Building a Successful Practice: Business Development From the Perspective of The Estate Planning Lawyer

By Stuart C. Bear and Ryan M. Prochaska

Just thinking about implementing and funding a marketing plan to build your estate planning practice can be not only daunting but expensive. Complex marketing schemes, however, are not the only way to develop a practice and can miss the core of what clients and peers find most valuable: lasting relationships. Although any successful practice is transactional in nature, it is ultimately dependent on the ability to build and maintain relationships; clients, referral sources, and other attorneys need to know you, like you, and, most importantly, trust you. This article describes ten tips for facilitating trust and the likelihood of referrals. Although the focus is business development for estate planning attorneys, the information is applicable across practice areas.

  1. PROVIDE EXCELLENT LEGAL WORK.

Provide excellent legal work and outstanding service to your clients. A client who has a positive experience is likely to make referrals. Conversely, a client who has a negative experience will not make referrals and is more likely to share their negative experience by word of mouth or through online forums.

For many individuals, their first experience working with an attorney is establishing their estate plan. Due to the personal nature of estate planning, if you provide excellent legal work, you will become the “family attorney.” Any time your client has a legal issue or knows someone who has a legal issue, regardless of whether it involves estate planning, they will reach out to you. This is an especially important source of business origination if you work for a general practice firm and can refer these matters to your colleagues. If you need to refer the matter to an attorney outside your firm this will increase the likelihood of return referrals.

  1. COMMUNICATION.

Communication is a crucial aspect of client satisfaction. Promptly responding to client phone calls and emails is vital to client satisfaction. Increased communication between you and your client ensures you will capture your client’s wishes and helps develop a relationship with your client. Consider charging a fixed fee for estate planning matters. A client who is worried they will be charged for every phone call or email is less likely to reach out with questions.

It is equally important to promptly respond to communications from a client’s team of professional advisors. Seek the client’s consent to include his or her professional advisors on all written correspondence. When a client’s estate plan is complete, provide the advisors with a complete set of executed documents. Additionally, provide direction to any advisors assisting in re-titling assets and updating beneficiary designations. The easier you make the advisors’ job, the more likely they are to make future referrals.

  1. BE A RESOURCE.

If a client has a legal question, you want to be the first person they contact. If you do not know the answer, find the answer. If the matter is outside of your practice area or expertise, find someone who has the answer.

If a referral source has a legal question concerning a client of theirs that you have not established an attorney-client relationship, be as helpful as possible without providing legal advice. Offer to review the matter and speak with their client free of charge. At the end of the consultation, identify the issue, inform the referral what you can do to help, and provide an estimate of the costs involved.

  1. HOST FAMILY MEETINGS.

After a client’s estate plan is complete, offer to host and conduct a family meeting to review their estate plan. Without disclosing specific financial information, summarize the distribution of assets and selection of fiduciaries as well as the duties of each fiduciary. The family meeting benefits the client by promoting family unity and harmony by creating transparency and eliminating surprises after death. It also allows the attorney to meet and develop a relationship with the next generation.

  1. REVIEW ESTATE PLANNING DOCUMENTS.

An estate plan is not meant to be placed on a shelf to gather dust. The shelf life for any good estate plan is three to five years. Meet with your clients every few years, free of charge, to review their estate plan. If you simply prepare the estate plan, the client will likely get to know you and may even like you. If you meet with your client every three to five years, you will establish a relationship and your client will grow to trust you. If your client trusts you, they will make referrals.

  1. DEVELOP AREA OF EXPERTISE.

An excellent way to obtain referrals from fellow estate planners within your jurisdiction is to develop an expertise in niche areas of estate planning such as asset-protection planning and special needs planning. Most large and national law firms do not practice in these areas as they are not traditionally seen as “money makers,” and many small firms and solo practitioners are busy enough with traditional estate planning matters that they do not want to handle these matters and risk malpractice given the complexities of these areas of planning.

  1. BE VISIBLE.

Being an expert is not enough. To make referrals, fellow practitioners and professional advisors need to know you are an expert. Present at continuing legal education (CLE) seminars, including practice-wide seminars, i.e., a probate and trust conference, financial-planning seminars, and accounting seminars. Publish written materials, whether it be a formal publication or personal blog. Actively participate in state bar committees and message boards. Advertise your speaking engagements and publications on your firm website, and other social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

  1. BE INVOLVED IN THE COMMUNITY.

It is important for clients, professional advisors, and attorneys to see you in the community. Be involved in something you genuinely care about. It is typically apparent if you are involved for the sake of being involved and it is not something you are passionate about.

  1. ENROLL IN STATE AND NATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS.

One way to obtain referrals from estate planning attorneys outside of your jurisdiction is to become a member of national organizations such as the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). Many organizations provide an online directory of its members that allow others to locate an attorney in a specific location. Complete your biography and include a picture to increase the likelihood of obtaining a referral.

  1. JOIN A STUDY GROUP.

Join and actively participating in a study group. This is an excellent way for fellow estate planning attorneys in your area to get to know you, like you, and trust you. If a study group member is unable to take on a matter due to a conflict, you become a trusted referral source. Study groups are also an excellent resource to further your own personal knowledge and stay updated on changes in the law.

Instead of trying to establish a marketing plan, which can be costly and difficult to evaluate, consider smaller, more actionable changes you can implement in your daily practice. What increases referrals and client retention is not well-placed advertisements or catchy slogans, but lasting relationships among communities, clients, and attorneys. This article provides basic methods for developing these relationships in your own practice and community. To the extent you can assess the marketing you have done, consider dropping the least effective initiatives and refocusing your time and effort on the ideas discussed in this article.

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