Estate Planning Strategies Learned from 36 Years of Practice: Pay-As-You-Go and Fixed Fees, Probate Advice, and the Importance of Cultivating Empathy for Grieving Clients

February 13th, 2017

Welcome, everyone. I’m excited about today’s episode. We interviewed provider attorney Robert Muehlenweg, who is one of our estate planning provider attorneys in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A lot of the interviewees we’ve had on this show have been family law and immigration providers. So we wanted to get someone that can give us some advice on fielding estate leads, and also from the perspective of having 37 years of practicing experience as well. That’s what this episode turned out to be. He covers a lot of things, from working with clients on an unbundled basis, hour by hour, giving advice to the full representation options. He also does fixed fees and talks about some of the best practices for determining what those fixed fees would be, and how to handle that within the initial consultation. We also talk about him enrolling a lot of his clients right over the phone without them having to come into the office, and how to feel out whether that’s a possibility.

He talks about old school clients versus the new school. The new school is a younger generation, familiar with texting and working with things electronically. Versus the old school clients, clients that are just going to be more comfortable working with you in person. Finally, we also talk about the emotional components of doing estate law. How to be sensitive to that and to work with folks in a way that is respectful to that, and can help them make these transitions. And help them handle these issues in a way that honors the profession and honors their unique circumstances. So it’s a really great episode with an attorney that’s been practicing for many, many years and focuses on this area of law. So, let’s great right into it, this interview with Bob Muehlenweg, one of our provider attorneys out of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Below is the transcription of this episode from our Unbundled Attorney Mastermind Podcast. You can listen to the entire episode by clicking here.

David Aarons: Bob, welcome to the show.

Robert Muehlenweg: Thank you, happy to join.

Dave Aarons: Yeah. Really glad that we’re getting a chance to chat with you, and it’s right after the New Year. So it’s a refresher, and a good time to take a look at what’s worked well and what are the areas that we can all improve on. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you specifically, because you’re one of our estate planning lawyers. The majority of the interviewees we’ve had on the show have been family law and immigration. So really looking forward to diving in and talking to you more about the estate leads, and the process you’ve developed in order to contact and develop those into paying clients. I appreciate you taking the time to just share your insights today.

Robert Muehlenweg: Sure, happy to.

Dave Aarons: Yeah. Maybe, Bob, just so folks can get to know you a little better, is share a little bit about your background. How you ended up starting a practice of law, or at least the [inaudible 00:02:56] was some time ago, but feel free to share a little bit of your background. Who you are and the types of regions you service, and the focus of your practice.

Robert Muehlenweg: Sure. I’ve been practicing for 36 years, which is, frankly, a pretty long time. I’m in a four-person firm. Our firm primarily focuses on business, labor law matters, both in terms of litigation as well as transactional work. On the business side, a chunk of what we do is estate planning and probate. The estate planning includes both individual family planning, as well as business financial planning as part of those services. Primarily, the estate planning focus of our practice is to families who need to have basic estate planning documents. Whether they are wills, powers of attorney and medical directives, or for others revocable trust agreements as well.

Then on probate side, we’re in New Mexico. In New Mexico, we have statutory probate code; we have two general types of probate. One is called an informal probate, which is really an uncontested proceeding, where there are certain filings you need to make to get a personal representative appointed. So that they have authority to take action, to handle the estate assets and make distributions, and handle claims of creditors and so forth. We also have a formal probate procedure, which really is a contested probate procedure. Where there may be a question about the validity of a will, or you have different folks who have equal priority for appointment of personal representative. Who, neither one wants to let the other person do it, so we apply to the court to assist in getting someone appointed. So those are the general areas that we do. With respect to Unbundled, we’ve been getting both the state planning and probate referrals, and so that’s been the work we’ve been doing. We’ve been involved with Unbundled since last April.

Dave Aarons: That’s right, yep. That was right when we were just ramping up estate leads for the first time. So the volume has been consistent, gradually going up. Maybe you could talk a little bit about; you shared a few numbers on just what your conversion rate has been. We could talk about the types of cases you’ve been attracting, and then maybe dive into a little bit of your process you’ve developed to achieve the results.

Robert Muehlenweg: Certainly. Since April, we’ve received 22 leads from Unbundled Attorney. Of those leads, we’ve converted eight into actual client relationships. I think five of those have been estate-planning leads, where we’ve provided various aspects of the estate planning services, and three of those have been probate matters. With respect to the probate matters at this juncture, they’ve fallen into, really, three categories. One category is a probate that, unfortunately, is a contested probate. For that matter, the son of a woman who had died initially retained us. He was the named personal representative under her will. Initially, it appeared that it would be an uncontested probate. That is, in fact, how we initiated the probate proceedings.

