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James Lange: “Whatever you do, don’t go to law school”

The key to a great business is retaining your clients. If you ask most business owners what they want, they will tell you “more clients.” And of course, new business is the lifeblood of any business. But I fear that many business owners take their existing clients for granted. They concentrate their efforts on getting […]

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The key to a great business is retaining your clients. If you ask most business owners what they want, they will tell you “more clients.” And of course, new business is the lifeblood of any business. But I fear that many business owners take their existing clients for granted. They concentrate their efforts on getting new clients because it’s more fun and sexier than serving existing clients.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Lange, a CPA, Attorney and Registered Investment Advisor, is a nationally-recognized IRA, 401(k), and retirement plan distribution expert. Lange is the author of 8 best-selling books that help IRA and retirement plan owners get the most from their retirement plans using a variety of strategies including Roth IRA conversions, gifting, and flexible estate planning. He has been quoted 36 times in The Wall Street Journal and is a frequent contributor to Forbes.com and TheStreet.com’s Retirement Daily. To sign up for free, educational webinars and Lange’s monthly newsletter, visit www.PayTaxesLater.com.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/7a2090f67ec900ef2fa0c752c9ee5ce2

Thank you for joining us in this series. Can you tell us what brought you to this particular career path?

I think my career path could most likely be summarized by studying Mr. Magoo, the nearly blind cartoon character who seemed to stumble his way to success. Sometimes I think of the old Mr. Magoo cartoon series, think of the similarities, and laugh at myself. If you were more generous, you could say I made several key pivots to get to where I am today.

After graduating with an accounting degree, I started working for a small CPA firm. Then, I became a CPA and started a small tax return preparation business “on the side.”

My dad was an attorney and he said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t go to law school.” So of course, I went to law school.

During law school I was juggling my job as a CPA, my side-line tax preparation practice, and my studies. After I graduated from law school, I really didn’t want to be a corporate lawyer so I just added estate attorney to my CPA shingle and entered into full-time practice as a CPA and an estate attorney.

At some point, I realized you could help more people profoundly and frankly make more money if you were also a financial advisor. I didn’t feel competent to manage money, so I struck an agreement with a money manager. I brought in the business and our office “ran the numbers” that had more to do with tax, and retirement and estate planning work, but not investments. That ultimately developed into our office creating “personal financial masterplans” for clients. The money manager handled the investments; we split fees. I have stayed with that model and now work with a number of money managers in that way. We now have roughly 600 dollars million under management with that arrangement.

Since I had a lot of clients who were college professors, many with substantial retirement plans, I had to become an expert in IRAs and retirement plans to properly serve them. Reading Natalie Choate’s excellent book, Life and Death Planning for Retirement Benefits, catapulted my understanding of IRAs. I took many of the concepts I learned from Natalie and “ran the numbers” to determine profitable strategies for clients. Then, I started writing peer-reviewed articles about planning for individuals with IRAs and retirement plans. I wrote the first peer-reviewed article regarding Roth IRA conversions in 1997. When Roth IRA conversions became law in 1998, I found my expertise in high demand. I started writing books and most recent book, Beating the New Death Tax, came out in September 2020 and instantly became my eighth Amazon bestseller.

In addition to our assets under management business, our law firm has completed close to 3,000 estate plans, wills and trusts, and beneficiary designations. We prepare about 760 tax returns a year. We now have 22 employees and despite COVID-19, we are having a great year.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Unlike Aesop, I’ll reveal the moral of the story first: “When you’re in over your head, look for some help and be brave.”

Now, here’s the story: I was preparing the tax return for a business when the owner died. The business was valued at a million dollars. Back then, the tax code didn’t have an unlimited marital deduction, so his wife was facing an estate tax of hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was desperate to try to reduce her tax burden.

I found some cases relating to family farms where even if the farm was in the husband’s name, the argument was it was really a partnership between husband and wife. And the good news was that in those cases when the husband died, the wife didn’t inherit a hundred percent of the farm because it was already deemed half hers. Happily, those cases stood up, and in those situations, the estate only had to pay estate taxes on half of the value of the farm. So I thought, “Well, gee, I wonder if could apply that thinking to the business with which I was working?”

