Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What’s it like to be a….Business and Estate Planning Attorney?

What does a normal day look like?
I usually arrive at the office between 7:30 and 8 am. Unless I have early appointments, I spend the first hour or so of each day reading e-mails and other information that has arrived from other sources. There are a few websites—one on tax law, for example—that I visit during this time each day to get caught up on any changes in the law. I rarely go out for lunch; I grab some fruit and a snack or two at my desk toward noontime. I try to leave the office by 5 pm; evenings are family time whenever possible. In between, I attend to client tasks: preparing wills and other documents for folks who need estate planning work, reviewing contracts for folks who need business work, and communicating with clients by phone and e-mail about such things. Some days I will work with people who need help setting up corporations or limited liability companies; other days will bring the drafting or revision of business acquisition or real estate purchase agreements.

Is it consistent throughout the year?
No. In fact, it isn’t consistent from day to day. It’s rare that I’ll work on the same project all day long. I have a list of projects that contains perhaps fifty items. From time to time, perhaps five to ten of those items require my attention; for the rest, I’m waiting for someone to get back to me or something else to happen. There seems to be a corollary to Murphy’s Law involved in my workload: if I’m planning on taking a day off or going on vacation, the number of items on my list that require my attention will increase dramatically.

If you’ve had this position for a while, how have things changed?

With the advent of e-mail and the internet, the speed and volume of communications have increased dramatically. Those increases have in turn led to increased expectations that things be done immediately.

What other, if any, positions have you held prior to your current job?

I worked for a typesetting company for about seven years before going to law school. While I was in law school I worked as an editor at the University of Michigan Press—still the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. One can still be a renaissance person in university publishing.

How did you get to where you are now?
My relationship with the gentleman who owned the typesetting company where I worked deteriorated; having no better idea for what to do, I went to law school. After graduation I found a job in a small law firm here in Grand Rapids. That law firm dissolved ten years later; I found my current position after that.

What kind of training/education did you have?
I graduated from college with a bachelor of arts degree. My major was English, although I took almost as many philosophy courses as English courses. I received a juris doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School. My law school education, while tremendously interesting and valuable, taught me nothing about the day to day practice of law; all that has been learned on the job.

What would you suggest?
A strong, diversified liberal arts background is very helpful to prepare one for legal education. The law school thing is kind of required if one wants to practice law.

What qualifications/skills/attributes make someone successful in this position?
If I had to pick one set of skills over others, it would be communication skills, both written and oral.

What are the rewards in your position?
Our legal system is complicated—too much so, I think. My rewards come from helping folks navigate the system and, I hope, understand it better. It’s a good feeling when my clients leave a meeting not only with new estate planning documents but also with a pretty good understanding of what they mean and why they’re there.

For lawyers, operating a law practice is expensive. For clients, attorney fees are expensive. Finding a way to charge enough for what I do while not overtaxing clients’ resources is difficult. It’s hard to balance the desire to help folks with the need to make a living doing so.

What makes a good day for you?
See rewards, above.

What trends or changes do you foresee in the next 5-10 years?
Hard telling. There’s a lot of consolidation going on, with big law firms gobbling up smaller ones, but there always seems to be a place for a small group of attorneys who do work for middle class individuals and small business people at (somewhat) reasonable prices.

How could a person find out more about your field?
Talk to lots of different attorneys. My practice is limited to small business and estate planning. There are lots of other kinds of legal work—litigation, intellectual property, domestic relations, and so forth.

How do your beliefs and values or worldview perspectives impact what you do at work?
Just a comment on this last one: On my wall is a cartoon of a traveler at a point where the road splits. The split to the left is marked “legally right.” The split to the left is marked “morally right.” The caption on the cartoon reads “Inevitable Intersection on the Road of Life.” I visit that intersection daily, and I look at the cartoon daily. I try to make the right choice for myself, and I try to encourage my clients, without presuming to be their judge as well as their advocate, to make the right choices for themselves as well.


Posted by Bonnie Speyers on 11/18 at 05:15 PM

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