What is it like to work with an estate planning lawyer? (Step 1)

You may have gone your entire life never needing to hire, much less, interact with a lawyer, so it it's no surprise that you might not know exactly what to expect. In this next series of blog posts, my goal is to layout the general process of working with an estate planning lawyer. Hopefully, by understanding the basics, you will feel more comfortable about starting the important process for yourself and your family.

First Contact

As with any professional engagement, you will be calling or e-mailing the estate planning lawyer to find out about how he or she can help you. You might find your attorney in any number of ways, for example, through a general Google search, via Yelp, or specialized lawyer websites such as avvo.com. Whatever the avenue may be, you will be the one reaching out to the estate planning lawyer initially (for a number of reasons, a lawyer is unlikely to be the one "cold-calling" you to sell you services).

Details to Discuss

During your first call, there are a few general objectives you and the lawyer will have. Here are some of them:

  1. Find out whether you get good "vibes" from each other. Simply stated, do you feel confident that the lawyer knows what he or she is doing and vice versa; the lawyer will be assessing whether his or her skill set will be adequate to handle your situation.
  2. Specifics of what working with this estate planning lawyer is like. This would include details such as: (1) whether e-mail, physical letters, or phone calls are the best form of contact [note: many older estate planning lawyers rely heavily on physical mail rather than e-mail]; (2) what the lawyer's fee arrangement is [for example, you may discuss the amount of the retainer required and whether the lawyer charges by the hour or charges a flat rate; you can even ask about what a cost estimate would be for your estate plan]; (3) the timeline for completion of the estate planning documents [to some degree, this will also depend on how quickly you will be able to make decisions regarding your plan, but outside of this, the lawyer should be able to give you a good estimate].
  3. Information that will be helpful to the estate planning lawyer. To make your engagement go as smoothly as possible, it's a good idea to have the following information ready (preferably in a Word document or in an e-mail ready for whichever lawyer you ultimately decide to use): (1) personal information of you and your family, including name, address, phone number, e-mail address; (2) your family situation, for example, whether you have children from a prior marriage or your divorced, etc.; (3) copies of existing estate planning documents that you may have; (4) a list of your assets and the approximate value of each asset.

Setting a Meeting Date

After you've exchanged pleasantries and details about your estate planning situation, the lawyer or his or her assistant will often book a time to meet with you in person to go over the structuring of your estate plan. The estate planning lawyer may also send you a separate e-mail or questionnaire of additional questions to help the two of you have a productive meeting to discuss the finer details of your estate plan. (There is some homework for the lawyer to do, which I will discuss in the next blog post.)

So, there you have it, the first contact with your estate planning lawyer in a nutshell.