November 6, 2015 / 8:11 PM / 2 years ago

Better ways to refer clients to lawyers

(Reuters) - When clients need legal help, financial advisers can do more than simply give them a list of good lawyers.

They can develop a business-sharing agreement with a lawyer, share office space with a law firm or even hire a lawyer to work on staff.

These strategies can require a big commitment in time and sometimes money, but they can give advisers an edge in the fight to retain and attract clients.

At the Lerner Group at HighTower Advisors, staff lawyer Wayne Cooper gathers clients’ wills and estate plans, creating flow charts to show how assets would move depending on which spouse dies first.

Walter Gondeck, a managing director and partner at the Deerfield, Illinois-based firm, said all of his clients, whose net worth averages about $10 million, have appreciated this complimentary service.

Cooper often discovers expired trustees and unexpected beneficiaries of assets, and his work often helps clients shave off hourly fees they have to pay their own lawyers.

“We’re not looking to replace the attorney,” Gondeck said. “A lot of times, lawyers are happy that we’re getting the process started.”

A staff lawyer is a big investment, he said, declining to say how much. But it is worth it, he added, because it strengthens his relationships with clients and their children. It is also a selling point for new clients.

Joseph Votava Jr., a certified financial planner with Rochester, New York-based Seneca Financial Advisors LLC, spent 25 years as a lawyer. He keeps his licenses current because he finds he can often bring his legal expertise into client meetings.

Votava cautions that advisers should not attempt to “practice law” even if they have lawyers on staff, so these firms should not draw up any legal documents or provide legal opinions. But getting estate planning started for a lawyer, like the asset flow charts, can be a valuable service, he said.

Hiring a lawyer is not feasible for most advisory firms because they would have to charge higher than industry-standard fees to cover the expense, said Mike Byrnes, president of Greater Boston-based Byrnes Consulting LLC.

“Building a strong strategic alliance that is not formally part of your organization is the best option for most advisers,” Byrnes said.

Josh Nelson, chief executive officer of Loveland, Colorado-based Keystone Financial Services, worked out such an arrangement with estate-planning lawyer Thomas H. Shanley, who bills the client for his time directly.

When Nelson has clients with legal needs, he and Shanley both meet with them.

Shanley likes getting a steady flow of business. The clients like having Nelson there to provide information on how assets are titled and who the beneficiaries are.

And Nelson likes knowing his clients are getting their estate plans completed.

Reporting by Jennifer Cummings; Editing by Suzanne Barlyn and Lisa Von Ahn

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