In the hectic world of financial services, registered representatives and investment adviser representatives are always looking to increase their assets under management. At what cost? Are there situations where you would be better off just saying no to accepting that one additional client?

In my many years of defending representatives and advisers from customer complaints, the unqualified answer is yes; there are situations when you are better off just saying no. Any good risk avoidance program will provide for the proper screening/selection of prospective clients. I have addressed this very issue in a risk avoidance handbook.whistle

The key to this screening process is being able to sniff out the types of clients that you do not want to accept. For example, are you the fourth adviser that this client has come to in the last four years? Does the client profile not fit your personal/company investment philosophy? Does the client have unrealistic expectations on what she is expecting you to deliver?

If the answer to any of these questions is in the affirmative, there should be a huge stoplight in front of you flashing red. Any client who fits any of these descriptions is also the client most likely to bring a claim against an adviser.

So before you take on any client with a little money, be cautious. Are there red flags coming into the relationship? If so, just say no.

Every time that I start a FINRA arbitration, I find myself having the same internal debate; did we pick the right person to serve as the arbitration chair. Unfortunately, you will not know the answer to that question until after your arbitration begins, or, more likely, after the award is issued. FINRA has proposed a rule change to open up the filed for chair arbitrators.Conference Room

Under the proposed rule, attorneys can serve as public arbitrator chair with less experience than they were required to have in the past. Pursuant to this proposal, attorneys would only need to have served on at least one arbitration that went to an award and the complete chair training.

FINRA’s stated purpose for the rule is to “protect investors and the public interest” by increasing the pool of eligible chairpersons. This way, chairs would ideally no longer have to travel to serve as a chair.

In theory, this all makes sense. If there are more available chairs, then investors and the industry will be better served. But will this work?

In my view, much still falls on the parties to critically review the CVs of potential chairs and do your due diligence. Call other lawyers who have had arbitrations with that person. Do some research of the professional backgrounds of the potential chair. After all, just because a lawyer passes FINRA’s vetting processing does not mean that you would want that person as your chair.

Over the years that I have defended broker-dealers and investment advisors on customer-initiated claims, I have seen many things that would make any compliance officer cringe. One spine tingling (not in the good way) type of conduct is when an advisor engages his/her client when the client makes an informal complaint, instead of routing the complaint to compliance/supervision.whistle

So why is engagement against the rules of engagement? The most important reason is that engagement (aka arguing) may only make a simple customer service issues into a formal complaint. Rather than engage, my experience suggests that it is better to get the complaint (assuming it is in writing) to the proper person in compliance/supervision.

Dealing with an oral complaint is a little trickier because you are put on the spot. Nevertheless, the best course, as hard as it may be, is to try to defuse the situation by expressing that you understand the issue that is being raised, you will look into the issue and, finally, will respond further as soon as possible.

By defusing instead of engaging, you give all sides the opportunity to let cooler heads prevail. Many times a customer service issue can be easily addressed by taking a little time to consider the issues and formulate a response/course of action instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind; that is invariably the worst thing to say.

If you get a complaint; don’t jump to respond. Use your resources and formulate a well-reasoned response. Sometimes the client is wrong, but arguing with the client gets you nowhere except guaranteeing litigation.

When faced with a customer complaining through a letter or email, it is human nature to try to appease the customer with a conciliatory response or no response at all. I have seen this “human nature” all too often when defending brokers and advisor from customer complaints.

In almost all instances, the complaining customer now claims that the conciliatory comment or non-response is the functional equivalent of an admission by the broker/advisor that he/she did something wrong. In turn, the broker denies that he/she made any admissions by being conciliatory or silent. While I generally agree with the advisors, it is always an issue that must be overcome.whistleblower

So what should an advisor do when confronted with a nasty/accusatory email/letter? Most important, forward the communication to the person/persons who are designated in your company to handle customer complaints regardless if you “think” this person is just blowing smoke.

Someone should always respond to such a communications. The responding communication does not have to be the functional equivalent of beating up baby seals with a bat. Instead, it should be nice, but be firm at the same time.

If a client claims that you misrepresented an investment that you recommended, the response should remind the client in detail what was discussed, and why the investment falls within the client’s overall investment objectives, goals and tolerance for risk. Ideally, prior written communications on the subject will be sent back to the customer as part of this “reminder.”

Although nothing will ultimately keep a client from suing you if he/she is really inclined to do so, avoid potentially making it worse by not responding or being too conciliatory to a complaining email/letter. The last thing you want to have do is explain away the poor response (or absence of any response) to an arbitrator or jury who may not really understand you were just trying to be nice.

Anyone in a professional service business, like being a stock broker, have been faced with a client who decides to make a stupid decision. But the issue we all face is when that decision results in the client losing money; who is to be held accountable.whistleblower

Fortunately, the law does not require you to stop a client from making a stupid decision with their investments. As long as a broker-dealer’s advice was suitable and the investment advisor’s advice is in keeping with the fiduciary duty, you should not be held accountable.

