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by Barbara I. Belik and George R. Violette

Barbara I. Belik, J.D., CPA, is an estate planning practitioner and adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine. Contact her at bbelik1@myfairpoint.net.

George R. Violette, CPA, Ph.D., is a Professor of Accounting at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine. Contact him at Violette@usm.maine.edu.


Financial planners often work together with other professional advisers in order to meet client needs. Many times no single adviser has all the technical expertise necessary to produce the best result for the client. For example, the sale of a closely held business may require the expertise of many different advisers in order to address all the financial and legal aspects of such a transaction. Specifically, we wanted to explore how financial planners perceive attorney performance in such a working relationship. Are they satisfied with their level of expertise? Are they satisfied with their ability to communicate and manage the work? Are they satisfied with their willingness to collaborate? On the other side, how do attorneys perceive the performance of financial planners on the same dimensions?

We conducted a survey of financial planners and attorneys, asking them to rate their level of satisfaction with each other regarding their work together on client matters. The surveys were conducted at several professional continuing education seminars held in Maine and Massachusetts. We received 53 responses from financial planners and 15 responses from attorneys. The financial planners who responded averaged 18 years of experience, and the attorneys averaged 14 years of experience. The survey respondents indicated that they most frequently work together on client matters involving estate planning, business succession planning, and purchases and sales of businesses or real estate.

How Are Attorneys Viewed by Financial Planners?

The financial planners were asked to rate their satisfaction with attorneys using a list of eight skills on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 = very dissatisfied, 3 = neutral, 5 = very satisfied). The skills that the financial planners were asked to evaluate can be broken down into four dimensions. In the first dimension, the financial planners were asked to rate their satisfaction with the attorneys' demonstrated level of expertise (i.e. knowledge and issue identification). In the second dimension, the financial planners were asked to rate their satisfaction with the attorneys' communication skills (i.e. communication with the financial planner and with the client). The third dimension looked at certain aspects of the attorneys' ability to manage client matters (i.e. timeliness, efficiency, and follow-up). Finally, the financial planners were asked to rate their satisfaction with the attorneys' overall willingness to collaborate on matters. The results are presented in Exhibit 1.       

Exhibit 1: Financial Planners' Satisfaction with Attorneys
Survey Question: In general, rate your satisfaction with your clients' Attorneys using the following scale:   1= very dissatisfied       3= neutral       5= very satisfied

Dimension

Skill

 

Average

Average for

 Dimension

Expertise:

 

Knowledge

 

3.96

 

 

Issue Identification

 

3.42

3.69

Communication:

 

Communication with CPA

 

3.17

 

 

Communication with client

 

3.34

3.26

Ability to Manage Matter:

 

Timeliness

 

3.15

 

 

Efficiency

 

3.38

 

 

Follow-up

 

3.15

3.23

Collaboration:

 

Willingness to collaborate

 

3.19

 

3.19


The survey results suggest that the financial planners are somewhat satisfied with the performance of the attorneys on these joint client matters. Averages were above the midpoint on all dimensions with the dimension of expertise being rated the highest (3.69) and collaboration being rated the lowest (3.19). Looking at specific skills within the four dimensions, the financial planners rated the attorneys' knowledge the highest (3.96) and timeliness and follow-up the lowest (3.15 for both). 

The financial planners were also asked to comment on how attorneys could work with them more effectively on client matters. Improved communication and collaboration were the key themes emerging from the financial planners' comments. With respect to improving communication, the financial planners suggested that the roles and responsibilities of each adviser needs to be more clearly identified and communicated when working on joint client matters. The financial planners also suggested that communication during these joint client matters could be improved if the advisers would participate in joint client meetings. Finally, in order to encourage ongoing communication, the financial planners suggested that attorneys could be more proactive. For example, when clients update legal documents with the attorney, such as in the context of estate planning, copies should automatically be forwarded to the financial planner (with client consent, of course).    

With respect to improving collaboration, the financial planners repeatedly suggested that in order to work more effectively on client matters, the attorneys need to be more open-minded to a collaborative approach. The financial planners also articulated the importance of that collaborative approach to ensuring that the advisers secure the best possible result for the client. Although the attorneys may certainly share this client-centered focus, it was not as clearly articulated in their comments.      

We also asked the financial planners whether attorneys have misconceptions regarding the role of financial planners in these joint client matters. The financial planners indicated that they believe that attorneys hold a very limited view of their role and, as a result, fail to recognize the value that they can add. One respondent stated that "most attorneys think financial planners are simply brokers or investment managers," and others repeatedly commented that they are viewed as "salespeople." 