Unfortunately, after that was done, it turned into a contested probate proceeding with regard to the primary asset of the estate, which is a house. There was a conflicting claim to the house by the boyfriend of the deceased. In that particular case, we had quoted a standard fixed fee for doing the uncontested probate. Then that converted into an hourly rate, in terms of dealing with the contested matters. That one just recently, we were able to settle and reach a resolution. The length of that was about six months, to work its way through the court system and get to mediation, and ultimately got to a satisfactory resolution for the client, the son of the deceased.

Another probate matter we have really is a pure uncontested probate where, again, the primary asset is the house. House within the deceased’s name and in New Mexico. In order to transfer title, you need to have a probate in order to get that moving. That one is still in process, but we’re going through the notice periods. For example, in New Mexico when you have a probate, you need to provide notice to creditors. There’s a catch-all way of giving notice through publication because in many cases you don’t necessarily know who the creditors are. In order to avoid creditor claims that might pop up down the road, you publish notice. Then under our statutes, they have a four-month period within which to assert their claims. You really can’t start making distributions to beneficiaries or transferring estate assets until the creditor period has expired.

In the third probate matter that we’ve handled, it has been more of an informal advice on an hour-by-hour charge. To an individual who is a beneficiary of the estate, but is not necessarily getting along with the actual named personal representative in the estate. So we’re assisting that person, really giving them guidance about the probate proceedings. The type of information that they’re entitled to receive from the personal representative, how the distribution process is supposed to work and that sort of thing.

Dave Aarons: How do you determine, in the process of working with these clients, whether it’s going … I mean, obviously, if someone’s needs to file an informal probate proceeding or formal probate proceeding, or they’re going to need someone to go to court with them or at least guide them on that. How have you been able to determine, so that’s pretty straightforward and, obviously, that’s what the services need to be provided that stage? For anything up to that, how do you determine how to structure the amount of service you’re providing to someone? Whether it be an hour by hour advice, whether it’s just giving guidance, whether you’re preparing documents for them or not. It sounds like you’ve been tailoring that to the specific needs of the client, based on where they’re at in the process and delivering those services accordingly. So you talk a little bit about how you structure that, and how do you come to that determination.

Robert Muehlenweg: Sure. In connection with an informal probate, there’s a list of the required documents that need to be prepared in order to move an informal probate through to completion. There’s a petition for appointment of the personal representative, there’s a notice to beneficiaries that need to be given. There are letters testamentary, which need to be issued by the court. There is the notice to creditors, which needs to be prepared, mailed out to known creditors, in some situations published for all other creditors. So there’s a series of documents that we know are required in connection with an informal probate proceeding.

For that, we have arrived at a standard fee that we charge for that. Assuming that it’s not going to turn into either a contested formal proceeding or if there’s a fight that develops down the road between the personal representative. Who is usually the client who has engaged us and some of the beneficiaries, or in a different situation, there might be a fight with creditors. Where a creditor is asserting a claim, which upon investigation doesn’t appear to be warranted. That ends up being, in essence, a mini-trial within the probate proceeding.

We have standard fees and fixed fees, which we charge for uncontested matters, and we advise the clients at the beginning. If it doesn’t appear that there’s going to be contested matters, that the fixed fee will cover the basic, informal probate proceeding. We let them know that if there are creditor claim challenges, or there are disputes with beneficiaries, or there is a challenge to either the appointment of the personal representative or the will itself, that those will need to be addressed on an hourly fee basis. We let them know what our hourly rates are. We can give them, in some situations, an estimate of what the fees would be, but it’s a dual engagement. They know what they’re getting for the fixed fee, and they know that if we go outside those parameters those additional services are going to be provided on an hourly basis.

Dave Aarons: Right, and then you have that in the agreements, so there’s clarity there. Also, you mentioned that there are some clients that are just coming in that you’re giving some guidance to. I know you were talking about the probate cases you receive, but you also had some folks that were coming in and just getting advice and guidance on how to address the issues. Can you talk about how that has worked out so far, and why you feel that that’s been a beneficial way to approach it for some cases?

