President, Drobny Law Offices Inc. in Sacramento, Calif.
Area of Practice: Estate Planning
Year Graduated: 1980
Mark Drobny's law school dreams of becoming a criminal defense attorney never materialized, and he couldn't be happier about it. Although Mr. Drobny attempted to bypass the required Income Tax course as a student at McGeorge School of Law out of dread for the subject of taxation, today he has a fulfilling career as the president of his own tax practice. Mr. Drobny focuses his work at Drobny Law Offices, Inc. on estate planning and has achieved expertise in the subject as a California State Bar Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law.
Mr. Drobny received his undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Iowa in 1977 and began as a student at McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific that same year. Interestingly, Mr. Drobny went to great lengths to avoid taking even a single class in tax law. He explains, "Income Tax 1 was a required class, and I went to Dean Schaber and told him I didn't want to take it. He told me I had to, so I reluctantly took the class because I didn't have any choice." However, his professor's enthusiasm for tax was contagious and inspired him to take Income Tax 2, which was not a required course. At the same time, Mr. Drobny's interest in criminal defense began to unravel based on his work as a law clerk on a criminal case in which the defendant faced the death penalty. Even though the case had an intriguing set of facts and raised novel legal issues, Mr. Drobny realized, "I couldn't see myself doing that for the rest of my life ... I was hanging out at the jail, dealing with evidence and witnesses, and it just wasn't me." As Mr. Drobny puts it, "The rest is history."
After Mr. Drobny took the California bar exam, he returned to McGeorge to complete a Master of Laws (LL.M.) in Taxation (which the school no longer offers). The next year, he took a job at a law firm in Fresno where each attorney specialized in a single area of tax law. However, the location wasn't ideal for Mr. Drobny, and he eventually found employment at a firm in Sacramento, where he became a partner after only five years. "[The Fresno firm] gave me the tools I needed to then come back to Sacramento and become an estate planning, probate, business, and tax attorney," Mr. Drobny notes. By the time he decided to branch out and open his own law office in 1989, Mr. Drobny had a solid background in estate planning, probate, business, and tax law. Twenty-three years later, the Drobny Law Offices has successful satellite offices in Stockton, San Ramon, and San Diego.
The attorneys at the Drobny Law Offices limit their practice to estate planning and administration, probate, business planning, and taxation. It is a practice that involves guiding clients through several stages of planning and administration. First, the firm provides initial consultations for new clients, about fifty every month. Second, as Mr. Drobny explains it, "We listen to what [our clients] need and then we assess and recommend. Then we get them back here within a month to sign their documents and go over them with an attorney." The specific documents that each client requires vary depending on the client's familial and financial situation and goals. When an estate plan involves a living trust, which it almost always does, the firm also helps the clients "re-title all their assets and accounts from their names as individuals to their names as beneficiaries of the trust." Third, the firm contacts clients periodically to see if they need to update their estate plans. "We have over 10,000 existing clients, so every day we're dealing with two or three of them updating their estate plans," Mr. Drobny says. Finally, each month, the attorneys at the Drobny Law Offices handle conservatorship cases and administer the estates of clients who have passed away, working closely with the decedents' families to ensure that everything goes according to plan. Mr. Drobny has found that conflicts occur in about ten percent of estate administrations, and in those cases, his office tries to resolve the conflicts through mediation or arbitration. Occasionally, attorneys at the Drobny Law Offices must appear in probate court to resolve issues that have arisen. Mr. Drobny notes that December is the busiest month at his firm because all documents have to be executed and recorded by the end of the year to count for tax-planning purposes.
Mr. Drobny himself handles mostly estate planning matters. He spends the majority of his time meeting with clients, assessing their needs, and deciding what needs to be done to minimize the estate tax upon their deaths and carry out any other goals they may have. Paralegals, law clerks, and associates usually conduct any necessary research and make most court appearances, but Mr. Drobny directly supervises their work. He is also responsible for bringing clients to his firm, a task that has become more challenging as the economy has weakened. "In this economy, people are finding it harder to justify spending money on an estate plan. Also, people think they can use online services in place of an attorney," Mr. Drobny says.
Mr. Drobny likes that his work doesn't require him to compete against another party. "Most litigation work is a kind of destructive practice of law. There's a winner and there's a loser ... In estate planning, the only people who lose are the IRS. I don't feel too bad about that," he explains. "People walk out of here after they've signed their estate plans with the feeling that they've done something for themselves and their family that they've wanted to do for a long time and have put off. They leave with a sense of relief. I can walk home every day and say that I did something good for someone and I didn't hurt anyone in the process."
When Mr. Drobny hires attorneys and law clerks, he looks for applicants who have excellent people skills, strong references, and a solid writing sample. While grades and law review may factor into his hiring decision, they are not of paramount importance. Neither is an LL.M. in taxation. "I think it's helpful," he says, "but I don't think it's critical." He recommends that new attorneys who are interested in tax practice seek out positions where they can gain practical experience first and then consider going back to school for an LL.M. later. For students, Mr. Drobny says, "Get out there and get an internship as quickly as you can. If it means working for free, it's the best investment you can make in getting a job long-term." He also recommends that students take as many law school classes as possible in the areas of estate planning and taxation. Additionally, the Sacramento Estate Planning Council is an excellent group to become involved in, he says. Mr. Drobny has been a member of the organization since 1982, and he notes that the Council hosts monthly dinners and an annual Technical Forum where students are welcome; "Be there and meet as many estate planners as possible."
Mr. Drobny also recognizes the importance of giving back to the community, and he encourages students to start doing so in law school by working with organizations like AARP or the Senior Legal Hotline, which serves people who are often in need of estate planning services. At Mr. Drobny's direction, the Drobny Law Offices makes significant financial contributions each year to charitable organizations, and attorneys and staff donate their time to helping less fortunate members of the community. Mr. Drobny himself has served on the board of many non-profit organizations, including the American Cancer Society, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Boy Scouts of America, Sutter Hospitals Foundation, Stanford Settlement, St. Hope Academy, McGeorge School of Law, and California State University. By doing so, he supplements the already-ample amount of satisfaction that he derives from working in a very rewarding area of law.