As a trust and estate attorney, Shaheen Imami often talks with clients about the uncomfortable reality of death and their need to pass on the wealth they have put together over their lifetime.
In the same manner, Imami, 52, says he believes lawyers with trusts and estates practices should consider that they will someday retire and need to pass on their expertise to a new generation of practitioners.
“There’s a lot of learning involved in doing this work right,” he submits. “I tell my clients not to use someone who’s added trusts and estates to a laundry list of practice areas because the law is always changing – and that impacts planning.”
Imami says every accomplished trust and estate attorney has a calling to shepherd younger attorneys into the practice. He also says this responsibility rests squarely on their shoulders because fewer and fewer law schools are teaching students about this area of the law.
“It’s no longer a practice area that’s obvious when students come of out law school,” he notes. “Too many schools have been eliminating trusts and estates programs, so it’s hard to find new attorneys who have a passion for it. More of them fall into it than come out of school with a calling.”
Imami has been practicing what he’s preaching for more than 20 years. In addition to contributing to books and presenting at seminars, he dives deeper into the nuances of trust and estate work through his committee service as a fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and in roundtable discussions with colleagues on the Cambridge Forum.
Through these interactions, Imami endeavors to convey not just nut and bolts knowledge but also an understanding of the complex nature of the work trust and estate attorneys do.
“It’s a complicated area of the law, so thinking you can dive into it can get you in trouble,” he warns.
Imami is speaking from experience. From securing a client’s interest in a multimillion-dollar estate based on a deathbed will to removing a trustee accused of misappropriating assets to resolving a 20-year estate dispute between siblings, he’s resolved many knotty issues over the course of his practice.
Imami has also been involved with cases that seemed tailored for a soap opera rather than the pages of a law review. In one, a family learned their departed loved one had a second family in a different state, and in another, he defended the will and trust of a decedent who had used multiple assumed identities during his lifetime – including that of a late brother.
Imami also has protected individuals who were not as mentally astute as they once were from children who were trying to exploit them.
A sizable portion of his practice, however, involves the more down to Earth – but still thorny – matter of helping individual and corporate trustees administer difficult and contentious estates.
“I look at cases as problems I help solve. On the settlement side, for example, I tell clients, ‘You can pay this amount of money to the other side or you can pay me for uncertainty.’
“I encourage them to choose certainty. Any time you’re able to help a client solve a problem and avoid a fight, you enable them to move forward.
“They rely on you to bring objectivity to their situation, but that objectivity must be based on their best interest. Sometimes, they might not know what’s in their best interest, but over time, as they come to understand the emotional toll these fights can take, they begin to think differently.”
The challenge of not just the application of the law to diverse matters but also the difficult nature of the conversations a trust and estate attorney must have with clients makes it a practice area that’s not suitable for everyone, Imami says.
“You often deal with family members who have lost a parent or must make complicated and emotional decisions on behalf of a loved one who’s suffered a medical event,” he explains. “But it’s an area of the law to which more attorneys could devote their practice if they took the time to understand it. From a professional standpoint, it’s fascinating.”
When Imami entered law school, he had no intention of becoming a trust and estate attorney. But over the years, several pairs of guiding hands nurtured his interest in the field and gave him a proper foundation, he says.
The first of these was his trust and estate professor at Georgia State College of Law, Mary Radford, who he calls “an incredible teacher and role model.”
Imami followed law school with five years of complex commercial litigation for a midsize firm in Detroit. He then launched his own practice, where his accounting degree from Michigan State University helped to crack the door to trusts and estates work.
The door swung wide open when Imami joined his mother – a seasoned trust and estate attorney – at her firm. Imami worked with his mother for 15 years and credits her mentorship with enabling him to develop an accomplished practice of his own.
Imami also credits his mother with unwittingly steering him toward law school.
“I grew up around law students, so it’s what I understood,” he says as he looks back on his decision to become an attorney. “Being in that environment influenced how I thought, and I enjoyed the challenge of thinking that way.
“Part of it was also rebellious. I wanted to show my mom I could do it – and I did.”
A native of southeastern Michigan, Imami’s recent history brought him to Chattanooga, where he practices with Baker Donelson.
Imami was on his own again when the coronavirus emerged. He and his wife and children had been traveling to Chattanooga to see a sister of his for several years and had purchased a property in North Chattanooga as a second home. But when the pandemic surged, Imami says he and his family began to think more critically about their plans.
The death of another sister in August of last year finally convinced Imami and his family to move to Chattanooga, where his recruiter connected him with Baker.
One year later, Imami is building a new practice in the city, where he says he’s been fortunate to connect with a number of people whose work overlaps his, whether they’re attorneys or professionals in other fields.
Imami also continues to espouse the importance of shepherding new attorneys into the practice area of trusts and estates.
“It’s technical but also creative work. It involves listening to the client and solving their problems with an understanding of the emotions tied to it,” he says. “In the end, you have the satisfaction of having helped them through a difficult time.”