On Episode 10 of Decision Dialogues, Modera CEO Tom Orecchio and COO Mark Willoughby speak to estate planning attorney Mary Browning of Cole Schotz, P.C. In addition to sharing some useful career insights, Mary talks about one of the most important decisions anyone can make, but one that is so often avoided—how one’s affairs will be handled in the event of their death.
Note: We are saddened to learn of Judge Pisano’s passing since the recording of this podcast earlier this year. Our condolences to him and his loved ones during this difficult time. Our podcast guest Mary Browning clerked with Judge Pisano after she passed the bar exam.
Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues—we’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, and I’m a Principal, Wealth Manager, and Chief Operating Officer of Modera Wealth Management, LLC. Today, my colleague Tom Orecchio, who’s the Chief Executive Officer at Modera, and I will be chatting with Mary Browning. Mary is an attorney at Cole Schotz. She’s a member of their tax, trusts, and estates department. And Cole Schotz, a law firm, provides legal services throughout the United States from its offices in New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Texas and Florida.
Mary focuses her practice on sophisticated estate and special needs planning, elder law planning, estate administration, and business and tax planning. Welcome everyone to the show. And I’ll hand it over to Tom.
Thank you, Mark. Mary, it’s a pleasure to have you with us this morning.
Thanks for asking me.
We’re gonna start with a little bit of history, and if you wouldn’t mind, can you tell us a little bit about your professional journey and where you are today?
Sure. So today, I am an equity shareholder at Cole Schotz. My journey to get to this position was a little bit unusual in a way. When I was in law school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I was a second year. The law school encouraged me to apply for federal clerkships. So I did, and I ended up getting an offer from a Judge Pisano, who’s now retired—but he was at the time in the District Court of New Jersey.
And he had an experience where he had a clerk that had worked for a year and then clerked for him. So, you know, he sets the rules, he decided that all his clerks had to work for a year. So when he hired me, he hired me for three years in the future, which is a little bit crazy, but because of that, when I then did my summer associate, the stint, they knew I had this clerkship and so they tried to slot me into a litigation-type role. By that time, I had taken enough classes and talked to enough people and kind of had some heart-to-hearts with myself about the type of person that I am and the type of law I wanted to practice. But nonetheless, I worked for my year in litigation, because that’s where they wanted me to be, and it certainly solidified that that was not what I wanted to do.
I did go to the clerkship the next year—absolutely loved it. Even though I don’t litigate, it was still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. But I knew after that I really had to get into the TNE and tax world. And Cole Schotz certainly had the reputation. At the time I was, you know, really just focused on New Jersey, but at the time, they had the reputation of being the best in the state. And so I was hyper-focused on getting hired there, and fortunately, I was. And that was 17 years ago.
So I started out as an associate—even though I’d been two years out of law school, I’d never done a day of trusts and estates or tax work. So I really kind of started over at that point—been there ever since. And as I like to tell people, unless I win the lottery, I will be there as long as I’m there.
So you’ve been practicing for 17 years?
Well, I’ve been practicing really for 19 years. 17 in trusts and estates, and at Cole Schotz.
So then one of the obvious questions would be across those 19 years, what do you think was the hardest decision you had to make with respect to your career?
The hardest decision really was making the change, I think, from—it wasn’t a hard decision in the sense that litigation, I knew, was not for me. And I loved the idea of trusts and estates, and the subject matter and the tax, but it’s very difficult, unfortunately, in the field of law to pivot. It’s doable when you’re younger; it’s very difficult when you’re more experienced. People don’t want to retrain someone that’s already trained in something else, because there’s a time expense involved, there’s costs involved to the firm.
So I think just taking that plunge, because in the back of my mind, even though I enjoy the topic, there’s still that feeling of “Well, what if I don’t like this either, you know? What if I went to law school for three years, and it’s just, it was a mistake, it just wasn’t for me.” So delving in there and taking that plunge—and fortunately, having the firm take that chance on me, it didn’t take long before I figured out that I found my spot, that this was for me. So fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with that all too long. But that was the most difficult.
So in our business, we call that a long runway having to retrain and pivot late in your career. So you’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been doing this a long time. And a question I frequently get that I like to ask people is, if you had to make one decision over, during your career, what decision do you think you would make differently than you made?
