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After a stint as a special adviser to the U.S. Mission in Bosnia, Michael Kavoukjian, a trust and estate attorney, transferred from the New York office of White & Case to the law firm’s Miami office in 1998. His work in war-torn Bosnia, he says, made his new assignment look easy by comparison. “Once you’ve negotiated with Serbs and Muslims, helping to resolve squabbles within a Miami family is a piece of cake,” says Kavoukjian, who notes that relatives battling over inheritances are somewhat less likely to shoot you. Kavoukjian became the first full-time trust and estate specialist in the Miami office of White & Case. Since then, the department has grown rapidly. It now has 16 lawyers. As head of the wealth management practice in Miami, which it calls its private clients group, Kavoukjian is recruiting more attorneys. White & Case is not alone. Throughout Florida, law firms like Akerman Senterfitt, Greenberg Traurig, Shutts & Bowen and Gunster Yoakley are beefing up their wealth management and trust and estate planning departments. That’s largely because of the trillions of dollars baby boomers are in the process of inheriting from their savings-oriented parents. “We are in the midst of the greatest intergenerational transfer of wealth,” says Kavoukjian, the former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s committee on estate planning and drafting. “The sums are staggering even with the current decline in the stock market.” OVERLAPPING WITH BANKERS Law firms’ so-called private client services groups bear a striking resemblance to private banking and trust management departments in the financial services world. Both focus on preserving the wealth of affluent individuals and families, which are typically those with at least $5 million to $10 million in investible assets. In that niche, lawyers and bankers often collaborate and refer business leads to each other. “We tend to look at it as a partnership,” says Richard Ditizio, managing director of the Palm Beach, Fla., office of Citigroup Private Bank. While there is some overlap between banking and legal teams in the wealth management business, bankers, unlike lawyers, are able to sell a wide range of financial products such as mutual funds, investment services and insurance. In a few years, however, some lawyers predict that they, too, will be able to peddle financial products. That would be a new source of fees. But some ethics mavens fear that it could compromise the objectivity of advice offered to clients. RULES FROM THE GRAVE Some trusts drawn up by legal specialists in the trust and estate planning field enable wealthy individuals to continue exercising control over their assets even after death. These instruments accomplish this by establishing controls and stipulations with which heirs must comply to receive inherited funds. “It’s making sure the money works for [the heirs] and not against them,” says Nick Rubino of Rubino & Associates, a three-lawyer firm in Altamonte Springs, Fla. For example, fears of funding a do-nothing lifestyle can prompt a wealthy individual to link annual trust payments to an heir’s gainful employment. Other trust stipulations limit amounts that can be spent on weddings, homes or new business ventures. One middle-aged South Florida man discovered after his parents’ death that his sizable inheritance was tied to getting a college degree, according to trust professionals who handled the estate. He had resisted his parents’ demand that he do so for decades. Only after he went to college and earned his degree did he inherit the money. In-law trusts and what Rubino calls “bimbo trusts” are other vehicles used to shield family assets from an offspring’s spouse, or from a second or third wife. An in-law trust, for example, enables a married daughter or son to tap a family trust, but prohibits the child’s spouses from getting direct access to the account. Like private bankers, estate planning attorneys often become intimately involved in family politics, real estate transactions and other financial maneuvers. For instance, Greenberg Traurig attorneys have helped clients buy vacation homes and lease private planes, says Daniel Mielnicki, national coordinator of Greenberg’s wealth preservation group. Attorneys also get heavily involved in family businesses. At the 150-lawyer Gunster Yoakley, a West Palm Beach-based firm with 24 attorneys on its private wealth services team, James Davis recently crafted a benefits plan, employment contracts, a shareholders plan, a family trust and corporate succession plans for a large, family-run business involving parents and their adult children. “We’re so close, we even e-mail jokes back and forth,” Davis says. FROM BANKER TO LAWYER The movement of lawyers between wealth management law practice and private banking is brisk. Mielnicki, who works in Greenberg’s Boca Raton, Fla., office, spent 20 years at a major New York firm before he moved to Florida in 1990 and joined Citigroup’s Private Bank unit, where he was a tax planning specialist. He returned to law firm work five years ago. “It was a very enlightening period,” Mielnicki says of his stint at Citibank. He says he got experience in cash flow, investment management and the risk-tolerance characteristics of the wealthy. Rubino says his background as a banker helps him understand the day-to-day administration of trust funds and investments. Rubino previously worked as an estate planning attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, then served as a trust officer for banks in Pennsylvania and Florida. “I’ve been doing the same thing, just from different sides of the table,” Rubino says. The number of attorneys seeking trust and estate planning board certification has exploded in the last few years, says John Tan, a Bar certification specialist in Tallahassee, Fla. The increase has been driven by younger attorneys seeking to make themselves more marketable. In the past two years, more than 50 lawyers have applied for the annual trust and estate certification exam. In contrast, from 1988 through 1992, the average was only 15. From 1997 through 1999, the average was 31. There now are 319 board-certified specialists in Florida, compared with 278 five years ago. CONDITIONS RIPE With the current intergenerational wealth hand-off, the population demographics have never been better for lawyers. And as their own mortality looms, boomers are thinking ahead to their own legacies. A recent best-selling book about wealth in the United States, “The Millionaire Next Door,” by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, identifies estate planning law as the top career choice for the next few years. The generation born before World War II is concerned about passing on wealth to grandchildren, while paying as little as possible in estate taxes, says Linda Suzanne Griffin, a Clearwater, Fla., trust and estate planning attorney. During the last 10 years, her practice volume has tripled. Griffin, a sole practitioner with two employees, has had to refer excess work to other lawyers. Ironically, the recent repeal of the federal estate tax laws may offer a boost to the field. While total repeal of the estate tax may or may not occur ultimately, new complications could send many Americans rushing to find a trust and estate planning lawyer. Some attorneys joke that proposed changes should be dubbed the Estate Planning Lawyers Full-Employment Act. “It’s going to be a boon to this area of law practice,” says Jerry Wolf, a shareholder in the Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., offices of Akerman Senterfitt, which employs 25 lawyers in its private client services unit. He’s already noticed a growth in recruitment ads seeking estate and trust lawyers. Other firms see an increase in family disputes over large inheritances and are targeting the field of probation and estate planning litigation. They anticipate that the stock market decline will spark more lawsuits. Faced with diminished inheritances, family members are more likely to sue each other to get a larger slice of a smaller pie, says Miami lawyer William Palmer, who recently moved from Adorno & Zeder to Shutts & Bowen. Or else, he says, they’ll sue account trustees and investment managers on the grounds that they’ve mishandled funds. “It just goes on forever,” Palmer says.

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