Top Lawyers: Robert Kabacy On The 5 Things You Need to Become a Top Lawyer in Your Specific Field of Law

An Interview with Chere Estrin

Chere Estrin
Authority Magazine

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Be yourself and be your best self. We all have different paths and goals. Be true to yourself, and don’t try to fool yourself into thinking you are something you are not or want something you don’t. Trying to do so just does not work.

The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Kabacy.

Robert Kabacy has been a lawyer in the estate planning and wealth transfer industries for more than twenty-five years. He grew up in the small town of Canby, Oregon, where he was a competitive swimmer. He attended law school to pursue his passion of helping others navigate a complicated legal and tax world and has an uncanny ability to explain complicated concepts in an easy-to-understand format. About Me is a result of the passing of his mother and experiencing firsthand the difficulty of losing a loved one while navigating the mechanics that go with it. He enjoys reading, stage/parlor magic, and outdoor activities. He still swims almost daily (though no longer competitively). Learn more at robertkabacy.com.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?

My earliest memories included wanting to be a policeman for the purpose of serving and helping others. I have always worked, even from a young age, to make sure people felt safe and secure. There is probably more to that backstory, but we can probably leave that for a therapist. As I grew to about 11 or 12 years old, I recognized that I may not be cut out for that specific career path but wanted to remain connected with the law, which is very important to me. Becoming a lawyer became a natural fit. While I did not know what type of law interested me, I knew that becoming a lawyer was my destiny and took all steps to make it happen. Near the end of law school, I had to make the choice again when presented with the opportunity to possibly work for the FBI or go into a private practice. I chose the latter but often wonder how things would have turned out if I had chosen differently. I ended up in this field of law that I serve as a result of exploring many areas and determining that estate and business law comes to me naturally and is a perfect fit with my psychology degree as well as minors in mathematics and economics.

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

I am known as an estate and business planning attorney. Basically, I work with individuals, couples, families, and businesses to help plan estates, solve issues, and transfer wealth — whether it be to the next generation as personal wealth or because of a purchase or sale of a business. Sometimes my practice has me simply solving problems without any wealth transfer. The bottom line is we live in an increasingly complicated world, and sometimes, we need someone there to help navigate the choices and talk through solutions; that’s where I come in.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Learning everything I could about every aspect of my chosen field
  2. Listening carefully and actively at all times in an effort to have better communication
  3. Being patient

Sometimes, patience can help solve issues or allow solutions to present themselves. Jumping to conclusions is not always the best approach.

I have been told that I can explain complicated concepts in an easy-to-understand format. For example, when explaining how a revocable trust avoids probate, I will sometimes ask a client if they have ever picked blackberries. I also ask what they take with them to pick the berries. Many reply that they would take a bucket I then create a mental picture for them of picking blackberries. I tell them that the berries represent assets, and the bucket represents a trust. When a berry is picked (asset acquired), they can keep the berry in their hand (title of assets in your individual name) or put it into the bucket (title of assets in the trust). In both cases, they control the blackberries and can eat them or trade them for strawberries. The difference is that at death, the blackberries in the hand get crushed as a result of rigor mortis creating a “mess.” We then may have to go through a court process known as “probate” to get the berries (assets) cleaned up and transferred to our heirs. Many think a will avoids probate, but this is not necessarily the case.

On the other hand, the “trust bucket” avoids probate because even after death of the owner, it still exists with the berries in it transferred during lifetime. The trust also names a new person to then follow the trust instructions (successor trustee). That person has the immediate authority to carry out the terms of the trust (i.e., distribution) without court or probate.

Second, I have been told I am very creative. I don’t pay much attention to that label. I simply listen intently and then chase down all relevant solutions to come up with the easiest, least expensive, and sometimes optimal solution to solve the issue. I simply keep an open mind for all solutions, instead of trying to fit a solution to the issue. If that is partially what defines creativity, then I suppose I can be considered creative.

Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?

Luck gets some credit. I was lucky to be born in the United States to parents who valued education and proactive solution-oriented behavior. I was lucky to recognize that delayed gratification can produce better results than immediate enjoyment. Life is a journey. Luck will sometime have a hand in the trials and tribulations that we all face; however, it is what you do with what you are given and the choices you make that matters.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success?

Yes and no.

Yes, as the quality of the education has helped, and the reputation of the schools (University of Puget Sound and Marquette University Law School) are good. As a result, certain doors and opportunities happened.

The answer is also no because my success was in part based on what I chose to do with the training and opportunities that came about through active participation. Many success stories exist where the tools the person started with were not that great, but success still ensued. These results teach us that the outcome depends on how the person used those tools and what choice they made over a period of time and not just the opportunities that were presented.

How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

It certainly does not hurt, but again, it is what you do with the education as it relates to your goals that really matters.

Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your 20-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?

The same thing many people told me and summed up by Billy Joel in the words of the song “Vienna” “Slow down you crazy child. You’re so ambitious for a juvenile. But then if you’re so smart tell me, why are you still so afraid?” Take time to do it right and be patient.

