When it comes to investments, Lau says, the level of client sophistication covers the entire spectrum. "Many of them are often exceptionally knowledgeable in one area of our business, say real estate," she notes.

Lau acknowledges that some clients make the firm's investment chief, Jim Lee, "jump through all sorts of hoops on investments. Some understand all the different financial ratios and make him drill down seven or eight levels."

Lee, a chartered financial analyst who Lau hired away from American Express Financial Advisors several years ago, says the firm uses a wide variety of investments ranging from mutual funds to individual stocks to venture capital and hedge funds. In these last two areas, Olmstead's expertise has proved a valuable addition. Lee says part of the decision on whether to invest in funds or individual stocks depends on what type of investments the person has when he or she becomes a client and how the firm can best diversify the portfolio.

In this low-return era, the firm has looked at many different ways to boost client returns. One tactic is to write covered call options on large holdings in a client's portfolio. Although Lau custodies most of her clients' assets at Schwab Institutional, she has placed about $75 million in assets, much of it large positions in equities, at Legg Mason because they are far more willing to facilitate covered call option writing than Schwab is.

In contrast to a growing number of advisors, the firm believes investments and returns are extremely important to clients. This doesn't mean it touts portfolio results. "We tell clients we may not make you as much as someone else might in an up market, but we'll protect you in a down market," Lau says. "A client recently told me, 'I never thought I'd be happy to lose money but when I talk to my friends, I feel really good.' Clients did eventually get tired talking about their portfolios, though they are thrilled that they are starting to make money again. But I've encouraged them to take up hobbies and stop worrying about their money. Many have. They've learned that if your portfolio is well-balanced and diversified, you can relax. It's important that their money doesn't control them, rather they control their money."

One statistic that confirms Lau's feeling that her firm delivers value is its client retention rate, which ranges from 95% to 98% a year. "We feel good about that because clients are paying fees directly to us," rather than having them deducted from accounts, she says.

The ability to pull all of a client's assets together and examine them in this context was one of the factors that attracted Olmstead to join Lau. Many of the high-powered families he worked with needed these services. "If these services are not performed, they can be at sea and they worry," he says. "That worry can prevent them from doing the things they like to do."

Unlike many advisory firms that encourage clients to give them overall control of all their assets, Lau and Olmstead try to work with clients' other advisors. "Many clients have generation-skipping trusts at banks, and we're not about to go after that," she says. "Tax laws were once very favorable to dynasty trusts, and we don't want to mess it up." She adds that many banks haven't figured out "how to talk to clients in plain English," creating an opportunity for the firm to serve as a translator. "Our clients love it when we help them get organized and understand what's going with their investments and estate plans. Then they can make decisions."

At another level, the firm is tiptoeing gingerly into a few concierge services, though it focuses on issues that have a direct impact on a client's financial life. "We just ran credit card checks on our clients to make sure they weren't victims of identity theft," she says. But in areas like travel, the firm opts to recommend travel agents rather than perform those services themselves.

Lau and Olmstead have avoided entering the business consulting arena, an activity that has attracted many full-fledged family offices. "We view a client's business as one of their assets," she says.