The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families – Part 1 of 3

Jun 7, 2022 | Diversity, Equity & Inclusivity, General Estate Planning, Podcasts

“The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families” is a three-part special:

  • Overview: An introduction and overview to the lecture. – posted May 31, 2022
  • Part 1:  “Coaching Up” – this podcast, posted June 7, 2022 (this podcast)
  • Part 2:  “Nourishing Family Values” – posted June 14, 2022
  • Part 3:  “Challenges of the Counselor” – posted June 21, 2022

“The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families,” that’s the subject of today’s ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk.

Transcript/Show Notes

This is Steve Akers, ACTEC Fellow from Dallas, Texas. Welcome to part one of three in ACTEC’s Annual Trachtman Lecture series, featuring Past President Ronald D. Aucutt. The Trachtman Lecture is given each year at the ACTEC Annual Meeting to challenge us, as counselors, on some important topic, going beyond just the technicalities of our daily practices. I, as the 2020-2021 ACTEC President, and Ann Burns, as the 2021-2022 ACTEC President, had the pleasure of selecting Ron Aucutt to give the 2022 Annual Trachtman Lecture. This presentation is a follow-up to the one Ron gave in 2011. In that lecture he challenged the audience with what he believed our ethical responsibilities were as trust and estate lawyers in representing families and family-owned businesses. I left that lecture deep in thought, literally with shivers running down my spine about the wisdom he shared and how it would change our practices. Ann and I asked Ron to share an updated version – Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families – Part II, which is what will be shared over the next three weeks in the ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk podcasts

And now, we’ll share Ron Aucutt’s presentation given to a live audience at the 2022 ACTEC Annual Meeting in San Diego, California. Part 1, in particular, addresses the special calling of trust and estate counselors in counseling families.


It is always meaningful for me to come to San Diego, because in 1970 through 1973, when changes in the draft law had interrupted my law school experience, the Navy ship that I was assigned to, when it wasn’t in the Gulf of Tonkin, was home-ported at the 32nd Street Naval Station – Naval Base San Diego. When I arrived here Richard Nixon was the President of the United States and Ronald Reagan was the Governor of California. I remember believing that Richard Nixon would be remembered as one of our best Presidents, but that Ronald Reagan would not amount to much. I tell you this so you’ll trust what I’m about to tell you! If you ever hear me make a prediction about the future, I want you to know exactly what my level of predictive ability is. For example, if I were here to predict what Congress will do with tax legislation! But I’m not. I do have a much more important message.

Looking back, though, and thinking about tax legislation, I wonder if one of the reasons that some had good expectations for President Nixon was the way he worked in such a bipartisan manner – remember that? For example, the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which included some principles that are still with us today. (But that probably wasn’t the example I was thinking of on my ship.)

Also looking back, I suppose that while I was growing up in the Twin Cities, I had been prepared for that Vietnam interval in my life by the example of my father, who had been onboard a ship with the Merchant Marine during World War II, including at Normandy Beach. And also my mother, who left St. Paul for to take a job in a New York office operating a comptometer, which has been described as “the first commercially successful key-driven mechanical calculator.” But the war ended,  Mom and Dad returned to St. Paul before I was born, so I also had the benefit of being close to and very often seeing my grandparents, who cared for me, cooked for me, taught me, played with me,  prayed for me. I still remember my mother’s father, Grandpa Dave, as probably the most significant mentor and model of lasting values in my life. Another one of Grandpa Dave’s daughters, my aunt Betty, married John Loehman, a litigator whose law firm was a predecessor of what is now Loehman Abdo in Minneapolis. I remember Uncle John visited our house frequently, and he and I would talk, and he made an impression on me. I don’t recall that he ever told me I should become a lawyer, but he demonstrated the fulfillment that he got from being a lawyer. And it’s largely because of that impression that I went to law school – I suppose to become a Twin Cities litigator.

But during the interval after the change in the draft law, during my first year of law school, I worked about six months in Washington, D.C., which I had never even visited before. And so, Washington, and then tax law, became intriguing possibilities. In 1974 I was a summer associate in Washington when President Nixon resigned in disgrace. In 1975 I started at the tax firm of Miller & Chevalier. Then in 1976, totally unexpectedly, a Miller & Chevalier partner, John Bixler (who went on to become an ACTEC Regent), drew me into his estate tax and estate planning practice to help him deal with the changes in the Tax Reform Act of 1976.

