I have a longstanding problem concerning how to explain the work I do. When I describe myself as a wealth manager people often wonder what that really means. Referring to myself as a lawyer who helps people with their money only creates more confusion. Using the widely known descriptor of “financial advisor” causes many people to confuse my work with that of an investment advisor or broker. I want to be able to describe what I do fully and understandably in just a few words.
The wide range of work I do with clients can be hard to describe. Years ago, I set out to offer my clients whatever guidance they truly needed to get the best possible outcomes in every aspect of their financial lives. Making good investments is just a small part of that. In my experience, people need help in figuring out tax planning, life insurance, making gifts, estate planning, insuring their property and health, mortgages, borrowing, saving for kids’ educations, for retirement, and about a dozen other things that come up as their lives unfold. A “financial advisor” who knows only investments can offer intelligent guidance with only a small fraction of people’s financial problems. Even more troubling are the big companies that promise to “help” with everything but actually offer nothing but products they wish to sell you.
It bothers me greatly when people think I am just an investment guy. Not only are investments just a small piece of a big picture but they are actually one of the easiest to figure out. Financial economists know a great deal about how a prudent person should invest. The smartest students of modern portfolio theory have studied the risk, return, diversification, and market factors that determine what a wise portfolio looks like. These scientists can guide us as to which risks are sensible, which gambles worth taking, and which safe ports should be called upon in a storm. They know something else, as well: a great deal of what passes for investment advice involves selling products and services that are essentially worthless. A majority of “investment advisors” are really just people being paid to roll the dice with your money. Economists have proven this time and again with experiments showing that, once random chance is removed, nobody can consistently beat the market averages. To employ such an “advisor” is to pay someone to do what scientists know cannot be done. As you can imagine, it hurts my pride when I am confused with such folks.
To add insult to injury, some parts of the financial services industry lack the ethical standards and duties with which I care to be associated. I really don’t want to be included in an industry that takes advantage of complex subjects like the tax code, finance, market economics, and law to sell people all manner of products that are not in their best interest. My stomach hurts when I see people in my office who have been abused, often in ways they still don’t realize, by brokers and salesmen and “advisors.” My heart aches when, for example, I meet seniors whose retirement funds have been put in variable annuity products that will cost them a significant chunk of their remaining nest egg. My blood boils to watch a filthy rich industry fight like heck to stop government from imposing responsibility or reining in its excesses. All in all, it is a club I would prefer not to be a member of.
So how can I explain what I do? How can I show, without being longwinded, that our work is totally different from the troubling industry that I have described? Many years have been spent pondering this. My answers can be found on our website. I have developed a definition of what it means to be a true professional and have dedicated my practice and my firm to living up to that definition. I am a lawyer, both by training and by oath, and I have a duty to fully honor the Lawyer’s Code of Professional Responsibility. I hold advanced degrees in taxation, education, and law. I continue to pursue new knowledge and better understanding; my clients deserve to work with someone who knows everything possible about the subjects on which their well-being depends. Furthermore, I am deeply committed to maintaining a network of learned colleagues to whom I can turn when my clients need an answer that I do not know. I have built a firm on the pillars of professional ethics, implementation of scientific knowledge, and fully serving the actual need of the clients who depend on us. In this way, I hope to demonstrate that my colleagues and I do this work in the proud tradition of professional safeguarding of our clients’ interests and well-being. I know that sets our work apart from the typical.