From time to time, our office receives a call from someone who has been a client (or was a client of one of the two firms whose files I’ve taken over) who wants to see a different attorney. Sometimes this is because they live too far away to easily travel to my office, or because they’re moving to another state and need help from an attorney in that state .. or maybe there’s an estate planning attorney in the extended family now, and they want to use that person instead.
This also might happen because my personality or our office policies aren’t a good match for someone, or because we made a mistake that’s caused someone to lose confidence in our office. (I wish I could say that we’ve never made a mistake – but anyone who tells you that is lying, and I’d rather be an honest person who makes mistakes than a liar.)
Often, the people who are seeing a new attorney are worried that they’re going to offend me or hurt my feelings by going to another firm.
As a general rule, it won’t hurt my feelings. I don’t always have my “attorney” hat on – the rest of the time, I’m a client just like everyone else. I pay other attorneys to do legal work for me because, in the (alleged) words of Abraham Lincoln, “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” I have a doctor and a dentist and interact with various other professionals in the course of my own life – and I know how it feels when I have to drive a long distance to take care of a simple matter, or if it feels like I just don’t see eye-to-eye with the other professional or their staff, or if I just feel like my needs have changed.
When I’ve only met with a client once (or never, and I’m just storing the file), I’m not going to take it personally, and neither does the staff in my office. The coming and going of clients and files is part of the natural flow of business – every month we get a few people who want to switch to our firm, and a few people who want to go somewhere else.
If I’ve worked with a particular client enough to really get to know them and like them as a person then yes, I’d feel bad, but I would still want that person to have representation they’re happy with versus sparing my feelings. I’m a professional, and nobody said that I’m entitled to have things go my way all of the time.
I am interested in the larger trend – if we consistently lose more files than we gain, for example, something is probably seriously wrong with what we’re doing – but at the individual level, we understand it’s not personal – unless it is, and then it’s a really good idea for you to switch firms.
So if you want or need to go somewhere else, there’s no hard feelings on our end. You’re welcome to come back someday if you want to – and if you don’t, we hope things work out well for you.
There are two other, slightly more cynical, reasons I don’t do free consultations.
The first is that there are some people in the world who have a lot of time on their hands, and as a result think their time isn’t valuable. These people also seem to think that my time isn’t valuable, either, and that it’s a good idea for us to spend a few hours talking about the vague possibility that at some point in the future they might potentially think about changing their trust, and/or putting together an estate plan. I’m really not interested in meeting with people who don’t think twice about meeting with 5 or 6 different attorneys (and burning up 10-12 hours of their time, and the attorneys’ time) before they’re even serious about planning.
The second is that once I’ve met with someone and discussed their situation, even in a “free consultation”, I am limited by the attorney ethics rules with respect to how I can interact with that person in the future. If, for example, someone comes to meet with me because they think they might be involved in a trust dispute and want to talk that over, and I discuss their circumstances with them, I will never be able to represent a different party with respect to that dispute, because I’ve already learned confidential information from the first person. Once I meet with that first person, I’m effectively disqualified from ever working on that matter for someone else, even if the first person doesn’t hire me. I think it’s only fair that I get paid for at least a little bit of my time if I’m going to agree to be permanently disqualified from ever working on a case in the future.
A recent post discussed the problem created by estate plans that aren’t updated to take advantange of recent changes in tax laws – or were never drafted with actual human beings in mind, just the tax code.
Specifically, it’s pretty common for a living trust for a married couple to mandate that the trust property be split into two different trusts upon the death of the first spouse. This is done partly to protect the estate from estate tax, and partly to make sure that some of the property will be distributed according to the wishes of the spouse who passed away.
This sort of planning is important if there’s enough property to worry seriously about estate tax; or if there’s a significant chance that the surviving spouse will frustrate the original estate plan.
On the other hand, there are a lot of families where there’s no serious risk of estate tax, and where the second spouse either wants or needs the flexibility to use/control all of the property .. or where the second spouse reasonably wants or needs to change the original distribution plan. (For example, if there are two or three children, and one of them quits their job or moves cross-country to care for the ailing surviving spouse, it’s not uncommon to see a disproportionate distribution of property to that child who made a big sacrifice to provide care and support for the parent.)
A well-drafted estate plan can include flexibility to allow the surviving spouse to allocate property between the A and B trusts after the first death. This isn’t necessarily what you’ll get from a trust mill, or from an attorney who isn’t interested enough to spend a few hours talking to you to understand your situation – but it is certainly possible. Two common approaches are called a “disclaimer trust” and a “Clayton election”.
I think this sort of planning is very important where, as now, it’s tough to know what the estate tax exemption amounts are going to be, and what the family is going to look like, upon the first (and second) deaths.