Robinson’s law practice focuses primarily on estate planning, estate and trust administration, charitable distributions, and counsel for high-net-worth individuals and families. He’s been practicing for 40 years. His approach to his work and his relationships with his clients embody a more intensely relational version of a lawyer, that of “attorney and counselor of law.”
You started in law as a litigator. Tell us about your early career.
I grew up in North Dakota and attended undergraduate school at Crown College in Minnesota. I graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Law in Grand Forks and joined a great firm there. I started as a trial attorney, which meant I was in the courtroom and did a lot of appellate work for the first few years that I was in practice.
How did you get started in trusts and estates?
The guy who was my mentor in litigation also did a fair amount of business and estate planning work. And he started bringing me into some of his client matters. So I started learning some of the business and doing estate planning work for him and really liked it.
Anything in the litigation arena carries with it certain stresses and demands and scheduling issues. I was married and we had just had our first child, so I wanted a practice where I had more control of my schedule and the pace of the work. I have great admiration for those who can be a good spouse and parent and a good litigator, because I wanted to move in a different direction.
I ended up working with a lot of business owners and executives, financial advisors and accountants, for both business and estate planning work. It just evolved that way.
What appeals to you about being an expert in trusts and estates?
On the business side, about seven or eight years ago, I made a deliberate decision to concentrate on more time with estate planning and trust administration. The thing I like about this area of law is it affords me the opportunity of becoming a most trusted adviser to a client and their family. I’m the ‘go to guy’ for many clients, with whatever they need. They look at me as a very important part of their advisory group, especially if something catastrophic were to happen.
So a lot of the motivation is that personal relationship and family relationship component. I really enjoy the strategic side of entering into client situations, whether it has financial complexity or family complexity.
You’re dealing with a family under stress, and you’re dealing with people who are dealing with large sums of money, in some cases for the first time. Money makes people go crazy.
I also think it’s given me an ability to speak to people, depending on where they’re coming from, their perspective, and their planning, about broader issues like legacy. Legacy is more than just leaving money. I often ask my clients, “What kind of legacy do you want to remain, beyond the material possessions you leave behind?”
It leads to very fruitful conversations.
What safeguards do you try to incorporate to protect your clients’ assets but also address the family dramas that sometimes come to the fore when kids fight over an inheritance?
Fortunately most of the time I’m dealing with players, both clients and other advisors, who are fairly functional. Everybody’s got their issues and we’ll hit some sticky spots, but work through them fairly readily.
If things really get contentious, I’ll get them in a room and be very direct. I’ll tell them, you can go down this path, but let me give you the forecast on where it’s going to end up. It’s not going to be good. So let’s figure out other ways of dealing with this.
That’s why, for example, on the technical side of documents, I’d rather have a mediation/arbitration provision, which encourages everybody to stay out of the court system and go into alternative means of dispute resolution.
Another pragmatic example is incorporated into the drafting decision. Sometimes I’m able to anticipate that there might be an issue later. You’ve got to give people a forum where they can air their grievances for their conflict to be resolved, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be through the most expensive and inefficient means available.
Why don’t wealthy people, successful people with plenty of advisors, make time to get their affairs in order? Aretha Franklin is a recent example, but others include Prince, Sonny Bono and Howard Hughes.
Let me share a statistic with you: 70% of the adult US population either has no estate plan or has documents contrary to what would accomplish their wishes. That statistic has remained constant through my 40 years as an attorney. It’s a problem. It’s not going away. The difference is the amount of personal wealth people have today versus 40 years ago. It’s increased for most people. Back in the day, most people had pensions, but now, for the most part, only public servants do, and the rest of us accumulate lots in retirement funds and insurance.
Dying intestate, without a will, or with some other ill-planned documents, is one of the worst things you can do to your family, to leave them a legal mess that totally alters how they remember you. Nobody would want to have that be their parting shot to their family.
Estate plans typically involve a lot of intense work for about 60-90 days, and then they don’t need to be updated or revised for another three to five years, unless there is a major change in circumstances or the law.
Actuarially, in any given year, the number of people among our clients who are going to die is relatively small, which is why people don’t perceive estate planning as urgent. But during COVID, and right after 9/11, for example there was a sense of an emergency which motivated people to act. We can’t be lulled into complacency: we are all going to die someday.
We’re all in the business of helping our clients avoid problems. I encourage my colleagues to bring up the subject of estate planning, getting their affairs in order, to their clients. There is an entire team here at MPS waiting to help.