Probably more than any other area, solo and small firm attorneys are looking to “outsource” as much estate planning work as cost-effectively possible. That is while still complying with ethical rules, the law, and the commitment to their clients. In larger firms where other areas of law pick up the slack, this is not as much of a concern, and in many cases breaking even on Will-based estate planning is OK because the firm intends to make much more in other areas, including the eventual probate of their client’s estate. But this leaves the estate planning-focused attorney in a financial bind if they look at the long-term benefits of avoiding probate and using good revocable living trusts for their clients. It is unfortunate, but doing the right thing for the estate planning client usually means lower legal fees for the attorney.
In order for an attorney to flourish in the life and estate planning field, they either have to also be able to sell financial products such as life insurance or manage stock accounts for a fee, or they have to spend a lot of time marketing their practice to gain a volume of work. In the latter situation, if you want to keep your services competitively priced, then it makes financial sense to either outsource as much as possible or hire employees to handle the work. In a lot of cases, preventative legal services such as estate planning fluctuate so much with seasons and the market that it makes hiring staff to assist in the creation of documents cost-prohibitive. And this is why many attorneys are looking to outsourcing some of the non-legal aspects of life and estate planning.
What are the “non-legal” areas of estate planning?
• Gathering of personal information from the clients, such as dates of birth, names of children, and a list of financial assets and their approximate worth.
• The printing, binding, and organization of the documents for signing
• The creation and transmission of educational materials
For many attorneys, these areas may have been ingrained into their training as non-delegable functions of being an attorney. This is simply not true. The fact is that the attorney remains responsible for all of these functions, but the actual execution of these tasks can be handled by non-attorneys if the attorneys check the work. Let’s take the functions one by one.
In the estate planning process, the gathering of information from the client or clients may yield opportunities to explore the situation further, and so some attorneys are reluctant to pass this function off to anyone else. The other extreme is simply providing a questionnaire for the clients to fill out, which may also be acceptable. In the case of “outsourcing” the function of gathering information about the clients, it may be as simple as working with, or even paying, a financial advisor to compile the information they have already gathered. This is particularly true if they can provide a comprehensive financial analysis that enables the attorney to avoid spending several hours on re-creating the information a financial advisor has already generated.
The other consideration is that just because an attorney has outsourced the initial gathering and compilation of personal and financial information does not mean that they will not explore things further with the client. In working with a financial advisor to gather personal information for your mutual client, there is no reason to stop with what the advisor has provided. In fact, the attorney would be remiss in not following up after reviewing the information. But reviewing, checking, and discussing information takes a lot less time for a good estate planning attorney than taking a few hours to gather and compile the data to begin with.
Printing, binding, and organizing documents
Probably the biggest opportunity to streamline an estate planning practice is the outsourcing of printing, binding, and organizing trust documents. This is especially the case if the documents the company uses are well-researched, applicable in all 50 states, and have all of the terms you would put into your own documents. Because of the combination of services just mentioned, Legis, Inc. (www.legisinc.com) may provide a good option for an estate planning law firm.
The printing and binding of documents takes away valuable staff time, including an attorney’s time, in making sure that the documents are printed correctly, there are no printer jams or half-pages, and everything is correctly stapled and organized. While this seems like a relatively inexpensive process, having the best documents available in a complete plan takes a lot more time than using a 20-30 page trust and a few 2-3 page ancillary documents. In all, the Legis trust system we use has about 400-500 pages printed on average. To organize all of that takes away from time my staff could be using to organize seminars, plan client appreciation events, and keeping the office moving in the right direction. Not to mention talking with clients to keep them happy.
But by far the biggest savings in terms of time and quality is that outsourcing document production to the right company can save a lot of time in making sure the documents are the best available for all 50 states. As an attorney in North Carolina, I keep on top of the various laws regarding trusts and estates in my state, and I do pass along information to Legis about new laws and developments. In a mobile society, though, the chance that my clients under 50 years old will remain in North Carolina is only about 50%. I would like for the trust system I provide to translate well to the 49 other states should they move so they will not have to start the process over in their new home state. By outsourcing document production, I don’t have to research the other 49 states because it is being done for me.
I do want to be clear on the outsourcing of documents in general. You should examine the standard documents for yourself before committing to work with a document production company. I have reviewed several companies that approached me, and in all of those cases I found my own documents to be superior in most aspects. But when I reviewed the Legis documents and found them to be better than my own documents, I knew I had a company to work with. Unless you review the standard documents yourself and find them to your standards, then outsourcing the documents to that company is not for your practice.
The Creation and Transmission of Educational Materials
While I tend to write a lot of my own educational materials, I have also shared them with Legis as part of the offerings they provide to attorneys. I currently have six books available on amazon.com, but I have created specific versions for Legis, Inc. at greatly discounted rates that are designed to be used as handouts for attorneys to give their clients. I have also developed seminars and, in a few cases, podcasts that can be used by attorneys to provide information to their clients. They are all available to attorneys as part of the outsourcing process. Rather than discussing the benefits and processes of an IRA Trust individually with each client, it is probably more time-effective (and therefore cost-effective) to give them the book The IRA Trust and then review the concepts later. It is certainly more time-effective than writing a book on this topic yourself when one is available inexpensively.
While I am extremely proud of the books I have written, I would be naïve to think that I am the only author or that mine were the only books you would consider providing to your clients as information and education pieces. In fact, the best and most complete book I have read on revocable living trusts is still the same book that got me into the field of life and estate planning back in law school, which is The Living Trust by Henry W. Abts III. However, it is large and a little intimidating for some of my clients as an introduction to revocable living trusts. But for some of my clients, I keep a few copies around in case they are interested in learning a lot more.
Again, it is critical to note that outsourced educational materials are conversation starters for your clients, and not substitutes for the conversation itself. A book can not replace an attorney’s good advice. But having the basics on paper can convey a lot of information that you can later summarize and work through specific questions with your client. In practices that are primarily focused on estate planning, saving some time in the general estate planning education of clients can allow you to spend more time on the specifics with your clients as well as finding new clients.
As legal fields of practice become more focused and specialized, it is more important than ever for small firms that practice preventative care like estate planning to manage their time effectively. Being able to outsource certain non-legal aspects of the life and estate planning process makes good business sense, provided it is only the non-legal functions that are delegated to non-attorneys.
Jeffrey G. Marsocci is a life and estate planning attorney licensed in North Carolina as well as being the president of Legis, Inc. He is also the author of several books available on Amazon.com, including The Anti-Probate Revolution, Estate Planning for Domestic Partners, and The IRA Trust. Mr. Marsocci can be reached through his law office at 919-844-7993 and more information is available on his firm’s website at www.livingtrustlawfirm.com.