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Financial Planning > Tax Planning

How to Connect with Estate-Planning Attorneys

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It’s no secret that estate-planning attorneys are a rich referral source. But how do you get close to them? That’s the mystery.

“They’re tough nuts to crack — you have to prove yourself,” notes Mark Thompson, a Raymond James & Associates advisor in Melbourne, Fla., who works closely with five attorneys. “On average, you’re probably going to give them 10 to 20 referrals before you get one back. A great way to get an attorney’s attention is to refer a high-net-worth client to them so they can see the ballpark you’re in.”

Thompson’s strategic alliance with estate-planning attorneys has produced some happy math: an average referral of $2 million to $6 million. Four months ago, a $13 million referral walked through his door, courtesy of an attorney.

It’s widely believed that attorneys, even more than CPAs, are the gatekeepers to the wealthiest clients. A research study last year from CEG Worldwide, called Cultivating the Middle-Class Millionaire, showed that 54.2 percent of affluent individuals found their primary financial advisor through an attorney or CPA.

Even more revealing is what CEG Worldwide’s founder John Bowen describes as the “dividing line.” As he puts it, “Typically, when we ask an advisor where they got their largest client, it will have come from an attorney, if the advisor is doing wealth management. If they’re just doing investments, it will be from an accountant.”

Stu Viets, an advisor with Lincoln Financial Advisors-Sagemark Consulting in San Francisco and Napa, heads a planning practice with $300 million in assets under management. He has a relationship with a half-dozen estate-planning and tax attorneys.

“I’ve received referrals that essentially are extremely wealthy families I’m able to do sophisticated planning for. These are families I would not otherwise have access to,” says Viets, an advisor since 1980. “At the high end, the attorneys are the gatekeepers. You have a much lower chance of being referred successfully to a wealthy individual by his friend as opposed to his attorney. Ultimately the attorney has to be involved and they feel threatened if they are not the one who has initiated the introduction. I’ve received from these relationships the most important clients of my practice.”

How important? Recently, Viets was pulled in to a case that involved a substantial amount of life insurance being placed on a wealthy matriarch to create estate liquidity. The annual premium: $70,000. In another situation, he was referred to the executive of an influential Silicon Valley firm, which led to the referral of five other members of the management team. The end result: assets exceeding $50 million.

The relationships that Thompson and Viets have formed didn’t occur overnight. In some cases, an alliance can take years to cement.

As Thompson notes: “They’ve seen hordes of us come through — the good ones and the bad ones. They want to see whether you are a flash in the pan. They want feedback from clients. They want to have a little history with you. It’s a process that’s very difficult. My best advice: Patience, Grasshopper.”

Standing Out from the Crowd

Financial advisors have their own signature style, as do attorneys. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are multiple ways to make the approach and nurture the relationship.

Wachovia Securities advisor Shirley Drechsel, whose Chapel Hill, N.C., group has $350 million under management, says the growth of her alliances has been “organic.” She does business regularly with four attorneys. One is a lawyer she used herself. The other three came from clients who were associated with them. Estate-planning issues, such as charitable remainder trusts and insurance to fulfill an estate plan, typically trigger the need for a collaborative effort.

“It’s so wonderful to have the attorney’s expertise and estate-planning ability to round out our own service to the client. From a service point of view, it feels so good to be what I call the family,” she says. “It’s been a natural outgrowth of what’s needed and wanted.”

When Thompson establishes a new client relationship, he asks for the names of the client’s CPA and tax attorney, then sends a letter and brochure introducing himself. Next, he asks the attorney to lunch to discuss the needs of the mutual client. That discussion involves the services and client care Thompson’s team delivers. When he gets a referral from an attorney, he follows up with a thank-you note, and, later, a gift.

And any time Thompson refers high-net-worth clients to an attorney, he accompanies them on their first appointment. Often, clients will also ask that Thompson be present for an annual review of their estate plan, corporate structure and tax situation.

“That’s the most powerful tool I have — to go on the appointment,” says Thompson, who has $150 million in assets under management. “I bridge the gap between attorney and client, keeping things in laymen’s terms. A lot of times attorneys don’t know how recommendations impact investments. I’m able to bridge that gap.”

LPL advisor Bill Newell, a certified financial planner in Holliston, Mass., didn’t have much luck when he began approaching attorneys 12 years ago. “You’re like the rest of the crowd, looking for a hand-out,” he says.

His luck changed when he became certified to provide continuing education credits to attorneys and CPAs. “It’s a slow, arduous, labor-intensive process to build that kind of approach,” he says. “Attorneys, accountants and financial planners are really complementary services, not competitive services, especially if you’re serious about taking a multi-disciplinary approach to wealth management. You need the attorney to write the trust, the tax accountant to do the proper tax work, especially if a business is involved, and you need the experience of an investment manager to manage the money. And you need them all to be talking to one another. An educational venue creates the opportunity to present yourself to centers of influence in a very professional and positive way. It’s a platform that puts the advisor in the company of all those professionals.”

