It takes a certain kind of skill set for an attorney to be successful at estate and trust planning. It’s a complicated, highly technical area of practice that also requires significant people skills.
“You have to have empathy for the clients,” says Kimberly Johnson, a partner at the Naples office of Quarles & Brady LLP. “But you also have to have the ability to break down complicated tax issues to deliver it in a way that they understand, so that they can make choices about what they want to do for their lasting legacy and their family.”
Johnson’s colleague, Kimberley Dillon, 43, chairwoman of the firm’s Naples-based estate, trust and wealth preservation group, cites “the ability to connect with clients” as a crucial skill.
“Even in the beginning planning stages, they need to develop a relationship with you, because you’re asking a lot of intimate details about family and finances and things that they don’t necessarily share with many people.”
Estate and trust planning is a strong and growing practice area in the Naples office of Quarles & Brady, a 520-attorney firm with 12 offices nationwide that generated $342.5 million in revenue in fiscal year 2022 (up 13.5% from the previous fiscal year and the firm’s fourth consecutive year of record revenue). Revenue for the Naples estate, trust and wealth preservation group has increased more than 40% over the past five years.
One factor in the growth is the pandemic has brought a lot of new people to the Naples area who now need assistance planning their financial futures.
“We’ve gotten a lot more people from New Jersey and California who learned that they can work remotely,” says Johnson, 66. “So, we have a lot more clients who have moved to the area. And baby boomers are getting older. We’ve had a major shift in wealth, which creates a lot of work in our area.”
That work is made easier by the fact that Dillon, Johnson and the rest of their team can draw on the resources and expertise of the entire firm when consulting with clients. And other practice areas can also tap into their knowledge. That’s a helpful tradeoff in a place like Naples, where a lot of C-suite executives retire along with their many assets, or semi-retire and continue to work in some capacity.
“We’re integrated into the entire firm,” Johnson says. “Quarles started out as a business law firm servicing companies. So, when our partners get a new client with a family-owned business, we need to also check their estate plan to make sure it works.”
One key to success? Staying abreast of changes to tax law. “If we don’t stay on top of it, we can’t serve our clients,” Dillon says.
The team, for example, is already working to prepare for the fact that the tax rates established by 2017’s federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act are scheduled to sunset in 2026, which would reduce the current estate tax exemption, among other things. “There’s lots of planning involved and trying to educate clients,” Johnson says.
Dillon and Johnson’s team has been growing to keep up with demand and now numbers seven attorneys in the Naples office and three additional attorneys who work remotely from other states with a primary focus on Naples clients.
“A challenge has been growing our team in a manner that makes sense for our clients and our needs with people who have the knowledge and expertise,” Dillon says. “We have been flexible … we have embraced the remote nature of work.”
Future growth is expected, however, in terms of the team (a new attorney and paralegal are scheduled to start at the end of March) and its clients and their needs. And the team can best service clients when everyone feels comfortable speaking honestly.
“I wish they [clients] all understood that it really helps us the more open you are,” Dillon says. “Whether it’s family dynamics or finances or titling, we recognize how intimate those details can be. But the more we know, the better we can help.”
(This story has been updated to clarify that Kimberley Dillon is chairwoman of Quarles & Brady's Naples-based estate, trust and wealth preservation group, not the national chairperson.)