Interview by Neil Rumbak, Associate Editor and Attorney at Rumbak Law, P.A.
I enjoy the intellectual challenge of law and the day-to-day dialogue with people.
2) Would you advise someone coming out of law school today to go into estate planning?
Yes, it is a fascinating field of law that doesn't get its due respect.
3) Would you advise an aspiring law student to attend law school?
I'd advise anyone to go to law school. It is excellent training. Incoming law students should be ready and keep distractions to a minimum.
Law school also is good training for business.
4) What are the most dramatic changes you have witnessed during your career?
I've seen law evolve more into a business than a profession.
5) What has surprised you the most during your career?
I have been surprised by the law's ability to adjust to changing times. In particular, law does a fabulous job of adjusting to new technology.
6) Which of your traits and habits do you think have helped you the most during your career and why?
a) Being well adjusted;
b) Always being prepared for a meeting or court appearance; and
c) Being thorough, the most important trait in a lawyer.
7) Which of your traits and habits do you think have hindered you the most during your career and why?
The inability to turn down matters that my firm should not take on due to a client's personality or to the nature of the matter.
8) If you could go back to being a five year old, what would you do differently during your life?
I would be a center fielder for the Yankees instead of an attorney.
9) 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?
I'm not sure if the following is a skill, but I would advise them that they cannot achieve anything without working hard. I would advise people to be lawyers. It still is a worthy profession, but to be successful at it requires very hard work.
10) Where did you grow up?
11) You work with some of the wealthiest people in the world. What is that like?
The work is challenging, at times frustrating, and very often gratifying.
12) How are affluent people different from middle class people?
They have more accumulated and diverse wealth.
13) 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?
I can write a book on this question. In some cases, inherited wealth destroys initiative and work ethic. Nevertheless, wealth can be put to good use for charitable matters and furtherance of family goals. Some clients, in order to teach their children to achieve on their own, refrain from bestowing too much wealth on their children. I think a balance can exist between spoiling a child and giving a child life's luxuries.
14) 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?
Yes. I often have discussions regarding these issues with clients. For example, I discuss when and at what age kids should inherit money. Clients often have to make difficult decisions in the context of changes in values in both financial and emotional senses.
15) If you had a crystal ball, what would you predict is going to happen with the estate tax?
I have been predicting what will happen for nine years and I have been wrong. I thought that Congress would be responsible enough to enact legislation in 2009 so that the estate tax would continue through 2010. Anything from a repeal for 2010 to retroactive legislation is possible. If I were to guess, I'd say that Congress would retroactively reinstate the estate tax for 2010, but now that we are well into 2010, the possibility of retroactive reinstatement becomes more and more unlikely. At this point, nobody can intelligently guess what Congress will do, or not do.
a. Have you seen an increase in cross-border estate planning in recent years?
Yes, in recent years, I have seen an increase of "multinational people." We have become one world and people have multinational connections, which involves more planning with counsel in other countries.
b. Do you predict an increase in cross-border estate planning in upcoming years?
Yes, as the world becomes more integrated, we will continue to see more people with cross-country ties.
17) Do you recommend that aspiring estate and wealth planners pursue
a. An LL.M. in Estate Planning?
b. An LL.M. in Taxation?
No for both a. and b. An LL.M. requires huge financial and time commitments. An LL.M. in Taxation provides only a few classes for estate planners. In addition, estate work encompasses many practice areas other than taxation, so working as a trusts and estates lawyer and taking targeted programs and/or courses is far more beneficial than pursuing an LL.M.
18) Is the practice of estate and wealth planning in large firms different to the practice of estate and wealth planning in smaller firms?
I've worked in large and small firms. Each large and small firms has pros and cons. Most large firms do not pursue their trusts and estates practices, but are at most tolerating them. A lawyer can have more leeway in a small firm with regard to conflicts of interest and billing procedures. In addition, a small firm can refer clients to other firms by seeking out the best counsel possible to handle a matter. When you are in a small firm, when looking to refer a client to an attorney who practices in another area of law, you are not tied to the attorneys in your firm.
19) Does estate and wealth planning require a mastery of areas of law other than tax and estate and wealth planning?
It involves a mastery of many areas of law, including real estate, litigation, tax, and corporate.
20) How do people from different countries and cultures approach estate and wealth planning and taxation in general?
Very differently from us. Americans, as a whole, are much more law abiding. Our tax system is a basically voluntary tax system. In many other countries, tax avoidance is a national pastime.
a. Is an accounting background necessary for estate and wealth planning?
b. If not, is it helpful?
It may be helpful depending on what you are doing. If, for example, you are drafting a document, it is not helpful. If, however, you are involved in trust accounting, then yes. This question is relevant in discussing how broad of a practice trusts and estates is.
22) What role does asset protection play in estate and wealth planning?
It depends on the client and the reason for the asset protection. Asset protection is a small part of my practice. I am not a fan of offshore planning for Americans. I prefer Delaware trusts.
23) How does the practice of estate and wealth planning differ in different regions of the country?
Differences exist between community property and common law states. In addition, in some jurisdictions, revocable trusts are preferable, while in others, wills are preferable. Finally, some jurisdictions have a state estate tax. Trusts and estates is both a local and national practice.
24) Tell me about a typical day in the life of Sandy Schlesinger.
My answer may depress you. I work seven days a week and sometimes twenty hours a day. A typical day will involve meeting with a client, examining documents, a business, social or charitable event at night, and, after the event, getting back to work. I haven't met a single successful attorney who doesn't work hard. The work often is very satisfying though.
25) How do you balance work and family life?
I haven't balanced work and family life. I have tried to have both and I am lucky. My wife is one of my law partners. We have lunch together.
My kids are grown. I have seven grandchildren and I make time to see them. When I was younger, I tried hard to participate in family life, but whoever said law is a jealous mistress was correct.
26) From where geographically are most of your clients?
They are from the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut), and Florida.
27) Of what area of law does most of your practice consist (e.g., estate planning, probate administration, asset protection, etc)?
Estate planning, estate administration, estate litigation, succession planning, business succession planning, and representing both public charities and private foundations.
28) Tell me about the move from Kaye Scholer LLP, one of the largest law firms in world, to Schlesinger Gannon & Lazetera LLP, a much smaller boutique firm. Why the move? Are you happy you moved? If you had to make the move again, would you do so?
I don't like the term "boutique." My firm is not a boutique firm. I look at trusts and estates in a broad sense. I can give people advice on any area or direct them to the right counsel.
A small firm has fewer conflicts of interest than a big firm. In addition, in a big firm, a trusts and estates department is not seen as a money maker, but as a necessary evil. I am very happy I moved. If I had to make the move again, there is not a question about it that I would do so.
29) You have been very involved in various organizations.
a. Why the involvement?
The involvement is part of my commitment to give back. Many organizations in which I am involved are very New York oriented. I love my city. I am very proud to be a product of the New York City public school system. I feel an obligation to be part of these organizations, but I also enjoy the involvement.
b. Would you devote the time to these organizations again if you had a chance to repeat your career?
In general, yes. Nevertheless, I would not necessarily devote my time to the same organizations.