The good thing is that there’s not a lot of things coming to mind. So, you know, I think I’ve had people say, “Well, why did you do the clerkship if you didn’t end up being a litigator?” Or, you know, “Why did you take the path you took?” I actually love the fact that I did that. I mean, besides the fact that I met people, it was fascinating, I have really an advocate and friend for life in Judge Pisano. He treats his clerks like his kids. Even though I don’t see him a lot or talk to him a lot, when I do he is, you know, just ready to help you in any way possible. So I really actually don’t—I’m not sure I have an answer that I wish I did anything differently. It’s kind of worked out the way it’s worked out.
That’s great! So along those same lines, you know, you’ve been doing this for a while. Do you find because law is multi-disciplinary, do you find that there is an area that you’re more curious about outside of what you do in trusts and estates?
Yes. Family law has always been interesting to me. That was certainly something I had contemplated in law school—I took the classes, I found them to be very interesting. When I worked for a year as a litigator, I was able to do a little bit of family law, and the topic interests me. It’s not totally different than trusts and estates in some ways—it’s personal matters, it’s family matters, it’s counseling.
What I ended up not liking about it is just how ugly it tended to get. Not that I don’t deal with that myself and family issues that come up, revolving money, which we know is—comes up a lot. But it’s different. It’s very different than divorce, or at least, in almost every divorce there’s a lot of contentious issues. Like, I certainly can’t say that about the trust and estates world. So although it’s a topic that interests me, and it’s something that overlaps with things that I do, I’m glad I didn’t go in that direction. I’m much better suited than where I ended up.
So in your trusts and estates work, what’s your favorite part about it? What gets you excited, in the morning to get out of bed and go do it again the next day?
Two things. One is, I always tell people, I’m 80% therapist and 20% lawyer. So I love the personal aspect of it. I love talking to clients, getting to know them. I really get energy from my meetings with my clients. And even though I haven’t been in person with them for a year, the Zoom has been pretty good. I just before this, just got off the call with clients I haven’t seen since 2013, and it’s just nice to catch up with people, and it’s nice to hear about what their kids are doing and how their lives are changing. So that is one aspect I really enjoy.
The other part is, particularly with the more complicated estate planning, I love the intellectual part of it. I like the game of it. It’s figuring out what kind of plans can we do, what kind of techniques can we use to help reduce taxes, to help, you know, get the clients where they want to be while trying to make it as tax efficient as possible? That kind of game component of it keeps me even intellectually stimulated, and it’s fun. So the combination of both
That’s nice. So let’s stick with that for a minute. They don’t teach you in law school how to be a good therapist, right? As you said, it’s 80% of what you do. Do you find that you need to be a people person to do what you do? Or do you think you could just be a good technician, and still do what you do?
Well, if you don’t have the people skills, you’ll have a very hard time bringing in clients. So if the goal is to build a business, and to have your own clients, it’s very difficult if you don’t have the people skills—and that’s true in a lot of industries, and that’s true in a lot of areas of law.
I do think when you’re dealing with the more personal aspects of people’s lives, it’s even more important. If I was a business owner, and I was hiring a tax attorney to advise me on business matters, I may be less concerned about that, than if I’m talking to someone about personal issues with kids or family members. It’s just, I think, even more important to have that kind of high “EQ,” as people say. Certainly there is a role for technicians, because there are a lot of difficult subject matters, and the tax law is incredibly complicated. But I don’t see how those technicians ever become—you know, develop a tremendous amount of business without the personality aspect.
So along your career, I’m sure there’s been some bumps in the road. Is there one that sticks out, that was a bit of a hurdle for you to overcome? And if so, how did it affect your career?
Something that I’ve struggled with over time, especially when I was a younger associate, I think, was dealing with people who were either in a contentious situation, or—I’m somebody who likes to try to bring people together and resolve conflict. And there are situations where there just is conflict, especially—it happens a lot when the second parent dies, and now there’s siblings who have always had problems with each other, and now the parents aren’t there to keep them together, and it just explodes. So that’s one thing, just being in the middle of a conflict, and kind of dealing with that was a struggle for me.
I would say the other aspect is just inherently I’m a people pleaser, and I like for people to be happy with my work and to be happy with the experience. And there’s just some people where that, they’re just not happy with anything. And so fortunately, it’s not a lot of people—that doesn’t happen very often. But that’s hard also, you know, to kind of get that thicker skin.