Anyway, I was in law school at the time, and I asked one of my professors, Dixon Rich, who was known to be very taxpayer-oriented practitioner what he thought. He said, “Absolutely. If I were you, I would go get a bunch of depositions that basically said that the wife was very involved with the business.” So, that is what I did. I filed the federal estate tax return on the basis that it was really a partnership, even though it was in his name and she should only pay estate tax on half of it.

We saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes because I was willing to do some research, trust well-reasoned advice, and take a stand. I loved watching a family thrive financially because of the work I do.

What advice would you share for young Financial Advisors?

The key to a great business is retaining your clients. If you ask most business owners what they want, they will tell you “more clients.” And of course, new business is the lifeblood of any business. But I fear that many business owners take their existing clients for granted. They concentrate their efforts on getting new clients because it’s more fun and sexier than serving existing clients.

Dan Kennedy estimates that it’s roughly 10 times harder to get a new client than to keep an old one. At least in the financial advisory business, studies have shown that people don’t leave their advisor because of performance. They don’t typically leave their advisor for failure to maximize tax advantages or all the other reasons that you would expect clients to leave their advisor. They leave their advisor because they feel ignored. Don’t ignore your clients, communicate with your clients frequently and send them valuable information constantly.

If you were a client of ours, even throughout the lockdowns and coronavirus pandemic, even in the last twelve months, you would have received a laminated tax card and 12 hard copy newsletters. You would have received close to 100 emails and multiple invitations to seminars and more recently webinars. You would have received two different books, including two copies of our most recent book. These days, we write and send to all our clients roughly a book a year. You would have received two KN-95 masks and later another ten KN-95 masks when they were available. You want to keep your clients close, like family.

It is very satisfying to develop financial, retirement and estate plans for your clients and then go through the lifecycle with them. People get sick and die; but they also have happy events such as marriages, kids, grandkids, anniversaries, retirement, big “bucket list” trips and the like. You’re helping them along the way and it provides a sense of continuity and purpose when you know you are really helping people, especially people you have known and liked for 30 plus years. That said, I am always seeking new clients — as I said, I have an appetite for marketing and growing a business is essential.

Another interesting outcome from all of my writing and communication endeavors is that it has led to developing a following or a clan — or as I think of it, a tribe. By freely sharing cutting-edge strategies in your field with a broad audience, you keep in touch with your clients, but equally important you earn the respect of prospective clients, who, as my recent experience proves, might become clients. Two of my most recently acquired clients have been following me for years and each had read at least four of my books.

I feel very protective about the people who read my books and read my newsletters. I want those people to do better than the people who aren’t part of my tribe even though I might never meet them or do business with them. It is very satisfying to lead a tribe who receives a lot of value directly from my recommendations, but by extension for their ability to protect and provide for their families and their charities.

Providing great information that solves problems for clients, prospects, and even people you will never do business with is a great way to serve others. What could be better than serving others while providing for yourself and your family at the same time?

Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s shift to the main topic of our interview. What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to become an author?

I made the mistake of trying to make my first book the ultimate book for IRA and retirement plan owners. I wanted to include all my theories about saving for retirement, spending during retirement, tax planning, and estate planning. That’s a lot of territory. It took me two years to finish. It ended up being 420 pages, but it was a damn good book. Today, I write shorter books.

But, for my first book, a book marketing expert, John Kremer, recommended I find a New York publisher to publish the book. So, I eventually got an agent and we found a publisher, Wiley. This was back in 2006 when Wiley had a huge distribution chain all throughout the country and the book did very well.

The other thing that I did — and I have to thank Steve Harrison for this advice — was to get great testimonials from recognized experts and celebrities. Steve said, “Think of your ideal person to give you a testimonial. Then, send that expert or celebrity a manuscript of the book and request a testimonial.” I followed his advice and ended up with testimonials from Charles Schwab, Larry King, Burton Malkiel, Jane Bryant Quinn and about 60 financial professionals.

