Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Kimberly A. Ford of Clark Hill Strasburger to discuss her career as an estate planning attorney, and how it has evolved over the years.
AALM: What drew you to a career in the law?
Ford: I studied journalism for my undergraduate degree, and we were always interviewing different people around Austin. I kept finding myself pursuing interviews with different attorneys, judges, and legislative personnel. Eventually, I realized that going to law school was something that I should consider. I thought that the work they were doing was fascinating and believed it would be something I would enjoy. When I was in law school, I experienced several deaths in my family and realized how important it was to have a good estate plan in place. That really impacted me and made me think about estate planning as a path after law school.
Being an attorney was also a way I could make a positive difference in people’s lives. That was always the goal for me in picking a career, and I do feel like I am helping someone each day.
AALM: Tell us a little about your philosophy when it comes to your practice. Do you have a personal motto?
Ford: Clients are often coming to us to discuss some of the most difficult situations of their life. They are either planning for their own death or incapacity or handling the death or incapacity of a loved one. It is emotional and hard to discuss for them. My goal is to create a safe space for my clients to ask questions and feel like they have a handle on the situation. I am there to guide them and help them make sound legal decisions that will have a huge impact on them and their loved ones. My philosophy is really just to be there to help and facilitate a client’s wishes.
AALM: Tell us about one of the most important lessons you learned from a personal or professional mentor.
Ford: Sometimes we are busy with hearings or other items that must be taken care of right away, and we cannot always respond to clients as quickly as we would like. When I first started practicing, Chris Heinrichs gave me a great piece of advice. He told me to always respond to clients when I can even if it is just to acknowledge that they’ve reached out and you will follow up fully as soon as you are able. It has been probably the best advice I have ever received. I did not realize what trust and confidence this would build with clients. I believe it really shows your clients that everyone is important to you and keeps the communication line open.
AALM: How is your practice today different from how you envisioned it in law school?
Ford: If you read the law license hanging in someone’s office, it says “attorney and counselor at law.” In law school, we hear so much about being how being a good attorney is directly linked to your ability to know and apply the law. While I feel that is very true, I do think that the counselor portion is largely forgotten about in law schools. To me, being a good “counselor” for your clients means knowing when to apply the practical side of life over the legal. Winning on a legal issue does not always translate to a practical win in life. I think until you are out of school and start practicing and managing your own cases, it’s difficult to comprehend the “counselor” side of our job.
AALM: Tell us about a single case that has significantly impacted you personally or professionally.
Ford: All of my clients are important to me, but there are certain cases that really impact you personally. One of my clients was widowed, and during their lifetimes, the deceased spouse kept all of the bank accounts in his name. In this particular case, those assets were their community property. He named various individuals and organizations as the beneficiaries on these accounts, and through a series of misguided events, these accounts were paid out completely to the beneficiaries with nothing going to his widow. Eventually, we were able to recoup her share of the community property. It affected me so much personally because I felt for her and saw the devastating effects it had on her health both emotionally and physically. Not only had she lost a spouse, she had experienced a betrayal through something as simple as a beneficiary designation (a common estate planning technique).
AALM: As technology changes the practice of law, how are you adapting? Do you believe these changes are good or detrimental?
Ford: Most of the time, I will prefer a face-to-face meeting to discuss an important legal issue with a client. In terms of building a relationship with your clients, no technology will ever be able to replace sitting in a room with someone and talking through legal problem. With that said, email is has been such an amazing tool for attorneys to communicate with clients and other attorneys. It allows us to share information much more quickly and to keep clients up to date on the most recent information regarding their matter. I think advances in technology are good, but we always have to be mindful that we need that personal contact with our clients.
AALM: Tell us about a book, movie or event that changed your perspective on the practice of law or your approach to life.
Ford: I read “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin who is a former attorney turned writer. In her book, she suggests doing one thing a day that makes you happy to increase your overall happiness. When we’re working on a particularly difficult probate matter where beneficiaries are not getting along as well as they should, I think about this advice. We can ask the upset beneficiary, “what is one small thing that we can do that will make you happy?” Usually, it is a request that we can grant or make a concession on! It can make such a huge difference in bridging that gap by extending a small olive branch.
AALM: Tell us about your ambitions for your career. Do you plan to stay with your firm?
Ford: I joined Clark Hill Strasburger in May from my previous firm. I absolutely love the team culture here and cannot imagine a better fit for me professionally. My goal is to continue to build my practice and grow and learn here from all of the experienced attorneys at the firm.
AALM: Tell us about your life outside the law.
Ford: My life outside the law is spending time with my friends and family. I love to cook for all of them. I especially enjoy the holiday season that is right around the corner. I am an avid reader and do like to spend my time reading non-fiction books.
AALM: What would you want your estate planning clients to know before coming to see you?
Ford: I always want people to know it is completely acceptable to have no idea where to start! It is my job to help them start the process and to sift out of our conversations what is really important to them. We talk about family, friends, life, and goals they have for themselves or for their children. They should not delay in putting together a plan just because they feel like they do not have everything completely squared away.
I try my best to make it a conversation with friends rather than a meeting in an attorney’s office. At the end of our initial meeting, sometimes the plan is all figured out, and sometimes it requires some additional work. The process is different for everyone. At the end of the day, my goal is just to help everyone make a plan that works best for them.