Robert Muehlenweg: Sure. For some people, they do not need to have a lawyer involved to actually handle the probate proceeding. It could be that either they feel confident of handling it themselves, except for some of the more technical issues, or in the one case that I mentioned earlier. We’re representing a beneficiary, not the personal representative, and providing advice on an as-requested basis to the beneficiary about the probate process. So in that particular situation, after we ascertain the beneficiary’s position, we asked and frankly offered several options for them. They were a fairly well-educated individual, able to read documents, understand things. What they were really seeking was professional advice about the process in general, as well as advice on particular issues that might come up.

For that, we quoted them an hourly rate and gave them an estimate of what it would take. For example, to go through the basics of an informal probate proceeding, the types of information they’re entitled to receive, how long the process could generally take. What questions they’re entitled to ask of the personal representative, what financial information they’re entitled to. So we had an initial meeting with an hour of time allocated to that. Then they have called us periodically as the process has continued, asking about particular things. For that, we again charge hourly for a telephone call, or, in one instance, they asked us to help them write a letter requesting information. Again, that was done on an hourly basis.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, and this is where the unbundled crossroads of estate planning comes into play, where you’re really unbundling the scope of the practice. Down to providing limited advice, guidance, and allowing the client the freedom to handle some parts on their own, or to proceed in the case with just your guidance. Do you find that the clients appreciate that? Did you find that that’s beneficial to them? Obviously from a cost-saving standpoint, but also just being able to know that they have someone in their corner, to walk them through the process as they go through it.

Robert Muehlenweg: Yeah. I think a lot of clients do appreciate that, because in some of the estates or probates that we’re dealing with there really isn’t a lot of money involved. There might be a house that’s worth 150, 200 thousand dollars, but until that house is sold there aren’t funds available. Some of the beneficiaries, they’re not wealthy people. Certainly legal fees, even on a limited basis, can be a rather significant expense for those folks. I do think that, particularly for people who are relatively well educated, they might be college graduates. They might be an accountant, they might be involved as an engineer, but they’re just not familiar with the legal process. Having someone they can go to and get general advice as to how that works, what the expectations are, what the timeframes are, I think is very helpful for them. They know that it’s only going to cost them to the extent that they ask for that advice.

Dave Aarons: Right, so there’s a certain degree of security or just knowledge. Knowing that they can decide for themselves if they’re in a position or a crossroads, where they really need the guidance to get to the next phase of their case. Then it’s available for them, and they can do it on an hour-by-hour basis like you said. When there are limited assets involved and there isn’t a whole lot … Maybe finances on the line, financial assets on the line, or maybe they don’t have access to them until the estate is properly resolved. Surely that must be really helpful for folks that don’t have that financial ability, to still get the guidance they need to get through the process.

Robert Muehlenweg: Sure, yep.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, okay. Let’s talk a little bit about just the process you’ve been using to field the leads. Obviously, you haven’t worked family law or immigration leads in the past, so can’t really draw a comparison per se to that. Maybe we can just talk about, how are you currently receiving the leads? Obviously, they’re coming in through email. Who makes the initial contact and do you call the leads yourself, or do you have a secretary? Then, how does that initial call get set up?

Robert Muehlenweg:  I have handled a few of the calls, but I’ve got an associate who’s done a fair amount of estate planning and probate work. I cede most of those calls to him. He and I have discussed, and we’ve agreed upon the general topics that need to be gone through. It’s a different list if we’re talking about an estate planning referral than a probate referral. It’s a matter of finding out, and we try to peg it to a 15-minute conversation. We’re not always successful, but that’s what we try to do for that initial call. We figure that’s a long enough period of time if we structure the conversation and get into the particular needs that the client is bringing to us, to outline for them what their options are and whether it’s something we can help them with or not. Most of the time, for example, if it’s an estate planning issue, we find out if they have an estate plan already. Do they have wills? Do they have any familiarity with what documentation is generally needed? Are they looking for estate planning for themselves?

In some situations, we’ll get a call from a child who’s looking to have some estate planning done for their parents. So we try to figure out within that 15-minute period, is this something we can help them with? What is the scope of the services they’re looking for? For many people, they want to get a general idea of what it’s going to cost. We hadn’t talked previously about estate planning, but we have some standard fees that we charge for certain types of estate planning. If it’s an individual, for example, is wanting a relatively simple will, a durable power of attorney and a medical directive, we’ve got a fee that we will quote them to handle that work.