So, San Diego symbolizes for me a five-year delay in my life, a detour, an inconvenience – which providentially became so many positive opportunities.

And I had learned three things. First, family support and family values provide a great start. But second, they work best when they provide a disposition of flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. And third, it is important to see background as the foundation of the future. But it has taken me a half a century for me to figure out how to articulate that.

My grandson, Braden,  sitting in the front row, did not get me into ACTEC. He is not the reason I am in ACTEC. He is not the reason I am here – that is here at the meeting with you. But he, and his cousin, my granddaughter who is due in July, are an important part of the reason I am “here” – with a message for you about counseling families.

My sons, David and Jamie, did not get me into ACTEC either. They’re not the reason I am here. But they are the reason I got introduced to some things like high school and college football games and practices. For ten years. That was a big deal. It gave me an opportunity to observe closely the way coaches worked. And I learned about the importance of coaching up. I learned that when a coach was on your back it was a good thing. He was on your back so he could have your back. He was on your back so he could push you forward and higher.

Coaching Up

“Coaching up” means motivating players to improve, encouraging them to bring their commitment and their contribution and performance to a higher level, and coaching them up to that higher level of play, with the objective of reaching a higher level of achievement, and success, and fulfillment.

The phrase “Coach ’em up” has been attributed to Don James, the head football coach at the University of Washington from 1975 to 1992, but the phrase has been quite widely used so who knows. It appears on sports academies, camps, and programs around the country, and it is also the title of a number of books published in the last few years. And “Coach ’Em Way Up” is the name of a book published in 2020 about the coaching principles and practices of the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach, John Wooden.

ACTEC’s Engagement with the Calling of the Counselor

Against that background – that foundation – when ACTEC President Karen Moore asked me to give this Trachtman Lecture in 2011, I resolved if I could to “Coach Up” – to aim above the plane of my own experience in order to encourage the audience to do the same. I titled my 2011 lecture “Creed or Code: The Calling of the Counselor in Advising Families.” My theme was that ACTEC Fellows are counselors – “Counsel” is ACTEC’s family name, our last name (The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel) – and our calling includes, as Steve Akers referred to, the fostering, feeding, fortification, and the fulfillment of families.

So let me start this morning by reviewing how ACTEC and ACTEC Fellows have been doing with that theme.

Now I’m not saying that ACTEC has presented all these good programs because I called for it in 2011. No, as usual, I have to give ACTEC the credit for giving me the ideas. In fact, the programs I have listed started with that very same meeting, in 2011, with a seminar titled “They Don’t Call Me Counselor for Nothing,” and I cited its materials in my  lecture 11 years ago. A big one was the 2012 Summer Meeting Stand-Alone CLE in Colorado Springs, “All in the Family: How to Counsel Family Businesses and Business Families.” I was joined by many of you, including five other ACTEC Presidents – Past Presidents Danny Markstein and Dennis Belcher, then current President Lou Mezzullo, and at that time future Presidents Cynda Ottaway and Ann Burns. I had the honor and privilege – and the pressure! – of sitting on a panel with the late Jon Gallo and being watched from the audience by the late Gerry Le Van, two of the most passionate and inspiring champions of these principles I have ever known.

Dennis Belcher’s Trachtman Lecture in 2016 – “Do We Need a Canary or Did the Canary Stop Singing and We Missed It?” – urging us toward a “Star Trek practice,” not a “Beverly Hillbillies practice” by becoming a trusted advisor. Coaching us up!

And finally, in the 2021 Annual Meeting, held virtually, there was the terrific presentation of Dr. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University, titled “Top 10 Tips from the Science of Well-Being.”

These programs were not all the same. Some focused on the client’s family. Of those, some focused on the client –that is the senior generation – on how to develop in younger generations the character and outlook of the senior generation. Others focused on the younger generations – on empowering them to “find their own identities.” Others focused on building family legacies in a blended way. Some of them focused on the well-being of us, the advisors. Others focused on society and social issues. But the important news – and I think good news – is that we are addressing human Issues, not just technical legal issues, in our educational programs.

Speaking of educational programs, my friend, the late ACTEC President Waller Horsley, in his President’s Message in the Fall 1990 issue of ACTEC Notes, a predecessor of the ACTEC Law Journal, wrote of “two themes …. The first is education.” And he concluded his observations about education by writing “membership in the College confers its own kind of diploma, and surely education in our field is never over.” Then he wrote:

“The second theme is caring, principally about others. Fellows of the College care about how well they care for others. Some clients want to know how much you care before they ask you to apply how much you know. They are confident that your caring enough will yield enough knowledge to help them. You will find serving these clients to be the most rewarding part of your practice.”

