Lerner Seniors Learn To Earn Trust in Case Competition

The term “trust management” may conjure up images of stacks of legal documents and long meetings around a conference table. Those elements can certainly be part of it, but as a recent competition at the University of Delaware illustrates, the job can also put trust officers right in the heart of a family’s story.

For students in the trust management minor at UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, the final step in their studies is a case competition in which teams pit their presentation skills, creativity and technical knowledge against each other. The third annual competition was held Dec. 1.

On a rainy Friday evening, the teams tackled a series of cases — detailed fictional examples of family trusts with tricky situations to navigate. They explained to judges how they’d handle the situation.

At times, these cases can sound like the plot of a reality TV drama or an HBO series, and while fictional they’re based on the real-life experiences that trust officers face.

“Fact is stranger than fiction,” said Jennifer Zelvin McCloskey, an attorney and director of the trust management minor.

Money and family relationships can be a combustible mix that requires adroit people skills, tact and creativity to make it all run smoothly. It’s also a specialized field that’s hard to find academic training for, McCloskey said. The trust management minor at UD Lerner is one of only two formal academic trust administration programs in the country teaching people the nuances of handling these legal structures that guide how a client’s wealth is handled and distributed.

“The majority of trust officers and trust administrators have had no academic exposure whatsoever — everything, until this program was developed, was on-the-job learning,” McCloskey said.

And yet, firms that make mistakes can face serious liability.

“It is critical for people to have a full education, full understanding … of what the rules of law are, what the expectations are, and how to read these legal structures,” McCloskey said. That’s especially true in Delaware, a crucial trust business hub, but she said a number of other states also have robust trust laws, from Tennessee all the way up to Alaska. UD graduates who earned the trust management minor have a lot of potential career destinations.

The minor came about in 2017, a result of industry professionals here coming together and collaborating with the University.

“There was no pipeline of talent. And so we were just stealing employees from each other,” said Cindy Brown, president of Commonwealth Trust Company, who served as a judge this year and chairs the Advisory Board to the minor. “… And so we all got together and said, ‘Well, we need to do something about that.’”

“It is very collegial in Delaware,” more so than other jurisdictions, said Lynn Welch Watson, vice president of Brown Brothers Harriman Trust Company of Delaware, N.A. Watson, another of the night’s judges, helped spearhead the minor and remains very involved.

The case competition is intended to be fun, McCloskey said, and also increase students’ confidence in their knowledge and public speaking skills. At the same time, she noted, it puts them in front of the very people interested in hiring them. It’s a sort of cross between a class project and an in-depth job interview, with the added incentive of a cash prize — $3,000 for the winning team, $2,000 for second place, and $1,000 for third.

To earn that reward, students in teams of two had 20 minutes to present their PowerPoints in a lecture hall in front of a row of judges. They delved into the fictional scenarios, examining the interplay among family members, how the trust is set up, how the law applies, tax implications, and strategies to keep the client and promote compromise. They had to know their stuff — the conversation threw around legal shorthand like Article IV(1)(b) or X(b)(i) that would leave an outsider dazed. The judges followed up with probing questions about how the solutions would pan out.

For the most part, the competitors kept their cool despite the predicaments posed by the cases. “It’s definitely a complicated family situation,” student Connor Maggio said tactfully, amid an awkward discussion of the exploits of a rather indiscreet millionaire. Maggio is a senior in finance and financial planning and wealth management.

The judges make their picks based on understanding the nuances of the subject and how the team presents it.

“I think the hardest lesson for a lot of students … when they started this program, they thought everything was right or wrong, there was a correct answer,” Watson said. “And it’s not. It’s thinking outside the box and working with your families to work toward solutions that everybody can live with.” The teams demonstrated they’d learned that lesson in the competition, she said.

This year’s winners were seniors and financial planning and wealth management majors Jack Wootten and Patrick Schaeffer, with seniors Rachel Ciuci, finance major and Aiden Castle, finance and marketing double major, coming in second. Seniors and finance majors Caleb Brukman and Ava Zanaras earned third.

“I was looking for a great presentation, good presence in the room, confidence,” said judge Francis Hazeldine, president and CEO of Eleutherian Trust Company. “I was looking for a great command of the subject matter and the ability to answer a question on the fly,” and Wootten and Schaeffer met those criteria, he said.

“It was a fantastic experience,” Shaeffer said. “So much work went into this, and just really the feeling of all that work finally paying off, it’s just the most amazing feeling.” The pair spent about 50 or 60 hours over several weeks preparing, he estimated.

Despite being a little nerve-wracking, “It was also awesome presenting in front of all these skilled professionals,” Wootten said.

Second-place winners Ciuci and Castle set themselves apart with the ambitious presentation, said judge Timothy Egan, a managing director at the wealth management firm Glenmede. “They carried themselves as true professionals on the floor,” and had a solid grasp of the different aspects of the case, along with thinking out their policies and procedures. “The combination of all those things gave them a little bit of an edge.”

“Thinking on your feet when you are getting asked questions, that’s a huge thing,” Castle said.

When the trust minor students graduate, they’ll likely have firms eagerly waiting with jobs that McCloskey said start at $65,000 to $85,000 and can go up quite a ways from there.

“The students that come out (of the minor) are just superb,” Brown said.

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