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A thirty-something dot-com entrepreneur was presenting Barbara Sloan with a distinctly Silicon-style conundrum. His start-up had just gone public, infusing a respectable $20 million into what started as a middle-class marriage. The opportunity for a prenup was long gone. How, the young client urgently needed to know from Sloan, would he protect his individual net worth from his wife in the event of a breakup? Sloan, a trusts and estates partner at New York’s McLaughlin & Stern, has become expert in coaching young clients through such modern dilemmas. In the process she’s sloughing off trusts and estates’ image as a staid province of lawyerdom — a backwater reserved for drafting wills and tending to the accumulated wealth of gray-haired execs. Today, in the country’s tech centers, T&E lawyers like Sloan are in the thick of the action, helping young multimillionaires protect and increase their Internet riches. And those who practice in large full-service firms have acquired a cachet they might never have imagined: the ability to play with the big boys in finding or cementing new client relationships in the hottest business niche of the era. Today’s trust fund client may be tomorrow’s IPO. The old model for old-money preservation revolves around heirs: The lawyer’s job is to create trusts that are given irrevocably to children. But with the number of young, single, childless clients on the rapid rise, T&E experts have to concoct new ways of insulating their clients’ Internet millions from estate taxes down the road. “It’s a challenge to plan for young clients because major life decisions haven’t yet been made,” says Anne Hilker, a T&E partner at New York’s Dewey Ballantine. “Their response to planning is ‘Give me a break — I’m 25!’ There is a need for flexibility.” Lawyers have to be flexible, too. William Zabel, 63, who runs one of the biggest T&E practices in New York as a name partner at 250-lawyer Schulte Roth & Zabel, says that his role has moved beyond its traditional boundaries. “It’s almost the role of a shrink,” he says. “They have to reflect on things that most 40-year-olds don’t have to think about.” In order to meet the needs of his new clientele, Zabel has had to work harder than ever. “We’re swamped,” says the senior partner. Even with four partners and eight associates working late into the night, “nobody can breathe.” Zabel says his rates ($650 per hour) haven’t gotten any higher. But the spike in hours billed by T&E lawyers — “the same number of hours as any corporate lawyer,” says Zabel — means that the practice is more profitable to the firm. Plus, because the demand for his services is so high, premium billing is more common, with the firm often earning a prearranged fixed fee for especially large or complicated estates. In the cyclical ebb and flow of T&E work, not all firms had stayed in a building mode like Schulte Roth. Those that let their practices wither starting in the eighties are now scrambling to catch up. Which makes the T&E expert a hot lateral commodity. One T&E lawyer with client connections all along D.C.’s high-tech corridor had no problem finding suitors when she recently shopped her practice around to firms based in New York. “They didn’t give a damn about the wills,” she says. “That was just the entry point to a lot of new corporate business.” On the other coast, where the dot-com millionaire was invented, the stakes — and the pressures of preserving them — are just as high. At San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison where T&E partner Max Gutierrez Jr.’s “always full” book of business is now even fuller, T&E lawyers serve Silicon Valley clients whose ages range from 29 to 48, and whose average net worth is $200 million. Francis Dubreuil, a cohead of the nine-lawyer T&E group at Palo Alto’s Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, says the practice gives his firm an edge over its competitors — firms like Brobeck that dole out estate planning advice from far-off San Francisco — and over smaller Silicon Valley firms that can’t support a T&E department at all. Estate planning for the valley’s entrepreneurs often provides entr�e to their corporate work and introductions to their venture capital backers, Dubreuil says. In a market where businesses live or die on the strength of connections, T&E is turning out to be “a particular advantage,” says the Wilson Sonsini partner. “It’s an additional way to build relationships.” Some firms make the most of those client contacts by rolling their T&E practices into new interdisciplinary, full-service estate planning departments. At Atlanta’s Arnall Golden & Gregory, for example, an already busy T&E practice has been expanded to include lawyers specializing in Internet and securities law. It’s marketed with the newer, hipper label of “private wealth group.” Boston’s Bingham Dana is reaching for the same hybrid-practice appeal in a joint venture with investment adviser Legg Mason, Inc. The firms teamed up to provide the gamut of investment management and trust administration services to a growing crop of high-net-worth clients. “It’s a faster-paced practice,” says partner Thomas Peckham, who joined Bingham Dana seven months ago to lend a hand to both the estate planning practice and the new wealth management venture. “Often they don’t have a good sense of what’s involved,” he says, speaking of his many young dot-com clients. For the most part, “they’re living by cue cards.” Even in recent weeks, with billions in Nasdaq-listed market caps evaporating, T&E practitioners have been more frenzied than ever. The time is ripe for “gifting” large chunks of paper riches, in the language of the T&E lawyer. Because gifts are valued at the time they are given, explains Anita Rosenbloom at New York’s Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, the downswings provide great opportunities to minimize estate taxes. “We have to be poised to act very quickly — to be able to go forward on a moment’s notice,” says Rosenbloom. “Delaying even a day might mean a missed opportunity.” In the once-stodgy trusts and estates bar, the occasional frenzy isn’t such a bad thing. “It’s not like we’re sitting around sleepily drafting a will,” says Rosenbloom. “Things are a lot different now.”

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