Well, you can’t please everyone, right? No matter what you do.
So this next question is a little tough. But I want to ask it, because I know how it could impact your ability to give advice. Have you ever personally had to go through an estate plan for a friend or a family member where you were lead on that? Not necessarily from the aspect of being a professional, but just having to go through it yourself?
Yeah, my dad passed a couple of years ago, I certainly—you know, he was asking me a lot of questions, and I was dealing with some aspects of that. I get a lot of phone calls from aunts and uncles, and that kind of, you know, where they have questions. I’m not necessarily in charge of the estate, or anything like that, but I’m certainly the go-to person in my family, understandably, for those issues. But I haven’t had, fortunately, you know, too many experiences at this point being, you know, solely in charge of estates.
Do you think because of your experience, you might approach it a little differently now, having lived through it, where it’s always the client living through it, but you’ve had to do it yourself?
Yes. My situation was, my dad was remarried. And it’s interesting, because after his death, some issues came up that I just didn’t think would come up, you know? I’ve seen them come up with other families—I thought that our relationships were better and different than that, and the way that I thought the plan was put in place, and the way that my dad and I had spoken about it before his death, was not the way it ended up being.
And it’s still very difficult. And it was a difficult situation. I remember saying at the time, “I feel like one of my clients”—like this happens all the time to my clients. And I said, “I know how they feel.” And it’s not, you know, listen, it’s not not tons of money, but that’s not really the point, you know?
No, the point’s the experience, right?
The point’s the experience and the feelings, and it’s so complicated. And sometimes, you know, you hear people say, “Well, it’s about the principle,” and you kind of think, you know, “Get over it,” but I felt that way!
So I do, when you have those experiences, it does give you a different perspective, and it helps you understand more, where some of the feelings that people have—especially surrounding a death of a parent or someone else that’s close—it really does bring up a lot of issues for people. Again, I’m not really a psychiatrist or psychologist. But there’s a lot of, you know, feelings you didn’t know you had really that kind of get unearthed.
Can I bring us back to that 80% therapist, 20% attorney comment you made? And I want to build off what Tom was asking you, Mary—you know, when you get in the middle of those potentially contentious family situations, from an estate planning perspective, how do you deal with it, given that you don’t have the professional training as a therapist? How do you work your way through those contentious family situations?
So it does somewhat depend on who we’re representing. So if it’s a situation where the siblings—I’m using siblings, because that’s, I’d say, most common—where the siblings are really fighting each other, they very often have their own attorneys. So I may represent one sibling, and the other siblings—right now I have a situation, I’m representing one sibling, and other attorneys are representing two of the other siblings.
You know, it’s difficult because there’s some things that—this is where my experience from having my own personal experience with my dad comes into play. Some of the things they’re arguing about, you know? The records, you know, “I wanted that record.” And sometimes you just have to, you know, sometimes I’ll say to my client, “We have to pick our battles here. We can fight about every single thing, and you’ll be doing this for years. Let’s figure out what’s the most important thing to you, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. It’s a lot of negotiation, we’re going to give on this, because it’s not as important to you, and we’re going to really push on that.”
When you have a situation where you are representing, for example, maybe I represent the parents, and they decide to have a family meeting and the kids come in. And I have had situations where I’m sitting in a conference room, and there are blow-ups, you know, big blow ups, where I remember once I walked into the waiting room, I was coming to get my clients to bring them into the conference room, and the mom is over here, I walk out and I say “Hey guys, how’s everybody doing today?” The mob is over in one side of the room, one of the kids is on the other, nobody’s talking. I mean, in the waiting room before we even got in, they had a huge blow up.
So they wouldn’t go in together. I had to bring them in separately, and I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. Yes, I’m not a trained, you know, psychiatrist, but I do feel as if I’m a good listener and a good people person, and I do try to empathize with them, while trying to keep them focused on what the goal is. The goal is, “Well, this is what I’m here to help you do. Can you put aside certain things so that we can talk about that?”
It’s interesting. The latter example is what I was thinking when I posed the question. You know, what do you do when, you know, you get emotions riled up in a meeting room? It turns out that a lot of what you do is on the negotiation side, as opposed to the professional therapy side—just get them to the negotiating table.