This perceived failure to recognize the value to be added by the financial planner was a theme found throughout the financial planner responses. One respondent commented that the other advisers "may not fully appreciate that the financial planner is often the core/primary adviser among all the client's professional relationships." The financial planners suggested that the other advisers might appreciate the value that they can add if they gain a better understanding of the comprehensive financial planning process and, therefore, what it is that the financial planners actually do for their clients.    

How Are Financial Planners Viewed by Attorneys?

We also administered the survey to attorneys in order to solicit their level of satisfaction in working with financial planners. With a relatively small sample size of 15 attorney responses, the findings should not be considered broad generalizations or recommendations, but rather anecdotal evidence of how attorneys may view their working relationships with financial planners.

The attorneys were asked to rate their satisfaction with financial planners using the same five-point scale across the same four dimensions that covered the list of eight skills. The survey results suggest that the attorneys are also somewhat satisfied with the performance of the financial planners on these joint client matters. Averages were again above the midpoint on all dimensions with the dimension of collaboration being rated the highest (3.87) and the dimension of expertise being rated the lowest (3.47). Looking at specific skills within the four dimensions, the attorneys rated the financial planners' willingness to collaborate and communication with the client the highest (3.87 for both) and the financial planners' efficiency and issue identification the lowest (3.2 and 3.4, respectively). See Exhibit 2.

Exhibit 2: Attorneys' Satisfaction with Financial Planners
Survey Question: In general, rate your satisfaction with your clients' Financial Planners using the following scale: 1= very dissatisfied     3= neutral       5= very satisfied

Dimension

Skill

 

Average

Average for Dimension

Expertise:

 

Knowledge

 

3.53

 

 

Issue Identification

 

3.4

3.47

Communication:

 

Communication with advisor

 

3.73

 

 

Communication with client

 

3.87

3.8

Ability to Manage Matter:

 

Timeliness

 

3.8

 

 

Efficiency

 

3.2

 

 

Follow-up

 

3.67

3.56

Collaboration:

 

Willingness to collaborate

 

3.87

 

3.87


In comparison, the survey results suggest that the attorneys are more satisfied with the performance of the financial planners on these joint client matters than the financial planners are with the performance of the attorneys. With the exception of the dimension of expertise, the attorneys rated the financial planners higher on all dimensions. On the dimensions of collaboration and communication, the scores for the financial planners were significantly higher (averaging .68 and .54 more, respectively). The dimension of ability to manage client matters was also higher (averaging .33 more). Only on the dimension of expertise did the attorneys score the financial planners lower (averaging .22 lower).

When asked how financial planners could work with attorneys more effectively on client matters, the comments coming from the attorneys repeated many of the same themes contained in the financial planner responses, including the need for improved communication, clarification of the roles and responsibilities of the advisers, and a collaborative approach. Not surprisingly, the attorneys also perceive that the financial planners hold misconceptions about the role of the attorneys in these joint client matters.  The attorneys believe that they are often viewed as too controlling and unwilling to listen to other advisers in a meaningful way on joint client matters. 

Who Is Coordinating Joint Client Matters?

When asked which one of the advisers would typically coordinate these joint client matters, approximately 82 percent of the financial planners indicated that they would typically act as the coordinator. Interestingly, approximately 93 percent of the attorney respondents indicated that they typically acted as the coordinator. Obviously, there is a difference of opinion, or at least a lack of clarity as to who is coordinating these joint client matters, suggesting the importance of clear communication. As one respondent commented, "Everyone thinks that they should be the quarterback or captain of the team instead of coordinating with the person who has the best business relationship with the client."

Implications

While this survey is limited in scope, the results provide valuable feedback for financial planners who are interested in working more effectively with attorneys on joint client matters. With the exception of the dimension of expertise, the survey results suggest that financial planners are less satisfied with the performance of attorneys than the attorneys are with the performance of the financial planners. This was true across each of the remaining three dimensions:  communication, ability to manage matters, and collaboration.  

Although the levels of satisfaction indicated by the financial planners and the attorneys varied, both professions seem to agree on what it takes to improve the effectiveness of their working relationships. Based on the feedback we received from the surveys, when working jointly with attorneys on client matters, financial planners should consider the following:       

  • Encourage the attorney to meet jointly with the client.
  • Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each adviser at the beginning of the joint matter.
  • Educate the attorney on the comprehensive financial planning process. This may go a long way in changing the attorneys' perceived satisfaction with the expertise of financial planners.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate!

Both the financial planners and the attorneys suggested that the other profession could be more open to a collaborative model on these joint client matters. Perhaps improved communication can pave the way to improved collaboration.

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