Now, when I advise young advisors, or for that matter almost any business professional, I say, “Writing a book is great, but, and this is important, you better have expertise in your field and have something new and important to say. You’re never going to make The New York Times bestseller list. But you must respectfully offer your reader great and useful information. Your readers have problems, and you should offer solutions in your book.”

I hate when I read a book or attend a workshop (a webinar these days) and there is more pitch than real content. I think you owe it to your reader or audience to give them great information that helps solve their problems, whether you end up doing business with them or not.

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

By far the most interesting project that I’m working on now is increasing donations to charity but with the added incentive that it is good financially for the donors’ family too.

We ran the numbers after the SECURE Act became law in January 2020 and found that, in many cases, rather than leaving your IRA to your children outright, if you leave your IRA to a charitable remainder trust with your children as beneficiaries, your children actually end up with more money over the course of their lives. The key is tax savings — I love saving taxes. At the child’s death, whatever is left in the trust goes to the charity. Pretty cool, huh?

It’s very exciting because so many people want that outcome: more money for their kids — spaced out over a lifetime — and at the end, a sizable donation to charity. It’s a win-win-win-lose, meaning it’s a win for the client, it’s a win for the children, it’s a win for the charity, but it’s a “lose” for the IRS. By combining this idea with a couple of other charitable giving ideas, I hope to raise a billion dollars for charity.

The other project I have been working on is distributing KN-95 masks. We have distributed about 20,000 KN-95 masks so far: roughly half to charity and the other half to family, friends, and clients. I was lucky that very early in the pandemic, I found a good source of high quality KN-95 masks when nobody else could get them. So, I was giving charities, family, clients and even prospects (my tribe if you will) something that was deemed valuable and something that they couldn’t get elsewhere.

I consider my 10,000 email subscribers, 2,500 clients, and another 2,500 hard copy newsletter subscribers part of my tribe. The tribe consists of IRA and retirement plan owners who want to get the most out of what they’ve got and want to make smart decisions about their money. I think it is good business and satisfying to protect not only your tribe’s money, but their health if you can do so.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming such an authoritative and prolific writer?

This may sound off topic, but I make a point of getting daily exercise. I work with a trainer (virtually these days) three times a week and I bike. Getting exercise, especially outdoors gives me energy and focus when I have to turn to more sedentary work. Another important discovery I have made over the years, which has subsequently become critical to my writing “habit,” is the power of delegation. Today, when I write a book, it is really a team project. I direct the content and write the initial drafts but my staff and my editor provide invaluable support.

Our books are somewhat technical containing graphs and charts. Some of the charts or graphs might look uncomplicated, but that is deceptive because they distill a lot of data and make broader concepts easier to understand. I rely on the skilled CPAs in our firm to “run the numbers” to create those graphs and charts. Further, my team of attorneys and CPAs act as fact checkers and provide me with additional ideas. The practical/logistical details of getting a book into print also require the help of a professional graphic designer to refine the charts and graphs and design the layout and the book cover.

Once the book is ready to come out, I have an ace marketing team that swings into place. I use a mix of employees and 1099 contractors to get all this done. Writing and promoting a book is a big project. They get the book on Amazon, work with me on email and social media blitzes, help get book reviews and testimonials, generate related videos and webinar content, get me quoted in right-fit publications, find additional PR and speaking opportunities for me, syndicate news releases, etc.

I recently re-hired Marie Swift and her team at Impact Communications, a PR firm known for working with financial services professionals. She did a great job with a previous book and figured she would do a great job with this one too. I was not disappointed. One of the great things they’ve done is secure this interview with you. They also secured a column for me with Retirement Daily, provided numerous opportunities to be quoted in national publications, placed one of my meatier articles with the Journal of Financial Planning, and secured a speaking engagement with the Financial Planning Association (FPA).

If you take on a project like writing a book, be sure to thank all the people who helped you. You’re the leader of the team, and your team will be more loyal and engaged if you spread a healthy dose of appreciation around both in person and in the acknowledgment section of the book. So, let me practice what I preach by giving a warm and sincere shout out to my hardworking team — too many to name individually here (thanks everyone — you know who you are!).

Which literature do you draw inspiration from and why?

