Estate Planning - A New Look: Interview with Laura Cowan of The Law Office of Laura E. Cowan, PLLC

One of the most versatile attorney skill sets is that of estate planning.  Estate planning attorneys often have a CPA or a Tax LLM – skills easily transferable to any career field that draws upon their background in financial planning, such as wealth management or as a chief of staff/personal assistant for UHNW individuals/households. 

Laura Cowan, Founder of The Law Office of Laura E. Cowan, PLLC, is taking an innovative and client-centric approach to estate planning law.  She also worked as a CPA for several years prior to law school at Goldman Sachs and Ernst & Young.  

Let’s see what Laura has to say about hanging her own shingle, the future of estate planning and the legal practice, and how to best prepare yourself for the challenges of an entrepreneurial transition.

You’re not the first attorney to start an estate planning practice.  How is your model unique?  

I dispensed with billing by the hour. All my fees are fixed, with the rate pre-selected by the client, so they know exactly how much they are investing in their plan. 

I wanted to step away from the old estate planning model where lawyers would bill clients in six-minute increments for time spent preparing complex documents (which would, inevitably, result in more time billed explaining such documents to the client).

I also offer workshops and webinars so clients can learn the nuts and bolts of estate planning in a forum that isn’t bogged down in legalese.

What is the future of estate planning law, and the legal profession in general?

Generally, flat fees are going to be much more common going forward. People simply do not want to be billed in six-minute increments, getting a random bill in the mail for a 10-minute phone call.

As for estate planning, I think people will seek out estate planning lawyers who have client systems in place that go beyond one-off, documents-only transactions.

Online DIY services may seem less expensive, but the reality is that very rarely will these documents work for you and your family when you need them to. This means paying a lawyer hefty fees to fix your documents during an already difficult time.

I also predict a greater emphasis on planning for non-financial assets, like your values and what you would want your children to know if you weren’t there to tell them. Holistic legacy planning that addresses family wealth, not just financial wealth, will continue to increase in importance going forward for many clients.

What is your ethos as an estate planning lawyer?

Estate planning is about so much more than just creating documents. It’s about being a trusted advisor and counselor to my clients: not just when creating the actual plan, but for a lifetime.  

Why did you hang your own shingle instead of link up with an established practice?

Hanging my own shingle has allowed me to do all the things I was unable to do at a big firm operating under a more traditional estate planning model, including flexible fee structures and user-friendly estate planning documents.

I was dissatisfied practicing law under the traditional estate planning model that focused more on churning out documents at the expense of building a relationship with the people you serve.  As an estate planning attorney, my clients are people – a fact that sometimes gets lost in a traditional model.

I see you have a CPA!  How can a CPA help lawyers branch out? 

It’s not just a CPA.  Having a law degree means you’ve been trained to think critically: a skill that is valuable in any profession.  Many lawyers had careers before transitioning to the law, which is great because they are bringing diverse skill sets to the table.

What are some steps I should take before I hang my own shingle?  

1. Understand your personal finances!  Be clear about what you need to survive, financially, as a solo practitioner and where your likely revenue streams are.

2. Nurture relationships with other solo practitioners to get a sense of what to do (and what not to do) when starting out.

3. Spend time developing your business model.

4. Invest in a training and mentorship program. I invested in coaching under the New Law Business Model and became certified as a Personal Family Lawyer®. This program taught me how to serve clients in a better way, and how to create a practice that resonates with my personal and professional values.

You finished the New York Marathon in 2008!  Tell us about that!

Finishing the 2008 New York Marathon remains one of my proudest accomplishments!  I was never a competitive runner in school, but I enjoyed jogging in Central Park.   When I embarked on my marathon journey, my first race was a 3-miler and I was so proud when I finished.  I gradually worked my way up to 26.2 and when race day came, I was fully prepared.  I finished in four and a half hours. 

It sounds cheesy, but you can do so much more than you think you are capable of – and what you may actually be capable of – when you start a project!

You also lived abroad! 

I spent several months living in Milan a few years ago.  I used Milan as a springboard to travel all over Europe.  Asia is next on my list.  Closer to home, I love attending the New York City Ballet as much as I can, and I always have at least one book that I’m working on at any given time.  Right now it’s Anna Karenina.

Do you have any parting words of advice for lawyers seeking an alternative legal path?

Change is scary, but it’s the only way you grow personally and professionally.   Don’t be afraid to seek help via your coach, your mentor, or by just tapping into your existing relationships. 

You are capable of so much more than you think!

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