Zachary B. Setzer
I used to believe that I went to law school a year too late. I needed to take a year after graduating from Chapel Hill to figure out whether I wanted to go to law school or divinity school. Taking that year off meant the difference between having my choice of prestigious jobs at major law firms, as the law school class ahead of me had, versus entering the job market during the height of the worst legal job market in living memory. Despite graduating with honors from one of the best law schools in the country and being a law review editor, I couldn’t get a job with one of those big law firms. I couldn’t even get a job at a smaller law firm. In that one year, law firms had stopped hiring. I thought, “What rotten luck.”
After searching and searching and searching for a job, I decided to take matters into my own hands. And so it was that I took a $1,500 loan from my mom and started my own law firm. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done! How do I start a business and a career as an attorney with no business management experience and no real world law practice experience? But I had no choice, so I soldiered on. I wasn’t sure what kind of law interested me the most, but that didn’t really matter because I couldn’t afford to be picky. My only rule was that I didn’t want to defend criminals.
For nine months I took every non-criminal case that came through the door. I initially thought that my competitive side would make me well-suited to be a trial lawyer. I believed that I could be a better lawyer than most, and I desperately wanted to win. I needed to win. Not just for my clients but for myself too.
It didn’t take long to learn that no matter how good a lawyer I was, I was going to lose sometimes. And I couldn’t accept losing as a routine part of life. I cared too much. Then, I had a revelation.
I realized that I didn’t want to be the kind of lawyer who gets involved in conflicts. I wanted to be the kind of lawyer who prevents conflicts and helps people to prosper. I wanted to protect people.
I decided that I wanted to focus my practice exclusively on estate planning. That was a big step in the right direction for me because it allowed me to help my clients plan for their families and avoid conflict down the road. The problem was that even though I knew what I wanted to do for my clients, I had not figured out how to give them everything they needed. Without consciously realizing it, I had chosen a business model in which I offered a bare-bones service at a bare-bones price.
The bare-bones service I offered was a package of legal documents that I personally tailored to each client. That was the service I offered because it was what all the other lawyers did. I thought my competitive advantage was that I offered the same service at a lower fee. I tried to add value by being available all day every day to take calls and answer questions from clients and by doing everything myself.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that instead of adding value, I was ruining my productivity, causing everything to take longer than it should, and causing embarrassing mistakes in my work, which I then had to correct at no charge. I was spread too thin and didn’t have systems to promote efficiency and accuracy in my work.
Despite my efforts to add value for my clients, I was spending half my time chasing my tail. And on top of that, I knew there was more I could do for my clients. I knew that most of my clients were taking their documents home and forgetting about them. I knew that many of them would not think to revisit their plan periodically to make sure it still reflects their circumstances and their wishes. I knew that some of them probably did not bother to take care of the homework I gave them after they signed their documents, which would cause their plans to be useless when they were needed most.
One of my clients recounted the story of how her father died with a living trust. She, her siblings, and her mother were shocked to find that he had never put his property into the trust during his lifetime, which made the trust absolutely useless. All of the planning he had done, not to mention the thousands of dollars he paid, was a waste. His property was distributed according to the state’s rules for people who die without a will.
That story made me realize that I needed to change the way I take care of my own clients because that story could have happened to any of my own clients.
Now, instead of trying to add value by doing less and doing it all myself (which sounds crazy in hindsight), my firm adds value by taking a team approach to doing more for our clients. In fact, we do several things that other firms don’t do.
First, we never charge an hourly fee for estate planning. All of our planning services (and almost all of our other services) are offered on a flat fee basis with several flexible payment options. Our fees are always quoted up front so that you will never suffer the shock of an unexpected invoice. This means that you can always feel free to call us with your questions as they arise without fearing the bill that will follow.
Second, we commit to an ongoing relationship with every client. Instead of sending you home with a binder full of documents and never seeing you again, we will give you all the assistance you need to put your plan into effect. Not only that, but we will even call regularly to follow up and make sure that everything gets done right. And if you are uncomfortable doing it yourself, we will do it for you!
But the relationship doesn’t end there. All of our service levels include a free estate plan check-up every three years so that we can ensure that your plan keeps up with your changing life. You can also sign up for one of our membership plans to take advantage of our many enhanced services, including annual estate plan check-ups, unlimited plan revisions, 24/7 online access to copies of your estate planning documents, and even comprehensive planning meetings with your other trusted advisors to ensure that all aspects of your financial and life planning are in sync.
Third, we help you ensure that your kids will never end up in the custody of someone you would never choose in the event you are killed or hospitalized. Nearly all lawyers will give you a guardianship provision in your will and stop there. That’s just not enough. A guardianship provision in a will does nothing until your will is probated and a legal guardianship proceeding is completed. This can take weeks or even months! And a guardianship provision in your will does absolutely nothing if you are hospitalized or otherwise incapacitated. Our comprehensive Kids Protection Plans ensure that your kids are cared for by someone you trust at all times and in all circumstances.
Finally, we help you preserve and pass on the aspects of your legacy that traditional estate planning ignores—the human aspects. I learned the importance of preserving a personal legacy first-hand. In August of 2010, my grandfather (we called him PawPaw), gave me a birthday check for $100. When I went to cash it, I noticed he had accidentally dated the check “20010”. Realizing I would probably not live to see the year 20010, I kept the check in my wallet, meaning to have him write a new check with the right date. But soon after my birthday he started getting sick. Prostate cancer took him away from us on All Saints Day, November 1.
He didn’t leave much behind. My family has cherished every random bit of paper we could find that had his handwriting on it. I still carry that birthday check in my wallet to remind me of my PawPaw.
There is so much we could have done to preserve more of his personal legacy—his stories, his values, his religious convictions, and even the sound of his voice. Instead, all we have are fading memories. Through our process, you will leave your family a lasting record of who you are as a person and the things that are important to you in life. Believe me when I say that they will be so thankful you did.
I hope you can tell how excited I am about all of the new and different ways we have found to serve our clients! I began this story by saying that I used to think I had rotten luck because of the way that extra year between college and law school changed my career path. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I realize now that it was one of the greatest blessings of my life. If I had ended up working at a big law firm, I would never have ended up where I am today, offering what I honestly believe is the best, most comprehensive estate planning service for young families in the Charlotte area. If you have a busy life, love your kids, and want to make sure they will be taken care of no matter what happens, give us a call to request a free information packet that will tell you all about our unique approach to family estate planning.