NW Legacy Law Center brings unique business model to legal landscape

Vancouver-based law firm offers estate planning for the masses

Thomas Hackett

You have a modest 401(k), a house, and some savings – but nothing close to $2 million, the state threshold for estate taxes. Therefore, you don’t need to worry about estate planning, right?

Dead wrong, according to Thomas Hackett, who started his own law firm, NW Legacy Law Center, in Vancouver last September. Hackett, who has worked for several local law offices, went solo because he “saw a gap” in estate planning.

“There is a strong need for estate planning,” said Hackett, for people with smaller amounts of assets.

Questions such as who will help with health decisions, who will take care of minor children and how the wealth a person has built up relates to long-term care and Medicare/Medicaid regulations are two important questions nearly everyone needs to answer.

“You don’t want to be forced into nursing home poverty,” said Hackett. “You want to still have something to pass on to your beneficiaries. Nursing home care is the single largest issue facing retirees in Clark County.”

Hackett’s firm focuses on these life-planning issues, and, for his business clients, succession planning. For example, a business owner might have three children, but only one is interested in taking over the business. Hackett can help the owner find an equitable solution.

Compared to other attorneys, Hackett’s business model might be considered unusual. Instead of the standard hourly rate many lawyers charge, Hackett charges a set fee for services. He also makes “house calls” to clients who are home-bound or in the hospital. He compared his set-fee approach to a taxi cab ride.

“I’m stressed out by the meter running,” he explained. “I’m always thinking, ‘can’t you get past that car a little faster?’”

In contrast, he said, he took a bike taxi to a play in England, and was charged a set fee for the ride.

“It transferred the incentive for efficiency to the cab driver,” Hackett said.

Likewise, he said, “clients do not have a good idea of how long it should take me to do what I do. So If tell them I am going to charge so much an hour, that’s a scary thought.”

Instead, Hackett offers two to three free estate planning workshops each month. These workshops fill a gap in education, informing attendees about issues such as creditors, nursing home costs and current and ex family members. Attendees can ask individual questions and get to know Hackett. The workshops, said Hackett, offer efficiency for clients, because he can educate eight to 20 people at a time. After the workshop, Hackett invites interested participants to a vision meeting – free of charge – where they discuss the client’s assets. Then, Hackett gives them a set options for an estate planning package, with a range of costs. Fees are not based on asset amount, said Hackett.

“You’d think there’d be a correlation between asset amount and fee, but there’s not a direct correlation. People with less often want to protect their assets more,” said Hackett.

Hackett has strong roots in Clark County – he was born at 33rd and Main Street, only one-and-a-half miles away from his office, and two miles from his house. He attended Hudson Bay High School and Clark College before going on to law school (there were stints as caregiver for his grandparents and nephew, and as a ski instructor, as well). Leaving the firm he worked for before starting his own office was a “hard decision,” said Hackett.

“I loved the people I worked with but I knew I wanted to do things differently, and I wanted to be based in Vancouver,” Hackett said.

The “scariest part” of going out on his own, he said, was worrying about whether clients would follow him. But, he said, those fears were unfounded – all his prior clients transferred to his firm, and his client base has tripled since September. 85 percent of his clients are located in Clark County. Currently, he and his client services director are the only employees, but he is in the process of hiring another person to help with administrative duties.

If a client has additional needs, such as real estate expertise, Hackett partners with a number of other attorneys at other firms, while he acts as “general outside counsel.” These attorneys, he said, provide “invaluable assistance” to his clients.

Over the next three to five years, said Hackett, he hopes to hire one more attorney and several more professional staff. Doing so, he said, will ensure he is able to enjoy client interactions and help clients most efficiently. And, he said, he wants to be able to take four to six weeks of vacation every year.

“That’s not typical for attorneys. They don’t usually even take the two weeks they’re given each year,” said Hackett. “But I want my staff and myself to have a healthy work/life balance.”

This goal, said Hackett, will enable his firm to reflect the value system of his clients, who want to be able to take care of their own families through informed estate planning.

Editor’s note: NW Legacy Law Center is a member of the Vancouver Business Journal’s Strategic Partners Program. To learn more about the program, contact Irene Pettengill at 360.448.6013.

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.