My move back home to Boston in 2019 not only marked the beginning of my financial advisor role at Modera, but also the start of evening law school. Some wondered why I would ever take on the dual endeavor. Some wondered if I would be departing Modera and financial planning once my J.D. was in hand and the bar exam in the rearview mirror. But most people simply asked, “So why law school?” Short answer: Because I am a process-oriented nerd with an affinity for economics, and tax and estate planning. For the longer version, read on….

My Why: Financial Planning

Financial planning is a rewarding process for both clients and their advisory team. Clients are listened to (and heard) as they evaluate goals and hopes. Advisors drive planning and wealth building (which includes coordinating other professionals) to help clients attain those goals.  It’s hard to overstate how meaningful it is as an advisor to see clients through big life transitions like retirement or saving for and then sending kids to college. There is a shared joy between clients and their advisor when, after working together to formulate a sound financial strategy, a client truly embraces that they have the assets needed to live the life they want. The intellectual challenge of helping clients plan amid intersecting financial systems makes the job of a financial planner extremely fun. And for me, going to law school was about learning another system/lens through which to make sense of financial decision-making.

My undergraduate degree is in economics and math. Economists, as scholars of the “dismal science” love to believe they are rational, swayed only by hard data. But there is an unmistakable philosophy and language to economics which affects how economists process situations. When I rely on my husband for all our at-home cooking, I think about division of labor. When I pass hour 5 of a TV show binge, I think about diminishing marginal utility. I instinctively view some very human experiences through an economic lens. Understanding that framework is helpful because other economists in the wild, such as those authoring or quoted in financial articles, are “speaking my language”. And despite being human (and thus inherently emotional and unable to process all available data like a machine), I respect and have sought to emulate the philosophy underpinning economics – that analyzing cold, hard data accurately can lead to the optimal decision.

Economist vs Lawyer Mindset

Soon-to-be and currently practicing lawyers appear to be nothing  like economists. To start, I’ve heard a disturbing number of jokes from both students and professors whenever a situation with simple addition comes up – “I went to law school because I can’t do math!” On a more serious note, the adage that an attorney will answer all questions with “it depends” seems largely accurate. Many novel situations don’t have clear precedent from past cases or specific legislative language that leaves nothing unresolved or open to interpretations. While ethical rules governing lawyer behavior require that certain decisions ultimately be made by clients, attorneys have a duty to summarize, analyze, and provide guidance to clients.  This makes “it depends” an honest answer, and the listing and assessment of factors and supporting or conflicting precedents worth their weight in gold (or attorney fees).

My Why: Law School

Laws applicable to estate planning provide people with significant freedom to decide who to pass their assets and wealth to.  The laws afford some protections for spouses and family who were unintentionally omitted from an estate or when there were no estate planning documents at all.  Many cases regarding wills, estates, and trusts end up in court. While studying these cases, I often wonder whether the ultimate outcome was what the deceased person would have wanted. Hopefully “yes” as to the ultimate determination of asset disposition, but likely “no” regarding the court case being initiated and the angst and cost involved.

Sometimes the resolutions affirm that our system works well in allowing people to dictate what happens to their wealth. For example, the case where an injured, dying farmer etches “I leave everything to my wife” on his nearby tractor and it’s deemed a valid will. But other times, documents which seem to accurately lay out someone’s intent, unfortunately do not follow certain strict formalities and are deemed invalid after their author’s passing. Consider this likely scenario – A husband and wife with a blended family have mirror image wills leaving assets to all the children. They have an agreement that states the wills cannot be changed.  However, after the wife’s passing, the husband amends the documents to exclude the wife’s child (his stepchild) from receiving assets.  It’s hard to know whether and how a court should step in.

Estate planning is a critical component of thorough financial planning.  While most families don’t find themselves litigating in court after a death occurs, sloppy documents and poor planning have potentially heartbreaking outcomes.  Law school has taught me the value in precise legal language and its application to a range of eventualities.

My Clients

As an economist and advisor, I have no lack of cold, hard data to analyze and apply in planning for the unknown future. It’s the process of planning that serves clients by increasing the likelihood that whatever the future holds, their assets will support them in living the life they want and also support their loved ones after their death.  But navigating the “it depends” questions has always been most interesting to me.  Documenting and formalizing one’s wishes for providing for family and friends financially via estate documents is a weighty process, and I understand why counsel is crucial.

I’m enjoying my law school studies immensely, not only for satisfying my intellectual curiosity, but because I truly believe that the knowledge I’ve gained will make me a better financial planner.  After completing my law studies, my work as a financial advisor will be informed by a greater understanding of our legal system and attorney lens.  Ultimately, my clients will have an advisor even better equipped to work alongside their estate planning professionals as we consider tax and estate planning opportunities.

Modera Wealth Management., LLC is an SEC registered investment adviser with places of business in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. SEC registration does not imply any level of skill or training. Modera may only transact business in those states in which it is registered or qualifies for an exemption or exclusion from registration requirements.

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