If it is a husband and wife, and they want to get basically wills, power of attorney and medical directives for both of them. We’ve got a fee that’s more expensive in order to handle that. Or if it’s someone looking for an inter vivos trust, which generally involves a trust, a pour-over will, or wills if it’s a couple for example. Again, powers of attorney, medical directives, we’ve got a fee for that. We try to get that number out in front of the client at the beginning, so that they know what they’re looking at and whether they’re willing to spend the money or not. There have been some referrals where we’ve gotten to the point of talking about what they need, we’ve quoted them the fee and they decide that they don’t want to move forward with it at this time.

There’s a couple that is out there that we, frankly, expect at some point will come back and initiates the process down the road. We’ve had several who, interestingly, they’ve gotten that number. They’ve gone out and tried to find somebody else, to see if they can get it at a less expensive price. They’ve come back to us, because we offer a pretty competitive price for the fixed fee type of work. We also make clear in the estate planning area, if they cooperate with us and provide us accurate, timely information, and, this is important, don’t change their minds, and then we can get through the process very efficiently. It’s a win-win deal for us and for them.

We have had a couple; in fact, we’ve got one right now, where the individual is a bit indecisive. They have a very large extended family. They’re trying to figure out what percentages to give to the different people, whether to have strings attached to some of the gifts. That substantially increases the amount of our work, because we’re no longer talking about a standard document. We’re talking about one that’s going to have rather lengthy dispositive provisions, and they’re changing over time. We have to be clear in our engagement, in letting the client know what it is we’re giving them for the fixed fee. If they want to go beyond that, that it’s going to be charged an additional fee, generally based upon our hourly rates.

Dave Aarons: Right. Bob, there may be some attorneys that are newer to estate planning, or are considering transitioning over into offering estate plan, or even taking estate planning leads for example. Or just have been doing it for some time, might be curious. Would you mind sharing whatever you feel open to share about the typically fixed fees you might quote? Obviously, every case is a little bit different based on what they need, but simple wills, couples. Just to give attorneys a context around what you quote, at least in the Albuquerque market, for these various different fixed fees. Then we can also maybe circle back on what you talked about, afar as setting the right client expectations as well.

Robert Muehlenweg: You know, I don’t want to give specific numbers. I could say, for, if you’re talking about simple wills, again with the powers of attorney and the medical directive. This also involves a certain amount of consultation time with the client, making sure that they have a good understanding of how their assets are held. For example their house, how is the title held if they own a house, their insurance policies, and their financial accounts? We quote a fee that’s below a thousand dollars for that. If it’s the husband and wife, and they’re looking to do an inter vivos trust, and it’s not overly complicated, the fees that we’re quoting are between a thousand and two thousand dollars.

Dave Aarons: Right. You’ve [inaudible 00:24:26] an incredible amount of experience working within this realm. You also have an associate, obviously, that works closely with it as well. Are there any pitfalls? I mean, you mentioned setting expectations when the client is indecisive about how they want to see their assets distributed, or the percentages if they want to get complicated about the way those distributions are going to be handled. Especially, like you said, when you have bigger families and maybe multiple beneficiaries. Can you talk about, maybe, some of the common pitfalls that you’ve maybe learned from or overcome over the years, in that conversation? To make sure that, especially when you’re dealing with a fixed fee, for example. How to set the appropriate expectation, when you have these types of factors that could influence the amount of time involved with being able to service their needs.

Robert Muehlenweg: I don’t know that there’s a perfect solution to that because there are certain situations where you don’t know up front how extensive their gifting concept is. Try to clarify up front in the initial conversation, how many children do they have, do they have others to whom they intend to provide gifts? Are they planning to make charitable contributions to different entities, either the church or an educational institution? So we try to gather a sense of how extensive their gifting is at the beginning. That will dictate, to some extent, the fixed fee that we’ll quote them. We do, in the initial conversation, make clear that in order for us to be able to do this efficiently, we need them to provide us with complete information. We can give them some options about the types of gifts people can make. It could be a percentage of their estate; it could be a percentage of the proceeds that might be received from the sale of a major asset. It could be a fixed dollar amount.

We talk about the strings that might be attached to it. For example, setting up testamentary trusts, or beneficiaries who might be below a particular age. So we do talk about that up front. If somebody has a very extensive family, or they express that they’re really trying to figure out how they want to provide for these gifts, we have an estate-planning questionnaire. Which we typically send to our estate planning clients, typically send it by email and we ask them to fill it out. It has, as well, a number of questions that they are asked. Not just about their background, where they have assets, who their children are, who the other beneficiaries are, but it gives them an opportunity to express what their desires are in terms of gifting. In those situations, if they’re pretty good about completing them and getting them back, then we’ve got a pretty good roadmap to proceed forward with.

