Since you'll be discussing topics like death, incapacity, and other frightening life events, hiring an estate planning lawyer may feel intimidating or morbid. But it definitely doesn't have to be that way.
Instead, it can be the most empowering decision you ever make for yourself and your loved ones. The key to transforming the experience of hiring a lawyer from one that you dread into one that empowers you is to educate yourself first. This is the person who is going to be there for your family when you can't be, so you want to really understand who the lawyer is as a human, not just an attorney. Of course, you'll also want to find out the kind of services your potential lawyer offers and how they run their business.
To this end, here are five questions to ask to ensure you don't end up paying for legal services that you don't need, expect, or want. Once you know exactly what you should be looking for when choosing a planning professional, you'll be much better positioned to hire an attorney who will provide the kind of love, attention, care, and trust your family deserves.
1. How do you bill for your services?
There's no reason you should be afraid to ask a lawyer how he or she bills for the work they do on your behalf. In fact, questions about billing and payment should be among the very first subjects you bring up when you first contact them. No one wants surprises, especially when it comes to the bill.
If you call a lawyer's office and they are reluctant or refuse to give you clear answers to questions about how they charge for their services, determine your fees, or what they expect certain services will cost, this is a big red flag. When someone is hesitant to discuss their billing or business practices, you could be in for some major surprises about what things cost down the road.
Find an estate planning lawyer who bills for all of their services on a flat-fee, no surprises, basis —and never on an hourly basis—unless it's required by the court for limited purposes. And ideally, you want a lawyer who will guide you through a process of discovery in which they learn about your family dynamics, your assets, and they educate you about what would happen for your family and to your assets if and when something happens to you, and then support you in choosing the right plan for you that meets your budget and your desired outcomes.
Our process for your planning begins with a Family Wealth Planning Session™, in which we educate you about the law and you educate us about your family dynamics and assets, and then you choose the right plan, at the right cost, for the people you love.
- How will you respond to my needs on an ongoing basis?
One of the biggest complaints people have about working with lawyers is that they are notoriously unresponsive. Indeed, I've heard of cases in which clients went weeks without getting a call back from their lawyer. This is all too common, but totally unacceptable, especially when you're paying them big bucks.
That said, in most cases, these lawyers aren't blowing you off—they simply don't have enough support or the systems in place to be able to be responsive. Far too many lawyers believe they can take care of everything themselves. From paperwork and client meetings to scheduling and returning phone calls to connecting their clients with other advisors, there are just too many responsibilities for one person to manage all on their own.
The truth is, if a lawyer is a complete solo practitioner without support or works for a firm that doesn't provide adequate support, sooner or later, they are almost certain to become overwhelmed and unresponsive. Given this, it's vital that you ask your lawyer about how they will respond to your needs if you decide to become their client.
Ask them how quickly calls are typically returned in their office, ask them if there will be someone on-hand to answer quick questions, and ask them how they will support you to keep your plan up to date on an ongoing basis and be there for your loved one's when you can't be.
A great way to test this is to call your prospective lawyer's office and ask for him or her. If you get put through right away—or even worse, your call gets sent to a full voicemail—think twice about hiring this lawyer. This means they don't have effective systems in place for managing and responding to calls or answering quick questions.
Instead, what you want is for the person who answers the phone—or another team member—to offer to help you. And if that individual cannot help you, then he or she should schedule a call for you to talk with your lawyer at a future date and time.
Your lawyer simply can't be effective or efficient if he or she is taking every call that comes through. Ideally, all calls to your lawyer should be pre-scheduled with a clear agenda, so you both can be ready to focus on your specific needs.
Next week in we'll talk more about the ways in which your attorney should communicate with you and list the remaining three questions to ask before hiring your estate planning lawyer.