I read different types of books for different reasons. Naturally, I read extensively in the financial realm. Ed Slott is the most popular writer and speaker for IRA and retirement plan owners, and Ed has a lot of great information. Bob Keebler, like me, likes to “run the numbers.” Though his material isn’t as engaging as Ed’s, it is technically superb. That’s a given for a professional who wants to stay at the cutting edge of his field. But interestingly, one of the recommendations I received from Dan Kennedy, a marketing genius, is to read fiction, biographies, and other narrative forms in addition to technical material.

If we look at some of the most successful fiction writers, we see that series are very popular. A reader becomes invested in the hero or protagonists and wants to know “what happens next?” Charles Dickens was a master at this. His books were originally released a chapter at a time creating weekly/monthly cliff hangers. Just think about the old soap operas like Secret Storm that ran from 1954 to 1974 or your favorite comic book series or the Hardy Boys or Harry Potter. What good fiction teaches is that readers want to be invested in learning more about the characters. That technique can translate into engaging readers who are clients and/or prospective clients and newsletter subscribers — and I heartily recommend monthly hard copy newsletters.

If you were to look at my newsletters from eight or ten years ago, they typically covered topics that you would expect from a financial advisor/CPA/attorney. You would see articles on the best estate plan. You would see articles on Roth IRA conversions. You would see articles on charitable techniques, etc. While we still provide that type of critical information, we now also offer human interest stories, including stories about clients, my family, recipes, and even some of my current thoughts on topics such as health, motivation, organization, productivity, and happiness!

In my job I strive to develop life-long relationships with my clients. It is very hard to keep people continually engaged just on technical information. For example, virtually all my clients know that I’m a health nut. They know that I have psoriatic arthritis and have been treated with mesenchymal stem cells for the last five years. I’m always encouraging people to take care of themselves. They know I am an advocate for taking vitamin D, fish oil, and turmeric supplements. I encourage my wealthier clients to hire a concierge medical doctor. I encourage them to hire a trainer — a virtual trainer during the pandemic. I encourage them to have a nutritionist develop healthy meals and menus for them. Then too, unless they really like cooking, I recommend they have somebody do the shopping and cooking. These are all things that I do.

The most popular newsletter that I ever wrote was actually an obituary for my mom. I didn’t say anything related to business. I didn’t ask if the reader would like a consultation, or that they read my blog or do this or do that. It was purely about my Mom, who died eight years ago. I just got a note from a newsletter subscriber saying that he was cleaning out his old papers and he came upon that old newsletter and he kept it because it was so meaningful to him. I think I hit a nerve because a lot of readers who were closer to my mom’s age than mine were thinking, “Gee, I wish my kid would write an obituary like that about me.” Again, you’re relating to people on a very human level.

The second most popular newsletter I ever wrote focused on “the best way to spend your money.” It argued for buying experiences vs. things. And, in particular experiences like taking your family on a vacation. I have experienced this first-hand with my father-in-law, who’s now 96. For the last 27 years, with the exception of this past year, he has sponsored a four-day family vacation in the Poconos where he pays for everything except booze. These trips strengthen family bonds.

My daughter, Erica, is an only child, but she is very close with her cousins because, in addition to weddings and funerals and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, she hangs out with them on these Poconos vacations. Now they have “cousin Zoom calls.” She doesn’t feel as alone, nor will she be alone after my wife, Cindy, and I pass.

When my father-in-law dies, he will leave a little less money to his family, but he will leave his whole family, including his three children and 10 grandchildren, a very rich legacy. He will leave valuable memories and a sense of clan. That is the message I wanted to send to my clients.

In a nutshell, offer excellent and informative content, but don’t hesitate to personalize your writing and as Dan Kennedy puts it “put personality in your copy.”

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Increase charitable giving. I mentioned my initiative to increase charitable donations by a billion dollars through charitable remainder trusts and other tax-advantaged charitable giving techniques — all that while still protecting my clients’ adult children financially. That would be a good legacy.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We’re on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. But, realistically, the best thing that readers could do to glean both technical information as well as a few good stories is to subscribe to our monthly newsletter via www.paytaxeslater.com.

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