There are those situations, again we’ve had several, where they’ve been indecisive, or they originally thought they wanted to do X, and then they changed their mind and they wanted to do Y. On those, we’ve made it clear in the engagement that we’re going to be charging them a little more money. In those situations, frankly, we’re giving people a break over the additional time that it’s taking us because we think that’s what we need to do. Because in some of these situations, they’re not wealthy people and they really couldn’t afford the full hourly rate that it takes to get the job done. That’s just one of the risks that you take when you get some of these clients.

Dave Aarons: Yeah. That’s the obvious concern for any attorney that is offering a fixed fee on any level. Is the concern that they’re going to offer a fixed fee and then it’s going to take a lot longer than they expected? One of the things that attorneys do with family law is they’ll do one task at a time. Unbundle it too, or they’ll do the limited scope document preparation and they might do a limited appearance. Do one step at a time and be very clear about each phase of the process, so that they can deliver parts of it. When it comes to estate planning, the fixed fees, it sounds like the quote you’re giving, or you may need to give, is a wholesome service quote. In other words, it’s the whole what it takes to get the whole thing done. So that’s where you have a little bit more of that balance of trying to figure out and trying to isolate and get down to, okay how’s this really going to go? So you can figure out what that fixed fee is.

Do you find that on that initial call you’re usually able to, by asking some of the questions you’ve talked about, I mean we can talk a bit more about some of those questions, that you’re able to very, very accurately give them an actual fixed fee amount? Or do you find you give them a range and then have them come in the office, and then you give them the exact amount? How do you find that balance, between obviously wanting to give people a straightforward price on what they can expect as a cost? On the other side, it still is just to that initial phone consultation. You might need more information in order to be able to give them an accurate expectation and not wanting to misquote, per se.

Robert Muehlenweg: In some of these it’s pretty easy to figure out what they’re looking for, and to give an actual fixed fee quote at the time of the initial conversation. There are those situations, again in the estate-planning context, where it’s not clear whether they need … It might be husband and wife. They might just need wills, versus going with a living trust. In that situation, we would quote a range. Then get that pinned down at the time they completed and brought in the estate planning questionnaire so that we had a better sense of whether a trust made more sense for them or not. In some of the calls, it’s clear that they don’t need a full estate plan. They don’t need a will; they don’t need power of attorney and a medical directive. They might need just something to help transfer a particular asset. For example, we have a statutory provision in New Mexico, which allows for real estate to be transferred via a transfer on death deed. We’ve done several of those for people.

We get a call from a child of an elderly person who owns a house, and they want to make sure that the house goes to two or three of the kids, or one kid, whatever. In the initial discussion, it’s clear that the transfer on death deed is the simplest and least expensive way to do that. We’ll quote them a fixed fee to do just that. It requires that they give us the conveyancing deed, and to the mom so that we know that she is in fact entitled. Then we can prepare the deed, and either handle the recording of that deed ourselves for an additional fee or give it to them to take down to the county clerk to handle recording themselves.

In other situations, they might just need a durable power of attorney. We had one, for example, where a family member was going in for major surgery. They didn’t have anybody who would be in a position to take action on their behalf if something came up and they were incapacitated for a period of time. We quoted a fee for just doing a durable power of attorney for a limited period to cover that. So we do unbundle a little bit in the estate-planning context, and we try to figure out up front if that’s something that makes sense for the person. Obviously, it ends up being less expensive for them if they’re looking for a limited solution instead of a complete estate planning solution.

Dave Aarons: Right, exactly. Let’s talk about just estate planning, and doing these more complete estate plans. I heard earlier on that you also do financial planning. It sounds like more of a holistic approach to looking at planning for their estate, but also protecting their estate. Can you talk a little bit about the financial component planning aspect, and how that plays itself into your estate practice? In working with these clients that are planning for the future, in death, and also for their families.

Robert Muehlenweg: Well, let me clarify. We’re not financial planners. For some clients, it’s clear that they need to have an expert in financial planning matters consult with them. Some people have financial planners. We’ve had a couple of clients who’ve come in for the estate planning, who have a fairly sizeable estate that’s invested in various things, but they don’t have an actual financial planner. We’ve got several folks that we can recommend to them, or we can suggest that they go talk to any brokers that they might know. We try to be careful not providing just limited individual referrals. We try to give people at least two or three if we’re going to make that recommendation. We make very clear to people if we’re making that recommendation, that these are people we’ve worked with before. We’re confident of their abilities, but they need to make their own decision. They need to be comfortable with that person.

