy law firm, the lawyers should be spending the majority of their time meeting with clients and producing the legal work. The firm should have clearly written communication policies in place to ensure that you receive a timely response.

Also, it is important to understand that while it may only take you 30 seconds to ask the “quick question”, that does not always mean that it is quick to answer. Your matter may need to be reviewed to ensure proper context. Further, the law can have multiple layers of nuance.

You shouldn’t be left in the dark wondering if you’ve been forgotten about. Barring unusual circumstances, a law firm should return your call or email within 24-48 hours. From time to time, there are questions that require further research, but the firm should still check in with you to let you know that they haven’t forgotten your question and they are still working on it.

How do they help you keep your planning up to date? Does the law firm have a clear method for staying in touch with past clients?

While it’s tempting to think of estate planning as “one and done,” the reality is that estate plans generally need to be updated over time. Your and your family’s circumstances are likely to evolve over time—your health may change, your finances may change, your family may change due to births, deaths, or divorce.

In addition, the laws are constantly changing. Estate planning and elder law is at the intersection of several sets of laws including laws about wills, trusts, powers of attorney, health care directives, guardianship, estate and gift taxes, income taxes, asset protection, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, special needs planning, and more.

Step 5: Schedule a Meeting

By now, you’ve probably narrowed down your list to your top 1-2 selections. Call the firm to discuss next steps and schedule an appointment. Again, pay attention to this phone conversation.

Were you warmly greeted? Are you going to enjoy calling the firm with questions, or will it fill you with dread? Was the person that you spoke with able to explain the firm’s process and assist you with scheduling?

Remember that the best and most in demand law firms often have a line of people wanting to hire them. Like calling a doctor’s office, they may only have limited appointments available depending on how long you’re willing to wait to get in and see them. Because we have multiple attorneys in our office, we do try to set aside some time for planning emergencies such as a health crisis and may be able to meet last minute requests if you’re able to be flexible about the time of the meeting, but in most cases, especially if you’re calling a solo attorney and they can meet with you same day or the next day at pretty much any time that’s convenient for you, that’s another red flag. Why aren’t they busy?

Pay attention to what information they ask for in advance. We ask for specific information ahead of time so that we can prepare for your meeting and make productive use of your time. If you’re not being asked for information in advance, it’s likely that either a lot of the meeting time is going to be wasted collecting the information, or you’re about to sit down with an “order taker” who isn’t really going to help engage you in a meaningful conversation about your goals and what planning options might best fit your needs.

Step 6: Make a Decision

Take your scorecard. Multiply the importance of each concern with how much you believe the firm addressed that concern. Add up the results. How did the firm fare?

Think We Might Be a Good Fit For Each Other?

If you have questions, or when you are ready to schedule your one-on-one Vision Meeting, call us at 919-443-3035 or contact us online. We are here to help explore your planning objectives, identify your specific needs and goals, then we’ll match that up with the right estate plan for you and your family. We have found that once clients get started—even before they’ve successfully completed their planning—they experience a sense of relief and calm. They sleep easier. They live better lives. I invite you to get started, to accomplish your own planning, and start living your own better life.