Ten years ago, Newell streamlined his process when he entered into an arrangement with The CPA Law Forum, a San Diego-based service organization that offers a turnkey program to financial advisors. At the breakfast meetings, which feature speakers on timely topics, Newell introduces the speakers, then “gets out of the way.” At the end of the program, he reminds attendees that the forum was sponsored by Atlantic Capital Management, his RIA. [Newell has $200 million in assets under management with ACM and $80 million with LPL.]

“It gives me exposure. Over time, over years, all of these professionals become familiar with ACM. As you get to know them, what I do is say: ‘How about us getting together for lunch? I’d like to tell you more about ACM.’ It’s in these personal one-on-one meetings that we develop the relationship,” says Newell, who works on a regular basis with three attorneys. “It’s not just saying: gimme, gimme, gimme. It’s not about how can you help me? It’s about how we can help each other. How might a complementary relationship work that will bring more value to the client and to ourselves?”

Deepening the Relationship

Viets, whose first attorney alliances date back 16 years, has this advice for advisors who want to develop relationships with lawyers: “Anything to turn down the tension, do it.”

Typically, after meeting with a new client, Viets will schedule an appointment with the client’s attorney. At that meeting, Viets presents financial planning recommendations, observations about the client case and background information on his firm.

But it doesn’t stop there. “Can we get along? Does he understand I’m really interested in becoming a team player? And, very important, attorneys have this fear their clients will be referred to someone else,” Viets says. “If I come into the picture, will I direct that client to another attorney? I make it clear I am interested in forging a relationship with them as much as the client.”

Meanwhile, Viets during the development stage is doing his own vetting. Does the attorney have the expertise to implement complex strategies? How much of a student is he of the estate-planning process? What’s his client profile? Does he work with CPAs Viets works with? Does he work with banks that have a lot of private banking relationships? Does he belong to a specific country club?

After that, if Viets wants to pursue the relationship, he will refer a couple of clients that need legal services in the estate-planning area. “With attorneys, you have to give them something,” he adds. “The only way to enhance the relationship is by working a couple of cases together. I’ll bring one or two cases to the attorney at that point to see if the relationship continues to be as strong as I thought it might be.”

Also, according to Viets, the relationship does not begin and end in the office.

“The relationship-building that needs to happen is a combination of mutual respect technically as well as a strong social bond. It can’t be solely business. There has to be some social interaction or outside activity — golf or involvement in common charities — that allows the relationship to broaden,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s quid pro quo and that typically doesn’t work at this level. There has to be something deeper, something real. It’s a character issue.”

Viets’ relationships, in fact, have gone so deep that he now does financial planning for most of the six attorneys with whom he works.

A couple of other pointers from Viets: Consider working with a mix of attorneys. There could be political or personality conflicts that would make one attorney more suitable for a client than another. And start cultivating these relationships early.

Competence is Key

Estate-planning attorney Charlie Nash has had a lot of financial advisors make runs at him over the years. Most of them didn’t get close. Mark Thompson, and a couple of others, did.

“Mark contacted me years ago and said, ‘I’d like to break bread with you, get to know you, have lunch.’ I’d always heard good things about him, even from his competitors. That doesn’t happen often,” says Nash. He’d also heard good things from a couple of difficult clients the two men had in common. “They said all the right things. As time went on, I learned more, observed his style and approach, the way he treats clients. Some attorneys won’t refer clients to anybody because they’re scared it could reflect badly on them. I don’t mind referring to people I feel are honest, competent, and are in it for the right reasons.”

Nash says it’s important for financial advisors to educate the attorney about what they do and how they approach their clients. Also key in early conversations is a run-down on what the advisor can bring to the table for the attorney’s clients.

“If you have people coming at this from the right direction, meaning what is truly best for the client, if everybody is on that page and people are competent in their fields, the client benefits,” adds Nash. “Some [financial advisors] just aren’t competent. They might have their heart in the right place, but don’t have the knowledge or skills to be embarking in that direction. But if I have a client who expresses dissatisfaction with an existing advisor, I feel very comfortable saying: ‘Here’s a good person I’ve had experience with. I think you’d like him, like his style. Why not sit down and see if the chemistry is there?’ Sometimes, I give more than one name.”

Nash’s clients range in net worth from $4 million to $15 million. He makes up to three dozen referrals a year.


Tips on How to Form an Attorney Alliance

o Look for attorneys who share your ethical and practice standards.

o Attend estate-planning council meetings, a source of good candidates.

o As an ice-breaker, send the attorney a news article of interest.

o Take the attorney out for coffee or breakfast, before billable hours.

o Identify sharp up-and-comers and let them know you can make referrals that may help them advance to partner.


Ellen Uzelac is a freelance writer and contributing editor.


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