STEP Journal, March 2010, Article 'Trusted Advisor'

What competencies will the
T&E Practitioner of 2015 need?

This is the first of a series of three short articles looking ahead to what the TEP of 2015 and beyond will need in order to stay competitive and continue to meet client needs effectively.

Let me begin by saying that I'm coming at this question as a domestic T&E practitioner, working in Canada, and with a focus on legal practice.

I'd like to focus on five areas of change and to suggest some of the implications for trust and estate practitioners. The changes are already underway and it is the way that we react and change that will determine whether they become risks or opportunities.

My first change sees a shift of private client work from large firm settings to solo, boutique and small firm practices. This will impact development opportunities — less mentoring and fewer models to learn from will challenge the way newer practitioners, in particular, learn much needed skills. Practitioners will require Continuing Professional Development even more and will look to outside sources because their firm or practice setting will not offer it internally.

My second area of change sees an increase in estate disputes as greater wealth and a change from the "nuclear" family, to second and third marriages, other relationships and "blended" families make settlements more complex.

Clients will want to solve disputes through alternatives to traditional trust and estate litigation, a time-consuming and expensive solution often resulting in fractured family relationships. Mediation, collaborative approaches (where each party agrees at the beginning of the process to negotiate a solution without resort to the court process) and negotiation will become primary options and demand requisite skills.

Third: people are living longer. Many clients will face 10 or 20 years of being "a senior-senior," increasingly living to 100 years and beyond.

The medical-legal professions must communicate and collaborate more to ensure our most vulnerable members of society are protected and their rights respected.

We will need to know more about the aging process and capacity. Health care professionals will need to understand and correctly implement the applicable legal framework to ensure that client's rights are respected.

T&E Practitioners will need to develop more sophisticated protocols for dealing with incapacity issues, while remaining the "trusted" advisor whom family members can rely on. Picture here a parent developing Alzheimer's and both the special technical knowledge and high levels of empathy and understanding required to deal with his or her property management issues. T&E practitioners will need to look to the models and training the health care profession use in developing these interpersonal skills. Right brain skills will become increasingly important as opposed to left brain skills.

Practitioners, too, will need a strong ethical framework in which to discharge their professional services and a clear understanding of the ethical rules relating to taking instructions, particularly for the preparation of wills, trusts and powers of attorney. They will need to assess capacity from a legal viewpoint, and deal with conflict of interest, and multiparty representation.

My fourth area sees T&E practitioners needing to be able to leverage technology to manage routine tasks efficiently thus freeing up the practitioner to get best value from their technical skills. Existing billing practices have often relied on time spent, with little incentive to maximize a practitioner's time. However, competition from other sectors will force more efficiency. This new paradigm will require greater investment in technology, including automated document assembly, or practitioners will be left behind.

My final point is broad and addresses our identity, asking us to reassess what the "model" T&E practitioner should be, as opposed to simply responding to outside forces and changes. We need a vision.

The trust and estate professional has always been the quintessential trusted advisor, family counsellor, voice of wisdom. Others also shared a similar role in traditional society, be it ministers, priests and rabbis, and family doctors.

Much has changed. Many no longer have a religious affiliation at all other than by birth. The long-time family doctor has given way to medical clinics and emergency wards. Therefore, there is a deep need in our society for a trusted advisor and T&E practitioners often fill this need. We are trained to always put the needs of our client first, which is the essence of professionalism. We do not "sell" products. We provide services where our self-interest is secondary. We typically have longstanding relationships with clients that stretch from a couple's early marriage, to young children, to adult children, to death, and often on to the next generation.

To ensure we can carry out this role of "trusted" professional, however, we must live up to that trust. The T&E profession must set for itself an ironclad set of standards for ethical conduct and integrity in our training, education, and most importantly, elevate and inspire all our practitioners, whatever their level, on issues of professional conduct applied to concrete situations from every day practice.

Being a trusted advisor is our history and, I suggest, is also our future. And if we strengthen this role and enhance our standards it will ensure our relevance and secure our future.