Right. In those types of situations, yes. In other situations, I work with a lot of people who’ve just been through a divorce, and so they feel the need to tell me all of the stuff that they’ve just been through. And that’s fine, you know. That’s part of their process. And that’s part of what helps them to trust me, you know. I’m listening to them, I understand them. I’m their person. You know, a lot of times, people that have gone through a divorce, one spouse is more in charge of the finances than the other. And for the people who’ve never had their own people that are just working for them, it’s a big deal, and it’s a big step. But it’s also a little scary for them, because they feel—and I know you guys do deal with this all the time—they’ve never had to have that responsibility, and it’s great, they feel empowered, but they also feel like they have a lot to learn. And so, you know, I take that part of it very seriously as well.
I would imagine their sharing that amount of detail with you allows you to ultimately be a better advisor to them, too.
Agreed. It’s not all just irrelevant information. It certainly helps me to understand what the relationships are, the relationships with the kids, which ultimately helps with the estate plan. Who’s going to be in charge of the money, what happens if you die, who’s going to be the guardian—all of those decisions, legal decisions, that they have to make are, of course influenced, and by all of the things that are happening in the relationship.
So obviously, you go through this type of situation with clients on a daily basis, and you see the emotions that they go through? What one piece of advice could you offer to our listeners who are about to embark on this process?
It is difficult for a lot of people to talk about—to think about their death. And to talk about what’s going to happen or even to think about what’s going to happen. I think about it and talk about it every day. The reason why a lot of people don’t have wills—regardless of their net worth, regardless of their age—is because they don’t want to get into the conversation. It’s too difficult. They don’t want to think about it.
So what I would say to the listeners is, it is so important to do it. It is a mess if it’s not done, and if it’s not done well. And once you do it, you will feel a sense of relief. I have a lot of clients who have said to me, at the end of the process, “I feel like a weight’s been lifted off of me. I didn’t realize how much this was weighing on me, knowing I needed to do this and not wanting to do it, and now that it’s done, I feel such a sense of comfort, and I feel like I’ve really taken care of my family.”
It’s almost like ripping off a band aid. It may not be the most fun conversation that you’ve ever had, and you may not want to think about these things too much, but get it done, get it done right, and then you can move on.
Great. So a couple of easy questions for you and not necessarily related to work. What are you reading right now, or what are you listening to right now?
So I love podcasts, and I go between really a couple of different types of podcasts. I love true crime podcasts, so I’m always trying to find the next good crime story. I listened to the Dating Game Killer—I don’t know if you know about that story. It is insane. So there’s about a five episode podcast on that. That was really interesting.
And I’m a very avid golfer, so I’ve listened to a number of golf podcasts. So some of them are more sports psychology type podcasts, and some of them are more instruction. But there’s a lot of good ones out there.
Well, the last question I have is, what is the last non-financial related decision that you’ve made over the last week?
So this morning, I had to decide which Peloton ride to take. And it sounds like an easy decision, But the only reason I even get Peloton done is because I have a group of friends who also do it, and so we pick times to do it together and we kind of negotiate what ride we’re gonna do. So today was my turn to pick the ride. So that was—
—You keep each other honest!
That’s right. That’s right.
Very good. Well, I want to thank you for being with us today. I’m sure our listeners will really enjoy this. I know how difficult the estate planning process is, and you’re right—it takes a weight off of you when you go through it and you’ve completed it. Because it is so important that you take care of things like that for your family and friends.
Great. Thanks for having me!
Thanks very much to Tom Orecchio and to Mary Browning for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.
Mary Browning is a trusts and estates attorney who focuses her practice on estate planning, with an emphasis on sophisticated estate, trusts and special needs planning, elder law planning, estate administration, business planning and tax. She is an equity shareholder at Cole Schotz PC, with its principal office in Hackensack, New Jersey. She has spent the majority of her career doing estate planning work at Cole Schotz, and serves as the co-chair of STARS, the firm’s women attorney group.
Prior to joining Cole Schotz, Mary clerked for Federal District Court Judge Joel Pisano. She was named a “rising star” by New Jersey Super Lawyers in 2013 and 2015, and was named a 2014 New Leader of the Bar by New Jersey Law Journal.
Mary earned her L.L.M. in Taxation from New York University School of Law and her J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law, where she graduated cum laude. She is a member of the Order of the Coif. She earned her B.A. in English from Columbia University.
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