How to Find the Best Financial Advisors
Recently a lawyer said to me:
I really just want to give somebody money and then they hand me back more money.
I’m glad someone finally said it. Most lawyers have no interest in digging deep into the nitty-gritty of managing their finances. And why should they? After three years of professional school, navigating the challenging legal market, and then starting a career in the law, it makes a lot of sense that they’d rather focus on their legal career than sorting out the difference between an HSA and FSA or understanding topics like tax-loss harvesting.
So if you want to give somebody money and then receive more money back, how do you do it without getting ripped off?
The do-it yourself solution
The easiest way to make sure you’re not getting ripped off is to hand the money over to yourself.
As you probably know, I’m not paying anyone to manage my money. And while you might be thinking that makes sense because I’m writing a whole financial blog about personal finance, investing and financial independence, you might be surprised to realize that you don’t need to have the outsized interest in personal finance that I do in order to manage your own finances.
All you need to know about personal finance are the parts relevant to you.
No student loans? Then you don’t need to understand student loan refinancing, IBR and PSLF.
Need to buy insurance? Good news. You only need to buy disability and life insurance once in your life. After you learn how to make a good decision, you can move on to the next subject. In fact, there are a lot of financial products that you only need at specific times in your life (e.g. life insurance, a mortgage, long-term care insurance, etc.). You don’t need to understand them all at the same time.
The key is to keep everything as simple as possible.
The other benefit to managing your own money is that you can make a lot of financial mistakes as a do-it yourself investor and come out relatively unscathed on the other end.
For example, most people start with a four-figure portfolio. There’s not a lot of mistakes you can make with a four-figure portfolio that are going to haunt you for years to come. Most of the time you’ll learn from your mistakes and come out of the situation all the wiser. Plus, being a do-it-yourself investor means that you’ll be in the trenches when there’s a bear market, meaning you’ll be in a much better position to stay the course the next time the stock market tanks.
Financial advice isn’t free and is probably more expensive than you think. The industry-average 1% fee for assets under management (AUM) seems harmless, but a lawyer investing $50,000 annually over 30 years while paying a 1% AUM will end up with a portfolio that is a full $1 million lower than if they hadn’t paid the fee. If that didn’t get your attention, I’m not sure what will.
That means you can make up to $1 million in mistakes on your own before you’re reaching the same amount that you’d pay for good financial advice. There may be something to the oft-repeated “I went to law school because I was bad at math” but lawyers aren’t THAT bad at math.
Despite my arguments for doing it yourself, I fully understand that it’s not going to be the best path for a lot of people. Financial advisors can add value to your investment strategy. If you are going to seek a financial advisor, what qualities should you look for?
The ideal financial advisor
#1 Fiduciary duty
I want a financial advisor whose first responsibility is to do what’s best for me and not what’s best for them. Many people are surprised that not all financial advisors are required to maintain this fiduciary standard and instead can meet a much lower “suitability” standard.
#2 Someone with up-to-date industry knowledge
While financial advice isn’t rocket science, there are important developments that warrant paying attention in the field. If your financial advisor isn’t familiar with REPAYE or the latest troubles with PSLF, they’re not going to be giving you the best advice. Additionally, a financial advisor who is up-to-speed on the latest developments probably reads a blog like Michael Kitce‘s regularly and could intelligently discuss the weaknesses of the Trinity Study or the efficient-market hypothesis.
#3 Works with clients just like me
It’s great if you’ve found someone you know is trustworthy and has been recommended by friends or family, but does that person regularly work with lawyers? I’d want to work with someone that has a thorough understanding of PSLF or who has walked several clients through the various student loan refinancing companies and is familiar with the pros and cons of each.
Additionally, I’d want someone that has guided hundreds of people through the Backdoor Roth IRA and can fill out a Form 8606 blindfolded. Lawyers have a few different things going for them that require specialized knowledge. You don’t want to be a part of that person’s handful of doctor and lawyer clients; you want to be the same as everyone that person deals with on a daily basis.
I’d want a financial advisor who’s familiar with investment options only available to accredited investors and has regularly reviewed financial products sold by the American Bar Association. Then I’d feel comfortable they understood what it’s like to walk in my shoes!
#4 A well-articulated, reasonable investment strategy
Any advisor I would work with needs to be able to explain their strategy clearly, and it needs to be reasonable. Every advisor and investor has a slightly different approach. Some prefer to tilt their asset classes while others prefer simplicity above all else. Maybe the financial advisor you’re working with wants to devote part of the portfolio to alternative investments like commercial real estate or hard-money lending.
All of these nuances are fine. All paved roads lead to Rome. But the financial advisor’s strategy needs to be easy to explain and understand and it needs to be reasonable. If the financial advisor’s strategy is based on picking individual securities or buying when the market is low and selling when it’s hot, you should be concerned.
