7 Essential Principles for a Stellar Career in Trusts and Estates

by Lauren Ray on October 28, 2013

When I was in law school, I knew that I was going to be a trusts and estates attorney.    I had been working for a trusts and estates attorney for a few years prior to going to law school so I knew that this was my destiny.   The reaction I got at school and in the community – from classmates, professors and other attorneys – was that I was choosing the most boring area of the law.   However, I have found that this area of the law is certainly not boring, but rather, is exciting, challenging and sometimes even scandalous!   My practice consists of estate planning, probate, conservatorships, trust administration and litigation in the latter three areas.   Here are some tips for having a rewarding career in trusts and estates:

Be Anal.   Whether you are drafting an estate plan or a probate or conservatorship petition, you must be extremely anal about your work product.   Paying attention to detail is extremely important in planning to ensure the plan is perfect.   There are certain estate planning attorneys that gain a reputation for drafting sloppy documents and you do not want to be one of them.  Likewise, the highly technical Judicial Council forms that probate and conservatorship petitions are drafted on are very challenging.   Once you have received your first set of probate examiner’s notes, you will understand why you should be a perfectionist.  Examiner’s notes are published online prior to your hearing and, if you have missed anything on the form, in the probate code, in the California Rules of Court, San Diego Local Rules or the Departmental Rules, the Examiner will let you know – these are called “defects.”   Probate attorneys often joke that some examiners act like they are paid by the defect.  Being as consciousness as possible while drafting is your only line of defense against the defect.   As you gain more experience, you will learn what defects are major and what the Judges will likely waive the day of the hearing.

Get Comfortable with the 3 D’s – Dementia, Dying and Death.   The “D’s” are difficult.  They will be difficult for your client and for you.   Counseling a client that is dealing with dementia or dying or is dealing with a loved one that is terminal or has died is very challenging.   You need to be empathetic but you are also the client’s advisor and may have to be resolute with them on certain topics.  Finding a balance between being compassionate and the firm advisor is difficult and may take you many years to perfect.

Get Acquainted with the 3 Probate Cases.  In San Diego, our Judge says there are only three types of litigation cases:  (1) mom loved me best, (2) the wicked stepmother and (3) the thieving caregiver.  Obviously, there are more types of cases than that, but many of your cases will boil down to family dysfunction.   Although every client and every case has factual and legal arguments that support their position, it does serve you well to realize that, at the core of the dispute, there is dysfunction that no amounting of litigation and no judgment will ever fix.

Get Yourself Appointed.  As soon as you qualify (see your local rules), get on the court-appointed attorney list.   Attorneys are appointed in conservatorship matters to represent the conservatee, in guardianship matters to represent the ward and in trust and probate matters for incapacitated or unascertained beneficiaries.  Being on the list will allow you to gain familiarity with the probate Judges and other probate counsel.   It is a good way to build name recognition in the community and to get an inside look into how these types of cases work.

Educate Yourself.  While you are starting your practice, begin to build a bank of templates.   Go to as many continuing education courses as you can.   Find some established attorneys in the community you can use as a resource.  Join the local bar association and attend the section meetings.  The emphasis is to educate yourself; not to expect others to hold your hand or give you templates and their knowledge wrapped up in a nice little bow.  You must work to establish a practice and to earn your colleagues’ respect, as well.

Give Up the Idea of Retiring Early.    Trusts and estates can be a profitable endeavor.  However, it is not likely one that will make you a millionaire anytime soon.   Million dollar settlements or judgments that you will take a hefty percentage of, are not what trusts and estates cases are generally made of.  Not to say they don’t exist, but trusts and estates is more the slow and steady area of the law.   You won’t get rich fast, but, if you do things right, you will have the ability to have a consistent income.

Don’t be a Jerk.  This one is crucial. Probate communities tend to be quite small.   The lawyers you will deal with on probate, conservatorship and litigation cases, will likely be ones that you will encounter again and again.  Having a good working relationship with opposing counsel or the court-appointed attorney will only benefit your client.  It is possible to disagree on issues and client’s positions, yet be amicable or even friendly with opposing counsel.

In sum, be a good person, a conscientious attorney and get involved in your probate community and you will have a long, successful career as a trusts and estates attorney!

Lauren Ray

Lauren Ray

Lauren covers a variety of legal topics, including trusts, estates, car accident, and personal injury law.

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