Waller’s challenge, sometimes attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, although I’ve found no confirmation, has become paraphrased as “Clients want to know how much you care before they care how much you know.”

Caring. Building trust. Unselfish. Not self-centered, but others centered. Listening. Not avoiding difficult issues but tackling them with sympathy and gentleness.

And it is not just ACTEC programming that has demonstrated an interest in such human issues. Many of our colleagues are giving emphasis to those issues, and many share their insights with the rest of us through blogs, emails, and those kinds of things. A good example is Marvin Blum in Fort Worth. He publishes by email a “Family Legacy Planning” series with titles like “What Are Your Rose and Thorn This Week?” and “20 Questions for Your Thanksgiving Table Talk” and “What Keeps This Family Connected? The Answer May Surprise You.” And Marvin’s not the only one who does things like that.

We often call these less technical, more human, issues “soft” issues. Not “soft” like “squishy” or “mushy” or “weak” or “inferior.” “Soft” in the sense of “caring” or “sensitive” or “empathetic.” Or coaching up!

Encouraging a Legacy of Family Values

Caring, that’s what I want to turn to now. What is there to “care” about in the representation of clients? Managing wealth? Sure. Transmitting wealth to younger generations and the right people in charge of the process? Of course. Saving taxes? I suppose. But, while we “care” about things like that, before we can design the kinds of estate planning structures and draft the kinds of estate planning documents to address those issues, we need to understand what the client’s real – ultimate – values, objectives, and priorities are. In other words, we need to care about the client as a person and the client’s family as a community of persons.

Wealth can play a role. And where wealth is recognized not as the end, but as a means to the end, it can play a fantastic role. For example, if regular family meetings and retreats are a part of the strategy for preserving the family legacy, as many writers on the subject advise, then a source of funding, such as a long-term trust, can provide the support for travel, lodging, meeting facilities, recreational programs, and other things that can encourage and facilitate attendance. Even a particular tangible investment like a vacation home can foster family unity as periodic place for nostalgic visits and even a possible site for family retreats. That could be true even if there is not much wealth, although, again, a long-term trust can help with the maintenance and upkeep of the vacation home too.

But we all know about long-term trusts. That’s the easy part. The hard part is the soft part – is the soft issues! The hard part, occurring at the human level, is creating an interest in these kinds of family initiatives. Not just leaving a legacy – living a legacy – building and sharing a legacy. Identifying, understanding, preserving, nurturing, and transmitting family values – to keep the family together and to empower the family to give back to the community.

And if transmitting wealth is the motivation for clients to come to see us in the first place, that’s fine. Wealth is not necessarily the root, or the foundation of the family values system I have in mind. For some families, that root, that foundation, is faith, for some ethnic identity, for some culture, for some family achievement, for some stewardship of the environment, for some philanthropy, and it goes on. For some even political persuasion, but politics is not as durable a foundation, and not just because of the cringe you all felt when you heard me say it, but because politics is actually just a means to an end, not a common objective or value in itself. By the way a better understanding of the role of politics as just a means to an end, might help a lot in reducing the intensity of divisiveness that politics seems to have acquired.

So how? How does the counselor help the client identify and develop that root, that foundation, for a transferrable legacy of values?

I confess: I’m really more passionate about the “why” than the “how.” Like many of the things that we do in our practice, if we can be stirred up enough to embrace the “why,” we will figure out how to encourage it in ways, like the other things we do, that are tailored to the particular circumstances of the clients, the particular needs and desires of our respective clients. There has been so much of great value written on the hows (2022 Trachtman Lecture Resources). Family “governance,” mission statements, values statements, vision statements, constitutions, bylaws, family assemblies and councils, family meetings, storytelling, traditions, rituals, codes of conduct, or some of those things. And leadership – leadership both to make policies and decisions, and to do the work, like,  planning and hosting family meetings. Those resources compiled in the handout lay out in great detail the “how” of family nourishing, which I will summarize under five points:

  • Spending time together,
  • Shedding tears together,
  • Sharing joys together,
  • Serving others together, and
  • Sustaining values together.

This concludes Part 1 of 3 in our ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk special, featuring the 2022 Trachtman Lecture. Our next podcast will be part two of the “The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families” lecture, which will dive deeper into how trust and estate counselors can help clients identify and nourish their family legacies.


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