At Morris Legal and Tax LLC, we take a client service approach that is much different than most law firms. As an active member in many Georgia Bar and Atlanta Bar activities and sections, we are often asked by other attorneys why we do things the way that we do. The simple answer is that we want to help people identify and achieve their financial and family goals. The more important question is how we go about doing this.
We lean heavily on our non-legal backgrounds in personal financial planning when working in wealth management law. We take a multi-disciplined approach by working with a team of financial planners and advisors who are non-lawyers. Within our team, we can do a great deal of work without having to bother the client to get the same information that another team member already has. When it comes to estate planning for example, clients don’t think about how much life insurance they need, or how their will or trust should be drafted, and they certainly don’t think about how they need to title insurance and other property or name the beneficiaries properly in order to mesh with the will or trust. What the client is typically thinking about with regard to estate planning is “if something happens to me, I want my spouse and children to be taken care of.”
A lawyer who sees the drafting of the will or trust as the estate plan is doing their clients a grave disservice. The legal aspect is only one part of the estate plan. The will may be drafted to create a trust that provides for the children with all sorts of great tax savings and asset protection, but if there is not enough money going into the trust to actually take advantage of the tax savings, protect the assets, and ultimately take care of the children, then the estate plan fails.
We have dealt with many cases where the decedent had a will that established a trust for their children, and the client had named their minor children as the beneficiaries of their life insurance and investment accounts. The end result is that, upon death, the money would go directly to the children and never reach the trust. Instead of the clients’ trustee of choice managing the assets and distributing the money as needed for the children, someone else less capable might petition the court to become custodian of the funds for the children. That custodian must post a bond, costing upwards of 10% of the total value of the estate, and the custodian must have a good enough credit score to qualify for the bond. There are several cases in Georgia where no one in the family had the credit or the money to get a bond, so the life insurance company had to hold onto the money until the minor child, who had been named as the beneficiary, turned 18.
Often times, the children’s trust is not only created to care for the children while they are minors, but to prevent the myriad of bad financial decisions that young adults make when handed a large chunk of money. If the money does not make it into the trust, but instead ends up in a custodial account for the child, then the child receives unfettered access to the money at age 18, which most clients would rather not happen. By working as a team with insurance agents and financial advisors, we are able to deliver and implement a truly comprehensive plan to our clients that actually meets their goals.
Convenience and Easy Access for Clients
We always respond to emails and phone calls within one business day and we make ourselves available to meet with clients in evenings and on weekends at whatever location is most convenient for them. Most of our clients are married couples whom we represent jointly, and many of them have children. It is difficult for them to find childcare, and to both make it through Atlanta traffic to get to our office for a meeting, especially during typical office hours. We can usually hear a loud sigh of relief over the phone when we suggest that we meet at their house one morning before work, one evening after work, or on a weekend.
In addition to the scheduling benefit, we find that clients feel more comfortable and are much more open about their families, their concerns, and their goals when they are in the familiar setting of their own home or office. The estate planning work that we do really centers around the clients’ family issues and the clients’ individual goals and concerns. The discussions that we must have with clients in order to represent them well are very personal and intimate. The more comfortable the clients are about the whole situation, the more we can learn about them, and the better service we can provide to them.
While we do find value in meeting with clients face-to-face because of the non-verbal communication that enhances both the relationship and the understanding of complex issues, we also communicate often with clients via telephone, email, and even text message. Although we believe that the legal projects that we take on for our clients are very important, we understand that our services are rarely the highest priority in our clients’ lives. Therefore, we do whatever we can to make it easier for our clients to get their various legal projects completed.
Listen to the Client
No lawyer would admit that they do not listen to their clients. However, if the client is not comfortable opening up, or if the client does not take the time to fully explain their situation and ask all of their questions because they are trying to keep the billable hours down, then what exactly is the lawyer listening to? The lawyer may be listening to a truncated version of the client’s story. The client, without the proper education and training, only thinks they know which facts have legal significance, and so the client leaves out some of the most important information. The end result is that the lawyer creates an incomplete document because it is based on incomplete information. By providing a more comfortable process with respect to location, scheduling, and pricing, we are able to gather better information from our clients, and in turn, we are able to provide higher quality service to them.
We give flat, guaranteed pricing for almost every project. There are no billable hours that can grow if the client has a lot of questions, if we are inefficient or working slowly, and there are no additional filing fees or printing costs added to the bill. Everything is included in the up-front, guaranteed price quoted in the client engagement letter.
With an hourly rate, the clients can feel the meter ticking as they are discussing important family and legal issues, and they attempt to shorten the conversations as much as possible. When a client knows that the price will not change if they ask more questions or provide more information, then the client is willing to share more information with us that may be pertinent to their case. The client also takes the time to learn and understand their options before making choices. The end result is a much better service which we have provided.
Most of our clients are individuals who are paying the legal bill out of their own pockets. Furthermore, the financial planning and estate planning services we provide are not an immediate need in the clients’ minds, so pricing makes a big difference in how quickly they move forward, and if they even move forward at all. We are yet to find a client who has seen the value in the amount of time that we have spent on their case. They see the value in the documents that get drafted or the tax savings that they have received, therefore, we charge them for what they find value in. Additionally, we do not ever have to explain to a client why it took us so long to do something, or why the bill is higher than estimated; therefore we can devote more time to serving our clients since we never have to haggle over the bill.