Before hiring a wills & trusts lawyer to guide you, your family or
your business, ask these questions to ensure that you don’t end up
paying a whole lot of money for services that are not what you need,
expect or want. Hiring an attorney does not have to be a fearful
experience. Instead, it can be the most empowered decision you ever
make for yourself.
1. What will happen during an initial meeting with your office and how much will it cost?
When you begin to consider getting your legal and financial
affairs in order, the first thing to do is call the offices of lawyers
who you will meet with to handle your planning.
This is a great opportunity for a first level screening to find
the right lawyer for you, your family and your business. Pay attention
to how the phones are answered by the office team. You want to find a
lawyer who has a live person answering the phones who can answer quick
questions for you when you are a client.
When you do talk with someone on the phone, be sure to ask what
will happen at the initial meeting and whether there will be a charge
for the meeting.
Look for an educational initial meeting. Ideally, the purpose of
the first meeting with your lawyer is not just to get to know him or
her, but to provide you with specific guidance and information that
will benefit you, your family and your business.
You want to leave this meeting with a clear action plan for what
your next steps are to ensure your financial and legal affairs and
business are set up the best possible way for your family.
Now, it may be that you have to pay for this guidance so don’t be
afraid to do that because it can be a hugely valuable education. The
key is, you want to know what the cost is going to be upfront so there
are no surprises.
Don’t expect to get valuable information that will help your
family during a free initial consultation. When a lawyer routinely
gives away their time for a free initial consultation it’s not to give
you an education, it’s so you can meet the lawyer and decide whether
you want to work with him or her. Don’t expect free legal guidance.
2. Are all of your fees flat fees? What is included in the flat fee? What is NOT included in the flat fee?
You want to be sure that you avoid a nasty surprise down the road.
Some attorneys will indicate that they use flat fees, but then may tack
on additional charges such a photocopying, telephone, courier, postage,
recording fees and other expenses. While it may be reasonable in some
instances to add on such fees, you want to make sure that you set the
proper expectations up front so you don’t end up with a surprise bill
in the mail.
3. Does my planning fee include a regular review of my legal documents?
What if I want to make changes later? What about on-going work after
completion of my initial plan?
Far too often today, families put in place legal documents and
think “great, that’s done”, now I don’t have to think about that
anymore. Then, the end of their life comes or a crisis pops up and
their family finds out that the documents are out of date and the
assets aren’t owned properly anyway. Then, the plan fails. Or, business
owners set up an entity to shield their personal assets from their
business, but then fail to operate the business properly and keep their
entity in compliance. Then, the business plan fails.
I blame these failures on lawyers who don’t set the right expectations for their clients.
The truth of the matter is, with estate planning, you can’t set it
and forget it. Your wills and trusts and your business documents are
living documents that need to be reviewed and updated throughout your
personal or business life. And you want to find a lawyer who will keep
everything up to date for you, review your documents regularly, and
offer a program to provide you with continuing guidance on an ongoing
basis without hourly fees.
Look for a lawyer who has a membership program or ongoing service
program so you can reach out to your lawyer on an ongoing basis for
legal, financial and business consultation without worrying about being
nickled and dimed. Oh, and be sure your lawyer isn’t going to charge
you for photocopies and faxes!
4. Do you make sure my assets are titled in the right way and my business stays in compliance?
You can have the best business structure and the best legal plan
set up for your family, but if your assets are not titled and
structured properly and if your business does not stay in compliance,
it’s all a false sense of security because when push comes to shove and
a crisis happens, those legal documents won’t work.
Make absolutely sure that the lawyer you are working with is not
only going to put legal documents in place for you, but is also going
to finish the job by ensuring your assets are structured properly and
your business stays in full compliance.
5. Can you help me make smart choices about things like buying insurance, saving for college, and retirement planning?
Your personal lawyer can and should help you make decisions not
only about things like legal documents, but also about things like
buying insurance, saving for college, planning for retirement and all
the other challenging decisions that will come up along the way of your
life and your business. Your business lawyer should be keeping you
informed about things like hiring and firing, trademarking and
copyrighting, and growing your business.
This doesn’t mean your lawyer needs to be licensed to sell
insurance or financial products or practice employment law or
intellectual property, just that they have a big enough breadth of
experience and knowledge and access to the appropriate resources that
they can be a trusted advisor to you on these issues helping you avoid
6. Do you have a process for helping me capture and pass on my
intangible wealth, such as my intellectual, spiritual and human assets
or who I am and what’s important to me or do you primarily focus on
There’s a movement happening in the world in which we are finally
beginning to realize that our wealth is far greater than the sum total
of the dollars in our bank, brokerage and retirement accounts. In fact,
many of us are becoming aware that our intangible assets are much more
When you are working with a personal lawyer, be sure to find a
lawyer who will help you to capture, document and pass on not just your
financial assets, but ALL of your assets, including the most often
overlooked intangible assets, like who you are and what’s important to
Your lawyer should have in place an actual process so that when
your planning is complete, you have created either written or recorded
messages to your loved ones that pass on your values, stories, insights
7. How are you able to be responsive to my needs on an ongoing basis?
One of the biggest complaints people have about working with a
lawyer is that lawyers are notorious for not being responsive. In fact,
I’ve heard of situations in which clients have gone weeks without
getting a call back from their lawyer.
This generally happens when a lawyer does not have enough
administrative support in his or her office. Far too many lawyers
believe they can take care of everything in and around their office
themselves, from paperwork to client meetings to calendaring to
returning phone calls to connecting with their clients other advisors,
the list goes on and on. Truth is, a lawyer who is a true solo
practitioner without administrative support or in a firm without
adequate support will become overwhelmed and non-responsive to your
You can and should ask your lawyer how he or she will respond to
your ongoing needs, how quickly calls are returned in the office, if
there is someone on hand to answer quick questions and if you should
expect to get right through to your lawyer when you call the office.
A great way to test this is to call your prospective lawyer’s
office and ask for him or her. If you get put right through or even
worse sent to a voicemail, think twice about hiring this lawyer because
it means they do not have effective systems in place for managing and
responding to calls or answering your quick questions. Instead, what
you want is for the person answering the phone or another team member
to offer to help you and if he or she cannot then to schedule a call
for you to talk with your lawyer at a future date and time when he or
she will be ready to focus on your matter.
Your lawyer cannot be effective and efficient if he or she is
taking every call that comes through to him or her – all calls should
be pre-scheduled when you are both ready and your lawyer can focus on
your specific needs.
8. How will you proactively communicate with me on an ongoing basis?
Unfortunately, most lawyers do a horrible job of proactively
communicating with their clients on an ongoing basis. The general
thinking in the legal industry is that legal work is transactional in
nature and clients will call when something changes. But, this is
faulty thinking and in my opinion just pure laziness on the part of
You want to look for a lawyer who will proactively communicate
with you at least quarterly by mail via an informative, easy to read
newsletter and monthly by email. I prefer to hear from the
professionals I work with monthly by mail and weekly by email, but
progress can only happen so fast.
If you are considering hiring a lawyer who does not proactively
communicate with his or her clients, think again. This lawyer might be
stuck in an old, outdated mindset that won’t serve your needs in the
best possible way.
Don’t be afraid to ask these questions for you hire a lawyer to work
with your family on your personal and business legal planning. You need
to be satisfied by the answers you receive to these questions, as they
often sneak up on families after-the-fact, and can be a major drain on
your family’s cashflow.