But this does not mean a client who has now lost money won’t try to hold you accountable for letting them make a stupid business decision. So how do you protect yourself?

The best way to protection yourself is to send the client a letter or email at the time that the client makes the bad decision. The communication should detail why you think it is a bad decision and the potential ramifications associated with that decision.

At a minimum, you should make a note in your file, either electronic or in hard copy, that the client made the bad decision and that you (presumably) advised against it.

The law should protect you from stupid clients, but make sure you protect yourself. Contemporaneous communication to the client and notation to the file may save you millions of dollars in the future.

It was great speaking at the May 17 New York NSCP regional conference on risk issues facing firms where Ernie Badway and I discussed cyber-security, risk issues, regulatory matters, issues involving elder clients and ways compliance personnel can protect themselves.  For those of you who could not make the conference, these topics are frequently discussed in our various publications.  Feel free to access them here and use them as you see fit.  Core Values

Unlike lawyers, especially litigators, the business model of a financial advisor is not dependent upon clients being stupid. Instead, financial advisors depend on their clients making smart decisions after full disclosure and consideration after speaking with their financial advisor. So what do you do when clients make stupid decisions?whistle

In defending brokers over the years, I have seen multiple instances where clients made stupid decisions. From a legal standpoint, there is generally no duty to prevent a client from making a stupid investment decision. It is what the advisor does in response that is the most important lesson to learn.

The mistake is when the advisor ignores his client’s stupid decision in light of an advisor having provided proper advice in the first place. The key thing is to document any instance where your client ignores your advice and does something stupid. A brief story solidifies this point.

A number of years ago, an advisor told his client not to sell his life insurance policy to take the cash out until the client cleared underwriting on a new policy. Of course, the client ignored the advice, went over the advisor’s head and cashed out the policy without clearing underwriting on the new policy. Turns out the client was “deathly” allergic of bee stings.

We were able to successfully defend because of something that the advisor did. He documented his recommendation not to cash out the old policy without underwriting being completed on the new policy.

But for the smart actions of the advisor, this situation would have turned out much differently. It is just as if not more important to document when a client ignores your advice as it is when you give advice to your clients. Doing nothing is never an option.

With the exception of those of you who have literally been asleep for the last few years, you are well-versed in the attention FINRA and the SEC are giving to issues surrounding elder investors. Among other things, there is a real focus on elder abuse.

Some commentators believe that all of this attention may inevitably lead to additional regulations regarding how you handle older investors. Like most things from a regulatory/legislative standpoint, the loudest wheel will get the most oil.confusion.jpg

With the graying of the baby boomers, this section of society will undoubtedly have a large voice in whatever regulations or laws may come to pass. It seems as though most of the claims I have defended over the last 20 years have involved investors over the age of 60 such that I can say there is a real issue with how firms handle older clients.

Is there anything that can be done to avoid this potential regulatory headache? I think that there are things that can be done on both a macro and micro level.

The macro solution requires firms to take a big picture view of its customer composition. Assuming that there is a graying component to your customer base, you should have specific firm-wide policies and procedures that address elder issues; i.e., heightened supervision, alternate decision-makers, a committee that addresses elder issues, etc.

The micro solution is tied to the macro and can be addressed by a simple question. What are you as a firm doing to ensure your policies and procedures pertaining to elder investors are being carried through as written by your advisors/representatives? If you cannot answer this question, you might as well be signing off on those regulations.

Avoiding elder client regulations may still be in your hands. Are you doing enough to address the issue at your firm? Only time will tell.

  • photo from

Most people say that New Year resolutions are only as good as the paper on which they are written. Notwithstanding that ringing endorsement, I will give it a shot.

Here are some things that you should be resolved to doing in the New Year:

  1. Read the SEC and FINRA exam priority letters that each issue shortly after the New Year.
  2. Reevaluate your data security policies and procedures by testing it with internal and external threats.confusion.jpg
  3. Reevaluate your policies and procedures regarding the client relationships you maintain with anyone over the age of 65.
  4. Communicate (in either writing or telephonically) with all of your clients at least once a quarter.
  5. Only communicate with your clients through a form of communication that is approved and monitored by your firm.
  6. Have a written follow-up communications after you speak with your clients.
  7. Put in writing to your clients those instances where your clients ignore your advice.
  8. Never put anything in an email that you are unwilling to see blown up 1000 times as an exhibit in a trial or disciplinary proceeding.
  9. Hold on tight for the roller-coaster ride that we may see in the markets next year; your clients will expect you to be the voice and reason and calm.
  10. If a client makes a complaint, immediately report it up the chain, and do not try to resolve it yourself.

I am sure each of you could think of more thinks to resolve yourself to doing. So have it and best wishes for a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.

* photo from