Is Perception Reality?

Nov 26, 2010

Recently I heard an ESPN Sports Radio show suggest that "perception is reality" to high school athletes looking at which university to commit to play for. The phrase has stuck with me lately, much like that song you just can't get out of your head.


Lately, it seems like we have gotten an inordinate number of client inquiries and telephone calls from people who ask us to do things for them that are simply not legally or practically possible. They have heard it – at seminars, from radio advertisements and programs, and from various "on-air" personalities and want to know if we can do that for them?


"These Individuals are making promises they simply cannot keep."


The true reality is no. We cannot and – truth be told – neither can the individuals who said they can. These advertisers and sometimes self-created luminaries are making promises they simply cannot keep. They are broadcasting false or at best deceptive information. But because of the power of the airways, and of repetition, they have created the perception that they are "experts." Therefore, what they say must be factual.


I am not na├»ve. The phrase attributed (rightly or wrongly) to P.T. Barnum – "a sucker is born every minute," is certainly no more the case today than in the past. Nor should it come as any surprise that there are many out there willing to embrace that thought and take whatever monetary advantage they can. The world has always had such players and always will. But what is disconcerting to me is some of my fellow professionals have resorted to these methods to create and sustain business.


Don't get me wrong. I have no quarrel with seminars (indeed, I conduct them myself on a regular basis). What I object to is that they are not being used as truly educational seminars, but in many cases are being used to "scare" or "high-pressure" attendees into signing up for follow-up sessions or worse, signing so-called legal and/or financial documents at the time of the seminar. Nor do I have a problem with tasteful and accurate advertising. But what we are seeing is the result of a program of consistent but inaccurate statements on radio, television and print media that purports to address the needs of many customers. And while these tactics are not limited to the elderly, they seem to target and attract their particular needs and circumstances.


"These tactics appear to unduly target the needs and circumstances of the elderly"


Is this phenomenon just perception on my part? I don't think so. Over the past couple years, I have reviewed documents presented in a printed form in a notebook with fill-in-the-blanks provisions, which my new client has told me was done at or immediately following the seminar. I have also reviewed, on a number of occasions, legal documents drafted by an attorney the client has never met (and who, from all indications, had no idea about either what he was doing, or at the very least, the circumstances and needs of the clients). Instead, the consulting, meeting, and document execution was being done by third parties (who—more often than not—were also selling financial products). And time and again, we have clients come into our office who have been told that the "cookie-cutter" documents they bring us to review have provided them some legal protection or accomplished some goal which they clearly and simply do not do! Regrettably, the documents have often been prepared, presented and executed by staff members other than the lawyer who puts his or her name behind them and upon whose perceived expertise has drawn the client in the first place.


It is distressing that a number of individuals have been able to create a perception—one of expertise and one of false solution—for their own personal economic gain. It is an illustration of that lately incessant "song in my head:" Perception is Reality.

Am I on a rant? Maybe.


"It is our professional obligation to tell our clients what they need to hear—not what they want to hear."


But perception is not reality. It is crucial that good, factual, common sense solutions be explained and applied to the legal problems and challenges presented in Estate Planning and in "Elder law" Planning. It is fair, in my view, for professional to charge a fee and benefit economically for their professional advice. It is, after all, what they do for a living. But we are professionals. That means we have an obligation to give more than "cookie cutter" documents and false hope to our clients. It means we must do our homework. It means we must spend personal, one-on-one time with our clients. It means, sometimes, that we must practice proverbial "tough love," and tell our clients, not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.


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