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Law firm marks 20 years helping businesses evolve for the future – including its own

Posted in ,   |  May 22, 2023

The team at Thompson Law has learned in an intensely personal way over the last few years the value of planning for the future.

The Sioux Falls estate and business planning firm lost its founder, Carolyn Thompson, in 2019.

Thompson founded the firm 20 years ago, with a vision of helping clients plan for and leave powerful legacies.

Her own lives on, in part, through her team, which has continued to build a thriving firm.

“We’re so proud to have partnered with Thompson Law in multiple ways over the years and to have watched them assist countless family businesses in planning for their futures,” said Stephanie Larscheid, executive director of the Prairie Family Business Association. “To reach their own 20th anniversary through a successful transition is an incredible accomplishment.”

We caught up with managing attorney Andrew Knutson to learn more about the firm’s direction and the keys to 20 years of success in business.

It’s been just over three years since you succeeded Carolyn Thompson as the leader of Thompson Law. What have those last three years been like? What have the high’s and low’s been?

The last three years have been quite successful.  We have had the good fortune to grow in this uncertain environment.  Since the end of 2019 when I took over, the law and the world has seen incredible change.  We adapted, and grew back to the size of firm we feel would most efficiently serve our clients.

The highs come from meeting with and serving clients.  Fortunately, recent years have seen an increase in demand for estate and business planning services.  This increase in demand has had more to do with helping clients navigate changes and potential changes in the tax code, rather than pandemic mortality fears.  Also, more and more baby boomers are estate planning and/or preparing for retirement.

Lows come when outside forces put barriers up to human connection, like we all experienced from time to time during the pandemic. While there have been challenges adapting to new ways of doing business, there have also been opportunities for growth and innovation in response to the changing legal landscape.

For people who aren’t familiar with Thompson Law, tell us a bit about your team and your specialization.

Thompson Law is a boutique law firm that provides estate and business planning.  We have five full-time attorneys and 10 staff dedicated to just those specialized areas of the law.  In addition we have one part-time attorney who is also a full-time professor of trust and estates at USD’s Knudson School of Law.

Whether it is personal assets or a business, we help ensure that your assets pass to whom you want, when you want, and in the manner you’ve chosen.

In order to accomplish this, we provide tailored and comprehensive planning at a level a general-practice firm just cannot do.

The services we provide also include elder law, special needs planning, and asset protection.

Thompson Law serves clients in South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska, and also provides South Dakota trust services across the United States.

You were reminded in a very powerful and poignant way the importance of planning for a business’s future. What are some of the key takeaways from that you now share with other businesses?

We talk business succession every day, and eventually we all have to live our own plan.

  • Make sure there is an emergency options plan in place.
    • Not just about death – but if a key person suddenly cannot work or do their job, without notice, what’s the plan? This is especially important for family businesses or closely-held companies where the loss of a key person can have a significant impact on the business’s operations.
  • Business succession, business planning in general, must be coordinated with each owner’s estate plan. Effective business succession planning maximizes the value of the business by preparing it for sale or transfer to the next generation. This includes developing legal strategies that not only minimize tax liabilities but also boost the value of the business’s assets.
  • Be realistic about the most common liabilities a business will face.
    • In the way that a person might fear sharks, but not heart disease, you need to be clear about what is most likely to throw a wrench into your long-term business survival.
    • We have insurance for many things. But insurance doesn’t cover two of the most common business-destroyers: divorce and business dealings between owners gone wrong.
  • Identify and groom successors. Finding the right successor is as important – if not more important – then any documents you have prepared.
    • Nurture that relationship, and take the protected risk of sharing information – with the right agreements in place (such as a noncompete, buy-sell agreement, non-solicitation, etc.).
  • Be clear to minimize family disputes. Be clear and transparent with family business owners to avoid disagreements and conflicts that can arise when family members have different expectations or goals for the business.

Looking back over 20 years, what are some of the keys to this firm’s longevity?

We love people and really truly care about getting things right.  This means taking the time to understand their unique goals and concerns, and then providing personalized advice and solutions.

We are also there for the follow-through.  Thompson Law has not only helped many families plan, but also has administered those plans after someone has passed on.  There are families where we are working with the third generation as clients.

Thompson Law at the Prairie Family Business Association Annual Conference.

We are responsive and accessible when needed.  When a client reaches out, they are going to get a prompt response.

We adapt.  We stay on the forefront of new techniques and legal advancements, and are committed to providing the highest level of legal services.

You work with family businesses continually. Are there any themes that have emerged as they prepare for the future that you can pass along to others?

Here are some of the key themes that we often see:

Communication is key.  Successful family businesses prioritize clear and open communication between family members. Regular family meetings, both formal and informal, can help keep everyone informed and engaged in the business.

Start succession planning early, even if you don’t plan to retire for many years. This process will take time and requires careful consideration and planning. For example, providing successors with the necessary training and experience to ensure a smooth transition cannot be done overnight.

Have a plan on how to function without each key person.  I mentioned earlier about an emergency operations plan – but that doesn’t necessarily mean only one plan.  What has to occur if Key Person A can no longer work, versus what has to happen if Key Person B can no longer work, might be very different plans.  Planning for the death or disability of each key family member will help ensure the business’s long-term continued success.

What’s next for Thompson Law? How are you continuing to evolve the firm’s approach and culture?

In the immediate future, with many tax changes looming that will start Jan. 1, 2026, we will be helping clients prepare for these major developments.

We have evolved technologically.  Recent years have seen an increase in electronic signatures, digital documents, secure portals, semi-paperless files, and remote notarization.  It wasn’t until the last two years that we have been able to notarize documents remotely. And, of course, utilizing artificial intelligence in a responsible way.

Despite those advancements, we plan to stick with our more holistic approach to planning: addressing not just the legal aspects of planning but also clients’ financial, tax, and personal goals. This includes working with financial advisors, accountants, and other professionals to develop comprehensive plans that address all aspects of clients’ wealth and legacy.  We are frequently part of a client’s “family office.”

We will continue to emphasize education and communication, both with clients and within the firm.  In addition to other educational resources we provide clients, we also conduct monthly educational seminars for clients and their invitees.

There are always new developments in tax and estate planning, so we continuously educate ourselves and stay on the leading edge.

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