Strategies to Strengthen the Accountant/Attorney Team

Peter Brown, BeatlesCasey Stengel once said, “Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.” In my 30 years of practice, I have found that to be true for the client/advisor team too, since the advisors are, understandably, focused on their own jobs, their own responsibilities, and they all have their own relationships and methods of communication with the client.

However, the client and the client’s team of advisors are best-served if the advisors work well together. The client would receive consistent, more integrated advice and communication, and the advisors could potentially generate more work from that client and from their deepened relationships with each other.

Based on my experience working with accountants in many client situations, the most successful accountant/attorney client teams have these five essential characteristics:

  1. Trust and respect. Each advisor has unique skills and expertise and should be respected for his/her contribution to the common effort. When problems do occur, the client’s best interests are best served if concerns or mistakes can be raised and addressed openly and honestly without posturing and finger-pointing. Most families start with one key advisor who has “grown up” with them. That advisor has been there through difficult financial times, during family crises, and may even have been the first person that a troubled family member turned to for help. The value of the legacy advisor is that he is trusted by all and has a proven history of acting in the family’s best interest, not his own. One can’t put a price tag on that level of trust and loyalty.
     
    That does not mean, however, that the trusted advisor can or should continue to play all of his historical roles. When it becomes necessary to bring in specialized professionals, transitioning to other advisors does not have to be awkward. When the trusted advisor is assured of his continued importance, role, and compensation, the pathway to transition can be easy.
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  3. Open communication and conversation. Advisors must feel comfortable enough with each other (and have the client’s permission) to openly communicate ideas and strategies. They also need to be able to speak freely and to share their insight with the team. For example, the accountant may know that the son of the family business owner client is having financial difficulties, and that the client is concerned about a possible divorce – important information for the estate planner and/or corporate lawyer. Over the years I have seen many problems occur when families block that contact – either because they don’t want to pay to have the advisors speak to each other or because they don’t want the team to have full comprehension of what is going on. Sometimes the problems are significant; sometimes they remain dormant because the issues are not brought forward; and sometimes the problems are just missed opportunities. And missed opportunities can cost as much as mistakes.
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  5. Keen understanding of their respective roles. The key to a successful collaboration is to leave your respective egos at the door. Each advisor brings something different to the table, so it’s important to understand what role each team member plays. If someone on the team is a “weak link,” that will eventually become clear. If that person happens to be the longtime trusted family advisor, do not move to replace him or her. A strong and effective team will shore up any weaknesses and find a way to get results. Over time, that advisor’s role may diminish (but not evaporate), and other advisors can be brought in. Building and maintaining an effective advisory team is an ongoing process, not a static snapshot.
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  7. Billing the client. Communicating as a team and acting together in the client’s best interest certainly sounds like a good idea – in theory. But in reality, how will the client feel about all that communication once the bill arrives? That is why the team and the client must first agree on a billing process. When the team of advisors has a comfortable working relationship, they will learn that some conversations will occur whether or not a bill is paid. Another option I have seen is to create a standard monthly or quarterly billing arrangement that is not based on time, but instead takes into account any and all cross communication.
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  9. Importance of reciprocity in client referrals. Advisors who are fee-based are paid for the time they put into an engagement. Part of creating an effective advisory team is understanding that the more the team works together, the more they learn from each other, the stronger their relationships become, and the better their clients are served. When advisors work together on several key client relationships there is also more tolerance for unbilled communications, as they know that they are making a profit on the totality of their experiences and the collective results – and that those engagements will ultimately lead to additional business.

 
Trust, respect, open communications, and reciprocity are the hallmarks of good teamwork, and client advisor teams that include these characteristics will likely find success. As James Cash Penney once said, “The best teamwork comes from men who are working independently toward one goal in unison.”

Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning. She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about. Annino recently released an updated version of her successful book, Women and Money: A Practical Guide to Estate Planning to include recent changes in the laws that govern how we protect our assets during and beyond our lifetime. To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit, http://www.patriciaannino.com.

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