What we do as part of estate planning though, that involves business planning, is a number of our clients in the firm are owners of closely held businesses. Dealing with their business succession plan generally also involves dealing with their personal estate planning. So, that is an area that we do a lot with. Where a person has owned a business, it could be very successful, but they’re the sole owner. They want to figure out how to exit the business and get paid off for doing that. In some situations, they might have children who are involved in the business. They might have younger partners in the business. So dealing with their business succession planning, generally, in those situations also involves dealing with their personal estate planning. They kind of go hand in hand. Because with many small business owners, certainly in New Mexico, a substantial portion of their total net worth is tied up in their business. Handling that necessarily involves dealing with their personal financial plan and personal estate plan as well.

Dave Aarons: Okay, great. I appreciate your insights on that. Getting back to a little bit on fielding the leads. Again, you mentioned that you have an associate that’s doing some of the calls; you’ve done some of the calls. Really, the phases, when the lead comes in, you guys will call them to set up the initial consultation. Do you typically do it right then and there if they’re available, and do that 15-minute evaluation? Then from there, the next phase is, at that point you’ve given them either a fixed fee quote. Isolated some of the issues or potential concerns you may have, to determine roughly what the scope of the amount of service you may need to provide them. You’ve given them either a fixed fee or a range of fees. The next step is for them to come in for a consultation, or is it for them to come in and pay for the execution of those documents? Is it one phase at a time, or do you do it all at once? What’s that next step that the client or the lead is then taking to engage your office, after that 15-minute call?

Robert Muehlenweg: Ideally, we try to have the first 15-minute consultation at the time of the first call and try to make a determination and reach an agreement that they’re either going to engage us or they’re not. If we get them to agree to engage us, typically we will then have an email address for them. In many of the referrals, we get that, along with the telephone number from the prospective client. We will email them an engagement letter that will confirm the scope of the engagement, the fee terms under which it’s provided.

What we do with most new clients, we give them an option, but we have a credit card authorization. It has certain parameters that they can specify, in terms of amounts and when the card can be charged and that sort of thing. We ask for either a retainer or a credit card authorization up to an agreed upon amount, at the time of that engagement. If it is done smoothly, after that 15 minutes conversation an engagement letter is prepared and sent out. The client will sign it; return it, together with either a retainer or their credit card authorization. Now we’re moving forward to performing the work.

In some situations, the 15-minute call doesn’t result in a decision about whether they’re going to retain us or not. They want to think about it. They might want to bring documentation in so that we can further explore what their situation is. What they actually are going to need in order for us to be able to give them a reasonable quotation, and for them to be comfortable engaging us or not. Some of our engagements never involve a direct personal contact with the individual. If somebody, for example, wants a transfer on death deed. They may provide us, by email, the information on the property, how it’s currently titled, and may request us to prepare the deed and email it back, and they’ll handle it from there. That is an option for some people.

Most of the time there is a personal meeting at some point, generally up front. Certainly, in the estate-planning context, if we’re doing the complete estate plan, we need to make sure that the estate planning documents are executed in the proper fashion. With disinterested witnesses and notary public. That’s part of the service that we provide, is that package. In probate matters, again, if it’s just general advice, we may be able to do that just by phone, by responding to emails, inquiries. Many times though, a lot of clients do want to have that personal interaction. There will be at least a meeting at some point so that they can put a face to the voice, and feel comfortable that this person on our end is handling their matters the way they would like.

Dave Aarons: Well, I tell you, Bob, I feel comfortable hearing your voice, so I’m not sure I would even need to do that. There is this, attorneys are trying to find that balance with Internet leads. On when would be the types of scenarios, or the types of clients or circumstances in which you could complete in a room with a client, essentially right over the phone. Which it sounds like, I don’t know if that’s the majority of the clients or just some of the clients, that’s been the case for you. You’ve been able to have clients where you do the initial consultation, you send out an electronic engagement agreement. They sign that, they do a credit card authorization and it’s all done over the phone. Some of the clients you may never meet, or some of them you may meet at a later date. It sounds like there are many clients that you’ve been able to, essentially, enroll over the phone, without having to come in the initial appointment.

