Lurie, the L.A. partner, says, "The single most important factor in estate planning is understanding your clients and having a genuine concern for them. Half of my work is psychology. People are fearful about losing control. People are fearful about death-and taxes-and you have conversations about these issues. It's a strange combination of being very technical and very personal," he says.
Lurie is a native of South Africa who practiced there for nine years before coming to America. He does a lot of international estate planning and says that the social differences that crop up require special handling.

"Other cultures may have very different views of taxation, or different philosophies towards wealth. In some cultures, certain children are to receive more of the inheritance than others-generally not the way of life in the U.S. As the planner, your job is to represent your clients and come up with a plan that is theirs, not yours. You're not here to proselytize your own views," Lurie says.

Going Global
A different type of ingredient for international success is a New York office. Before Christensen joined last summer, private clients on the East Coast were typically serviced by the Chicago practice group. (Only it and Lurie's group existed.)  Heisler says, "We had been attempting for a number of years to find first-rate estate planning help for a New York practice. We knew we had to have a presence in New York-and London-for the kind of true international reputation we wanted."

The Terry Christensen era thus marks a new chapter in the storied practice group's saga. (To peek into the workday of someone of his stature, see "A Day In The Life.")  He says international planning has been a growth area and will continue to be. One factor is that wealthy foreign families are sending their children to U.S. colleges and they, in turn, are marrying Americans. "Then the family has to take into account U.S. tax considerations," Christensen says.

Stateside, the Private Client brass see mountains of high-end work ahead even though they expect Washington to shake the estate tax very little, if at all, from its slated 2009 parameters. The creation of significant wealth in recent decades, particularly at the upper end, portends "a great demand for services as the baby boomers age and eventually die," Harrington says. "Somebody has to plan for the transfer of that wealth and administer the estates and trusts when that happens."

The competition, meanwhile, is flagging. Why Christensen left his previous firm illustrates one reason this is occurring. He explains, "When a firm represents a corporation which gets into a dispute with an individual who is also a client of the firm, the firm cannot continue to represent both. This is becoming an increasingly common problem at very large law firms. I had to resign representation of some very important clients to stay with my old firm, and after this happened a few times over a few years, I decided I just couldn't do it anymore."

Many large firms prefer to focus exclusively on their Fortune 100 clients and avoid individuals altogether, no matter how wealthy. Some have accordingly shrunk or eliminated their private-client groups (although this is not the case at Christensen's former firm, Sullivan and Cromwell). Heisler opines, "I think the end game will be a relatively small number of large law firms-a half-dozen, maybe fewer-with large private client groups working with the mega-wealthy."

McDermott expects to be in that group. In fact, Christensen is looking to double the size of his five-attorney midtown Manhattan office in the not-too-distant future. "I'm talking to a few laterals as potential partners or senior counsel," he reveals. "I'm looking for people who are leaders of the bar in New York who could really complement my practice."

Presumably such a player would be as attracted to McDermott as Christensen was. He calls joining McDermott "a wonderfully serendipitous arrangement. They had the strongest estate planning platform in the country but needed a New York presence for a stronger international practice, and I get to work with some of the best and brightest estate lawyers in the country."

A Day In The Life
When Private Wealth asked renowned international estate planning attorney Henry "Terry" Christensen III how he spends his time, he gave us this list of what he did on a recent day.
    Met with members of a wealthy East Coast family that's trying to solve a dispute within the family among the members of one generation
    Met with a South American client about a major restructuring of a closely held business
    Negotiated a contract with an auction house to sell a major art collection (Christensen is executor)
    Held a quarterly meeting with investment advisors for a wealthy client
    Worked on a tax-dispute case where the IRS has asserted a proposed deficiency of over $100 million
Christensen can't reveal whom he represents, but one of his colleagues at McDermott, Chicago partner-in-charge George Heisler, says, "It is breathtaking."