Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of interviews conducted by the Wealth Strategies Journal of various practitioners in the fields of asset protection, estate planning, and taxation, among others. These interviews will be posted periodically.
1) What do you enjoy most about your work?
a) My work is people oriented. Every day, I deal with real client issues.
b) Creativity is involved when working with passing assets to the next generation, and it allows an attorney to think outside the box.
2) Would you advise someone coming out of law school today to go into estate planning?
3) Would you advise an aspiring law student to attend law school?
Questions 2 and 3 can be answered together. I would answer yes to both Questions 2 and 3. Nevertheless, given the difficult job market, the small estate planning community, and small estate planning departments in big firms, I would advise an aspiring law student or an aspiring estate planner to keep an open mind. If she cannot find a position in her desired practice area or law firm, being open to other opportunities may be necessary.
4) What are the most dramatic changes you have witnessed during your career?
The repeal of the estate tax. In 2001, when the act passed, practitioners didn't think they'd see the day. Even in 2009, we in the estate planning community thought that something would happen by year-end to halt the repeal of the estate tax. We are encountering difficulties in planning because of the uncertainty of the existence of the estate tax, exemption amounts, and rates for 2010 and later years.
5) What has surprised you the most during your career?
Same as Question 4.
6) Which of your traits and habits do you think have helped you the most during your career and why?
I take ownership of every matter that I work on. Attention to detail is important. Law, to me, is not a job, but a career. A good work ethic is essential.
7) If you could go back to being a five year old, what would you do differently during your life?
I wouldn't do things differently, I am happy how things worked out. I wanted to be an attorney from an early age and it has worked out well for me. I enjoy the work that I do and the decisions that I made during my life have led me to this point.
8) If you were advising your children or grandchildren on what skills they need to succeed in life - in whatever career they choose - what skills would you advise them to acquire?
a) How to be a team player
b) How to be assertive
c) Attention to detail
d) Perseverance and the ability to stick with your decision with the possibility that you may have to go off track.
9) Where did you grow up?
Long Island, NY.
10) You work with some of the wealthiest people in the world. What is that like?
At the beginning of my career, people's wealth staggered me. At this point in my career, however, dealing with wealthy people is the same as dealing with anybody else.
11) How are affluent people different from middle class people?
Affluent people are not that different from other people. They may be more willing to part with money and to pass assets to the next generation at earlier points in their lives. We can generally utilize more estate planning techniques with wealthier clients with a more diverse asset base.
12) In your experience, what does wealth do to children, and how have your clients who are parents deal with money in the context of raising their children?
The answer to this question differs by client. Some clients' children are very aware of what's going on with regards to their parents' finances. Other clients' children do not know the extent of their parents' wealth, though they have an idea that their parents are wealthy because of their lifestyle.
13) Do you get involved with family values issues (i.e., the impact of wealth on children and their values) and if so what role do you play?
a) Yes, to a degree. Family values come into play when you get into what type of trust to set up for your kids. Common issues that occur are:
i. a spouse's access to money;
ii. a family member's issues with drugs and alcohol; and
iii. children being involved in investment decisions.
b) The role of an attorney is to listen to a client's issues and and provide methods to address these issues and accomplish the client's goals.
14) If you had a crystal ball, what would you predict is going to happen with the estate tax?
It's difficult to predict what will happen and when. There have been various proposals. My best guess is that the estate tax exemption will remain at $3.5 million.
15) Have you seen an increase of cross-border estate planning in recent years? Do you predict an increase of cross-border estate planning in upcoming years?
b) Yes. More clients are leaving the U.S., maintaining dual citizenship, or living abroad. I have seen an increase in clients exploring offshore asset protection.
16) Do you recommend that aspiring estate and wealth planners pursue an LL.M. in Estate Planning? An LL.M. in Taxation?
Either LL.M. is an asset on a resume and makes a job seeker more marketable. A person who is looking to break into estate planning, but who is having difficulty finding a job, may be well served to take a year and pursue an LL.M. Nevertheless, because most law firms hire out of J.D. programs, the LL.M. may set a job seeker behind a year. Several years ago, law firms often were more willing to allow an attorney with an LL.M. begin employment as a second-year associate. Today, however, an attorney with an LL.M. may have to begin employment as a first-year associate.
17) Is the practice of estate and wealth planning in big firms different to the practice of estate and wealth planning in smaller firms?
I haven't worked in a smaller firm. Based upon my experience in a big firm, however, I think that more resources are available in a big firm to an attorney. If an attorney in a big firm has tax, corporate, or real estate law questions, she can contact an attorney in the firm to answer them.
18) Does estate and wealth planning require a mastery of other areas of law than tax and estate and wealth planning?
Though mastery is not required, a general knowledge, which can be acquired over time, is. An estate and wealth planning attorney needs to understand basic tenets of whatever area of law she approaches.
19) How do people from different countries and cultures approach estate and wealth planning and taxation in general?
Not so differently than U.S. citizens or long-term residents of the U.S. Most clients, from any country or culture, are concerned about minimizing transfer taxes and passing more assets to their spouses and children. How to structure transactions differs by person, not by culture.
20) Is an accounting background necessary for estate and wealth planning? If not, is it helpful?
b) It can be.
21) What role does asset protection play in estate and wealth planning?
a) Domestic and international asset protection is becoming more prominent. For example, during and after the Bernie Madoff scandal, clients became nervous about the safety of their assets and wanted to make sure that their assets would be protected for a rainy day.
22) How does the practice of estate and wealth planning differ in different regions of the U.S.?
a) The basic tenets of estate planning are the same in all regions of the U.S. Community property states involve different issues than separate property states. Probate procedures differ by state. In states where the probate process is burdensome, an estate and wealth planning attorney will want to avoid probate and more frequently use revocable trusts. There may different concerns if a client lives in a state that imposes a state estate tax.
23) Tell me about a typical day in the life of Lisa M Stern.
There is no such thing as a typical day. Most days I plan to accomplish certain things but there are also unexpected client matters that arise so you have to be flexible.
24) How do you balance work and family life?
Balancing work and family life is not easy. I am always connected to the office as I think it is important to be accessible to clients and colleagues. But there are times when you have to put family first. It's a delicate balance that differs from person to person, as each person has her own priorities. Now that I have a child, it will be even more of a challenge to balance work and family.
25) From where geographically are most of your clients?
Most of my clients are from the tri-state area. Most of Proskauer Rose's clients come from across the Eastern Seaboard, but the firm has clients in various states. To address the needs of its clients in different areas of the U.S., Proskauer Rose offers personal planning in its Boca Raton, Florida, and Los Angeles, California offices
26) Of what area of law does most of your practice consist (e.g., estate planning, probate administration, asset protection, etc)?
My practice focuses on estate planning, estate administration and probate and trust litigation. Asset protection is really a part of estate planning. There are some periods of time during which my focus is mainly on estate planning and others when it is on estate administration or litigation. It changes constantly.