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Opinion: Don’t assume professional collaboration in client relations

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The legal community interacts and overlaps with nearly every walk of life, job, activity and business. Because of the increasing complexity of the legal profession, attorneys are becoming more interdependent on other professionals than ever. Often this is internal teamwork within a firm.

When problem solving for your client is the focus, there may be opportunities or a necessity to collaborate with outside professionals to tap into a collective wisdom. A team approach can help eliminate tunnel vision and the benefits generally outweigh the costs to both the professional and client.

Take the estate planning area of the legal practice as an example. Many clients use multiple advisers, a tax or estate planning attorney, accountant, broker, trust company, insurance agent, business coach and financial planner. What one adviser suggests might impact the planning of several others. Collaboration can be temporary for a specific purpose or longer-term depending on the nature of the issue.

The results of effective collaboration should provide better advice, fewer mistakes, healthier client retention and more referral business.

Required qualities
There are qualities required for effective teamwork between advisers. Some are common sense, and some may be less intuitive. Each adviser must be open to the ideas of others and allow themselves to be influenced for the common good. A level of trust between the parties that fosters respect must be established for an open sharing of ideas. There also has to be a commitment to ethics and transparency, which transcends the revenue models of the advisers.

When advisers collaborate effectively, there is mutual respect and a client-centric focus that builds better rapport and trust. The contribution of each individual’s expertise can help steer the sharing of ideas toward a specific goal.

When credit is appropriately given to the adviser’s expertise, communication is more effective and client buy-in is enhanced. It is important to be sensitive to the interests of both client and advisers involved in the process to reduce fears and increase positive expectations.

If possible, the facilitator for collaboration should be the most trusted adviser, not necessarily the adviser that brings the most expertise to the specific challenge at hand. The already established rapport can help in reaching common understanding for the process, information gathering, open sharing of ideas and realistic expectations.

Advisers should agree in advance on the most effective protocols and the role each participant should play in the collaboration.

Ensuring the parties can work together is best determined before conversations that include the client. You can have too many or the wrong professionals in the conversation and take away from the goal of a superior client experience. Those whose primary goals steer toward compensation or client-control may not fit well in a collaborative environment.

Potential challenges
There are potential challenges to collaboration to think through in advance, such as attorney-client privilege and consultant’s work product. But if the client buys into the open exchange of information, most of these can be worked around with engagement letters or other means. Again, the collaboration may be limited to specific challenges and can be short-term in nature. There may be intentional limitations in certain conversations.

Communication of ideas
The communication of ideas between advisers to help choose the best planning tools and design increases the client’s level of confidence to act on recommendations. When advisers clearly communicate and explain their conclusions and recommendations, clients are much more likely to implement the plan and less is lost in translation. Both clients and their professional advisers are winners when client’s stay engaged and buy-in to the process.

A successful collaborative effort of a high performing team is measured by superior results, which benefits everyone involved.

Tim Parrish is president of Missouri Trust & Investment Co. He can be reached at tparrish@missouritrustcompany.com.

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