I would have started my book earlier in my career, but timing and expertise were really important aspects of its success. I think I also would have taken more leadership classes. I would have also seen a bit more of the world before entering the day-to-day work lifestyle. Once you start working and building a career, it becomes harder to get away and see what this big world has to offer.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

Helping others solve complicated problems and making their lives easier is a strong motivator. Also, being a pleaser helps. It’s really not about me… it’s about them. I think people like that. It’s how I was raised, and it’s what makes me the most comfortable. I don’t like talking about myself that much, although this interview has made me expand my thinking.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I look for excitement with each coming day. I think one of the secrets to excitement is to bring flair to the mundane. Day-to-day activity in the work world can get tedious. However, if we can change our perception to view each moment as a unique opportunity and possibly a positive challenge, we can achieve greatness even when the task seems mundane.

Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?

I’d like to have success with my current book About Me: Information You Will Need When I’ve Passed and expand it to family situations in a second offering and then a final third offering about communities and business. I have lots of stories and have learned that if we build from ourselves first, we can then build strong families, then strong communities, and finally, a strong nation. The common thread though is building from strength and good moral fiber, rather than emotion or what seems to be the trend in any given moment.

Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?

Planning an estate and closing on a multi-billion-dollar transaction was very exhilarating.

Since my practice addresses wealth transfers and sometimes death, and because each case is very serious to those experiencing it, I don’t think I have funny stories. However, I do look for humor in each situation to share and “laugh with” my clients when appropriate (and sometimes cry with them).

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely?

Yes. We have learned to do that through the pandemic and have successfully and seamlessly accomplished that.

Onsite?

Absolutely, let’s not forget the original ways of delivering services which are face-to-face meetings. A lot of nonverbal communication occurs in those meetings when compared to the phone or even Zoom calls.

Or Hybrid?

Yes. Sometimes we start remote and finish onsite and vice-versa. We are all busy, and we try to make the planning process as easy as we can, so it fits in the busy schedules of our clients.

What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate?

I think it will definitely be a hybrid model. Law offices are different than many other offices to some extent based on the nature of lawyers. As long as legal services can continue to be delivered efficiently, law firms will adapt to the technologies and needs of clients.

What do you prefer?

I like the hybrid model. It allows clients to receive the information in an efficient manner and increases productivity.

How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?

Zoom and team calls have become much more accepted and even normalized. DocuSign and similar services are also being more readily accepted. COVID has required the law field to move faster into the positive efficiencies that technology has to offer.

Change is hard for the law field. I think the hybrid model of some personal visits and some remote visits is here to stay. I also think as technology improves so will efficiencies in the law. I can see electronic wills and trusts with proper safeguards as something that may be a reality in my lifetime. I just hope I can be there to help create it.

We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?

Yes, but it has to coincide with good reputation. Without a good reputation, no amount of networking will help. Therefore, focus on reputation and networking are both necessary for success.

I think is the nature of networking is about the same; although, with social media, it has become much more efficient with a wider delivery system. It also, when used improperly, can cause unexpected issues to arise. Careful thinking and planning about how to use social media is very important for lawyers. Too many people simply just state their mind without thinking about the effects it could have personally or professionally. I’m a fan of free speech, but we also must consider the effect we have on others.

Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?

This is an excellent question. There are lots of articles in bar journals discussing this topic. Different practices may have different needs, so I suggest fitting the use of social media into categories of professional and personal. Focus on the needs of your practice and what clients expect. Keep in mind the attorney-client privilege when doing so. Also, I would avoid trying to practice law on social media.

Further, one must recognize that social media takes time. Like with real estate, go for the highest and best use — except with social media, it’s the highest and best use of time. Not monitored or implemented correctly, social media can become a time waster. However, it can also be an effective means of communication with clients, provided the lawyer is mindful of the confidential nature of the communications.

Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need to Become a Top Lawyer in Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Learn all you can about your chosen field. Those that are really good look to learn everything they can and leave no rock unturned. Study, even if you don’t have an active case that addresses an issue of interest.
  2. Build reputation. Do good work, be honest, and do what you say when you say you are going to do it. Reputation will grow and serve you well.
  3. Be vigilant. Realize that it takes years to build a reputation, but only one short event to destroy it all. Be vigilant and always do the right thing, even when it is hard.
  4. Be a good communicator to your peers, clients, family, and all others you contact. We are terrible communicators by nature. Practice at every moment listening, understanding, and relating.
  5. Be yourself and be your best self. We all have different paths and goals. Be true to yourself, and don’t try to fool yourself into thinking you are something you are not or want something you don’t. Trying to do so just does not work.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

If I could choose anyone, I think I would choose to have lunch with Keanu Reeves. I have heard he is a kind, generous (although of course, I’d buy lunch!) and a well-rounded person. I’d want to ask how playing such a diverse cast of characters over his career has shaped or influenced him as a person, or how it hasn’t. I’d also ask about how he balances fame with humility to stay grounded. I think it would be interesting to understand a day-in-the-life of Keanu Reeves. Maybe I could also tease out some wisdom from him knowing that we all have something valuable to give and share. And, of course, I couldn’t help myself in advising him with a smile to purchase About Me and get an estate plan done if he hasn’t done so already.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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Chere Estrin
Authority Magazine

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing, a top national and international staffing organization and MediSums, medical records summarizing.