Other times attorneys have found with Internet leads because they haven’t heard of the firm before or aren’t familiar with the brand, or don’t have an established relationship through referral through someone else or something. That giving the client the opportunity to come in the office and meet them sees the office and builds some of that relationship of trust has been a critical component of them being able to effectively convert their leads into paying clients. For you, have you found that the majority has been over the phone, or do you feel that some clients really do need to come in the office to make that determination? How do you feel that out, to figure out if that personal contact is what might be missing for them? Or what might be needed for them to take that next step and feel comfortable retaining you?

Robert Muehlenweg: I think that it depends on the comfort level that you can ascertain from that initial conversation. I liken it into two basic groups, there’s old school and new school. Certainly for older people, and frankly I put myself in that category, a lot of people are old school. That personal touch is part of what they want to have before they’re willing to commit to an engagement with a professional. That’s understandable, and we generally get that feeling during that conversation. For a lot of the younger folks that we deal with, it’s not as necessary. They’re accustomed to dealing with other people online, whether it’s on the phone, whether it’s texting, whether it’s by email. That’s the way they’ve grown up, and so they’re more comfortable with it.

The other thing we tell all of the folks online or on the phone, at the time of the initial consultation, is we’ve got a website and they can look us up on there. It shows our firm, it talks about our philosophy, and it shows what our offices look like. It shows what we look like and, unlike some people who touch up their pictures, we don’t. So it allows them to see that we are for real. I think it’s comforting to them that our firm has been around since 1993, so we’re going on 24 years as a firm. I think that also gives them a sense of comfort, that we’re not just a brand new firm that hasn’t been around, and knows what they’re doing. That personal touch is important, more so for some people than others. You just have to gage it by the interaction on the phone.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, absolutely. It certainly just comes from experience, and getting to know different kinds of folks and what’s going to help them feel more comfortable. Certainly, you can ask them of course, “Would you want to come in, or do you want to just engage over the phone, or do you want me to send an email contract?” Certainly, that’s a good way to determine as well, just to ask them. I guess, one of the last things I wanted to ask you about. You have, again, a lot of experience doing estate planning for many, many years. One of the things that I certainly appreciate, or notice, about the way in which you communicate, is it’s very relaxed. It’s calm. People, inevitably I would think, are going to be very comfortable.

That’s also been my experience and my background. The calmer I am, and the more relaxed and paced I am in the way I communicate with them, the more they can relax. Not feel like they’re being rushed and they’ve got to make a decision, it’s very low pressure. I know it’s sometimes challenging to analyze yourself in that way, but have you found that that’s always been your demeanor? Or do you make an attempt to try to be more calm and relaxed, and relate to people in that way? Especially with estate planning, because sometimes there isn’t the time factor and urgency like maybe family law would have. Such that you can sit back in your chair and just have more of a relaxed conversation. As opposed to, “Okay, are you ready to make this decision?” More of an urgent type of communication style.

Robert Muehlenweg: That’s a good question. I think part of it depends on the individual lawyer’s personality. I’m generally a fairly low-key person. I get aggressive when I need to be, but I tend to be relatively calm because life’s too short. You don’t need to be getting upset about things unless you really are pushed into a position where you have to. When clients are coming to a lawyer in an estate-planning context, it’s usually not an adversarial situation. It’s an important issue for many people, they put off estate planning. That’s just a fact. All of us don’t like to think about the fact that eventually we’re going to die, and so estate planning is a recognition that that is going to happen at some time. It needs to be a comforting conversation and it can’t be rushed.

Some of these people, frankly, have been thinking about estate planning for years. So trying to give them the bum’s rush and get them to commit to it in a 15-minute conversation, they may not appreciate it. I think you would tend to lose people if you push that hard. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to push them to make a commitment and making a decision. Because, a, it’s eating up your time, which is taking away time that you can spend pursuing other leads or do other work. It’s also helping them, by the mere fact that they’ve reached out. That they’ve sought a referral to get a lawyer, to talk about estate planning, tells me that they’re ready to move forward. They might just need a little extra pushing, and it’s helpful to do that in a way where they are going to feel comfortable.

In a probate context, somewhat different situation. Somebody already has died. It could be a close family member, typically it is. It’s a trying time anyway, and if you’re not going to be comforting to them, I mean, that is part of the service. Yes, you’re going to get them through the legal process of a probate, but you also need to help them get through the grieving process. We’re not mental health counselors, but part of what we do involves that. We need to recognize that if we’re going to provide this service.

