What’s your true value as an estate planning attorney? If you’re going to be successful, this is something that needs to be crystal clear to you and your staff, and it’s something that you need to be able to communicate in no uncertain terms to your clients and prospective clients. I’ll give you a hint – it’s not the documents you produce.
I’ve been reading about the latest lawsuit against LegalZoom. This one is a class action filed in California by a woman who is the niece and executor of the estate of LegalZoom client Anthony J. Ferrantino. Mr. Ferrantino, in the last months of his life, used LegalZoom to draw up a will and a living trust. It turns out that the trust couldn’t be funded because Mr. Ferrantino’s financial institutions would not accept the LegalZoom documents.
Naturally, upon finding this out, Mr. Ferrantino and his niece, Katherine Webster, asked LegalZoom for help – to no avail. After Mr. Ferrantino passed away with his trust still unfunded, it turned out that his will was also invalid because it had not been properly executed. Ms. Webster’s lawsuit is based on LegalZoom’s alleged deceptive business practices and unlicensed practice of law.
So, the trust documents were flawed. Giving LegalZoom the benefit of the doubt, you could make the valid argument that even attorneys have been known to make mistakes in the drafting of estate planning documents. It’s less likely that a lawyer would let a will go out the door improperly executed. In my mind, though, these aren’t the real issues.
The problem is that when consumers use “services” like LegalZoom, they’re on their own. Even after fatal flaws were found in the trust documents, LegalZoom did nothing to remedy the situation. Would this have happened if someone had been unable to fund a trust that you had created? I sincerely doubt it.
The value that we as estate planning attorneys offer our clients is not just the documents… although well-drafted and effective documents are intrinsically valuable. Instead, the value we offer is our role as knowledgeable and trusted counselors… our relationship with our clients. When clients come to us for an estate plan, we’re not just filling in the blanks on their behalf. We’re listening intently to their stories and their questions, and often reading between the lines, to help them discern their true needs. And we’re there for our clients as issues emerge and their needs evolve.
So, in the end, we’re not even competing in the same market as LegalZoom and other companies of its ilk. We’re not providing a simple commodity – and our clients and prospective clients deserve to know this. How are you and your staff making sure everyone understands the distinction?
Sanford M. Fisch
CEO & Co-Founder
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
6050 Santo Rd., Ste. 240
San Diego, CA 92124