Finally, unlike a lot of things in life, in investing you get what you don’t pay for. Therefore, the ideal financial advisor needs to be focused on the cost of their recommended investments. Those who aren’t think their great selections will overcome the fees and work out handsomely for you, but research has proven again and again that the fees will eat you alive. When the fees are high, the only people guaranteed to make a killing are the ones collecting the fees. Now keep in mind that this is different than the fees charged by the financial advisor. We’ve already conceded that you’ll be paying a fair price for advice. But you’ll also have to pay fees associated with the investments themselves. These should be as low as possible.
#5 Fee-only rather than fee-based
These terms sound maddeningly similar but are vastly different. A fee-only financial advisor means the only source of compensation your financial advisor receives is from fees paid directly by you to the advisor. This might be an hourly fee, a retainer fee, or a fee based on the percentage of assets under management. Regardless of the type of fee, the key here is that you’re the one paying it directly to the advisor and the advisor is not receiving compensation in the form of commissions based on the products they’re recommending. By keeping it fee-only, you’re removing a major source of conflict, since the advice and compensation are completely separate and independent from the financial products recommended.
If fee-only sounds like a good deal, you’ll understand why thousands of investors have gravitated toward their services. In response, the financial industry came up with the fee-based moniker, which many consumers find confusing (surprise, surprise). In fact, quite a few investors will specifically ask for a “fee-based” advisor thinking they’re making a good first start.
In reality, a fee-based advisor receives fees in at least two forms: (1) as a fee directly from the client (that’s you) and (2) as a commission from the financial product that they’ve recommended, such as load-based mutual funds or insurance. It’s not hard to imagine that a financial advisor who receives a commission from steering you toward a commission-based financial product might have a pretty strong incentive to do so regardless of whether that’s the best solution for you.
Commissions are a terrible way to pay for financial advice. Doctors, lawyers and accountants aren’t paid that way. Financial advisors shouldn’t be paid this way. Commissions should be left to salespeople.
#6 A fair price for good advice
In addition to receiving good financial advice, I’d only be comfortable paying a fair price for such advice. Generally that means avoiding paying for advice based on the assets under management (AUM) model. Not that any model is perfect, but the AUM has a few significant flaws.
First, the fees become ridiculously big as your portfolio grows. It may not seem like much when you have a five-figure portfolio, but even paying half the industry standard 0.5% on a $2 million portfolio means you’ll be paying $10,000 a year in financial advice alone (not including the fees of your investment products). Managing a $2 million portfolio is not much different from managing a $200,000 portfolio.
Second, the AUM model incentivizes the financial advisor to keep as many assets under management as possible. This means that they may not recommend you to set up a Backdoor Roth or pay off your student loans or mortgage early, since it will naturally divert money that could have been counted toward the AUM away into other buckets.
Third, a lot of financial advisors that are solely paid via AUM fees won’t work with you until you have about $500,000 in assets. It simply isn’t worth it to them to collect 1% of $10,000 when you’re just getting started. Ironically, that’s the time when an investor most needs the advice. It may take a decade or more to reach $500,000 (or the investor might not reach it all without good financial advice). By the time you have $500,000 saved up, you should know what you’re doing anyway. Do you really need to pay $5,000/year at that point?
A much better system is simply paying someone an annual fee and/or an hourly fee for financial advice. Those annual fees may range from $1,000 – $5,000 and those hourly fees may cost $100 – $500 per hour. We all know that the billable hour model has its own flaws, but at least in this fee-only transaction, everything is transparent and you can evaluate whether you’re getting the right amount of attention and advice based on the fee you’re paying.
While you may be inclined to look for the lowest fee possible, keep in mind that we’ve now shifted to an area where you do get what you pay for. If your financial advisor can’t stay in business or can only get their clients to pay them $25/hour, you’re certainly not going to do yourself any favors over the long run by finding someone that’s willing to work at such a low rate.
#7 Connected with the industry
Finally, while the person who made that original comment wanted to hand “somebody” their money and get more in return, unfortunately you’re never going to find one single person that can be your “money guy” and take care of all your needs. Over the course of our investing and financial career, you’ll also need access to other experts, including a financial planner, investment manager, tax strategist, accountant, insurance agent, and estate/asset protection specialist. Many advisors can wear several of those hats, but none wear them all. As such, I’d only want to work with a financial advisor who understands their own strengths and weaknesses and can coordinate with other advisors as needed when those once-in-a-lifetime concerns come up.
Finding the ideal advisor
No matter whether you’re looking to hire somebody on an hourly basis or to take over the full responsibilities of managing your assets, you’ll find the “good guys” in the financial services industry listed here. These are paid listings, but all of the advisors listed on this page have been vetted by the Biglaw Investor community and none of them need to sell you expensive products that you don’t need just to make a living. Most are former lawyers or others who are focusing on providing lawyers with good advice at a fair price.