Dave Aarons: Is there anything in that context that you’ve done over the years to become a better support? Not only in your communication for people that are considering estate planning, because that’s obviously, like you said, a very sensitive subject. Like you said, many times people have thought … Most people have thought about it for years. Eventually, they’re going to need to do that, and now they’re finally taking the action. You’ve got to nudge them to move forward, but also do it in a comforting way. Also helping folks that have lost a loved one or a family member, and help them deal with that. I don’t know if it would be books or training or any resources you could mention for attorneys that do estate planning. That could be helpful in that effect that has served you over the years, to explore.

Robert Muehlenweg: There’s only so much you can do when you’re reading books or going to a seminar.

Dave Aarons: Right.

Robert Muehlenweg: Part of it is, you have to go through the experience. Both of my parents passed away, I was the personal representative in both of their estates. My wife’s dad passed away a few years ago, I handled the family’s affairs with that. I’ve handled the estates of a number of long-term clients, who passed away over time. I had developed relationships with their family members, which is why I handled their probates. You don’t have a real appreciation for what people go through until you’ve been through it yourself. I wish you could read a book and figure it out, but you really can’t. One of the ways I think that people can get there, in terms of really understanding that, is trying to, if you’re in a firm where there are older lawyers and they’ve been doing it for a while, and they’ve been down this road. Try to work with them on some of these, and go through that experience. So that you can really get an appreciation for what the emotional process is for the family because it is difficult.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, absolutely. My own personal opinion, I think it’s one of the noblest … To be able to take someone through this process, and do it in a way that’s respectful and helps the family members resolve these things with the least amount of conflict possible, is a really noble profession. It’s shepherding people through one of the most difficult times of their life. Certainly, dealing with the legal aspects of it is going to be complicated and stressful no matter what. So your ability to empathize with that, and take them through that process in a way that acknowledges that, and does that in a way that helps them feel more comfortable. Process through that with the least amount of pain and struggle as possible is a really, really valuable service you’re providing to these folks and their families. I certainly appreciate what you’re doing and what all estate lawyers are doing. That’s certainly one of the reasons why we generate estate leads and are involved in this realm. So I really appreciate your perspective on it, and obviously your experience and taking the time today to share insights on how you work with these folks.

Robert Muehlenweg: Sure. I’m happy to do it.

Dave Aarons: Okay, so thanks again. With that, we’ll go ahead and wrap up this interview. For everyone else that’s listening, we certainly appreciate your participation in the podcast. Hope this episode was useful for you estate lawyers out there, which are learning how to field these leads and also work with these clients in the best way possible. If you’re enjoying the podcast, head over to iTunes, leave us a review. We really appreciate the feedback and it supports the show. So with that, we thank everyone for listening and we’ll see you all in the next episode. Thanks so much.

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Episode 25: Estate Planning Strategies Learned from 36 Years of Practice: Pay-As-You-Go and Fixed Fees, Probate Advice, and the Importance of Cultivating Empathy for Grieving Clients

After over 36 years of legal practice, Robert Muehlenweg has developed a well-defined strategy that provides affordable and compassionate estate planning services for his clients. Today he joins us on the show to share some of the unique service options he has developed, including pay-as-you-go, fixed fees, full representation services, and how he prices these options. We talk about how he fields the estate leads we send him, including his approach to the initial consultation, and how it allows him to enroll many of his “new school” clients right over the phone. He also shares some of the emotional skills of estate planning and probate, and how important it is to relate to clients in an empathic and sensitive manner.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • The differences between formal and informal probate issues, and how Robert handles each of them
  • The value of offering advice and coaching on an hour-by-hour basis, and some tips on how to do so effectively
  • How to determine whether to quote an exact fee or a fee range, and some typical price points for both
  • Questions to ask clients in order to determine the extent of their gifting, so you can determine the rate you wish to quote as a fixed fee
  • How the client’s indecision can impact the cost of services, and how to set proper expectations with a client in advance to avoid misunderstandings
  • The circumstances by which a simple transfer of death deed can accomplish your client’s goals more affordably
  • The difference between “old school” versus “new school” clients, and how this determines whether you should meet them in the office to enroll, or if you can sign them up right over the phone
  • The importance of appreciating the emotional components of estate planning and probate, and how to relate to your clients empathetically
  • How Bob has cultivated his sensitivity for grieving clients, and some recommendations for how other attorneys can develop this skill as well
  • And much more...

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