Some years ago, when David Kauffman learned that a couple he was working with was being ripped off by a contractor, he called the man and told him he was advising his clients to take him to small claims court. With a legal background, David knew the process would be relatively inexpensive for them, but would force the contractor to waste money and time. “I told the guy that I was urging them not to drop it, and that he would be wise to settle. He did.”
“I see myself as an advocate for my clients in all things,” he says, and he has the resume to back that up.
After graduating with honors in Finance from James Madison University, he received a law degree from the Widener University School of Law. He practiced for several years, with his last full time legal position at a firm that specialized in divorce and estate planning. “Surprisingly, I found death and divorce kind of depressing,” he laughs. David wanted to do something that would let him connect with people, and take part in their ongoing lives.
“I enjoyed personal finance” he says, “but I was also drawn to advocacy. For me, financial planning joined the two.” He received an Executive Certificate in Financial Planning from Georgetown University, and started work as a planner. He soon discovered that not all financial planners are looking out for the best interests of their clients.
“I was working with this one guy who was a CFP, but also sold life insurance. He was speaking with this young couple, and convinced them to buy a whole life policy, with expensive premiums. I knew he should have sold them term insurance instead, which would have met their need and given them more coverage for the same cost, but he was going after a higher commission. At that moment, I realized that there are people out there who look out for themselves first, even if it harms their clients. That made me angry. When you plan people’s finances, you literally have their future in your hands. Ethics comes first, before everything else.”
One day, David was paging through the Journal of Financial Planning — the leading publication for the industry — and came across an article written by Ken Solow and Michael Kitces of Pinnacle Advisory Group. He was impressed, and so in January 2007, he came on board.
David’s advocacy approach fits well with Pinnacle’s client-first philosophy. “It’s a cliché to say, ‘I care,’ but the fact is, I really do care. I’ll spend as much time as necessary to help my clients, and I’ll work outside my responsibility if that’s what it takes. I’ll help them refinance their mortgage and attend the settlement. I’ll work with their estate attorneys. I’ve even gone to some clients’ homes and helped them organize their paperwork. I’ll do whatever I have to do to serve my clients.”
Financial planning isn’t simply a job for David, it’s more like a mission, and his sense of advocacy serves him well. It’s no surprise that he also provides pro bono legal and financial services in his off-hours. “You have to put yourself in a person’s shoes to really understand what he or she is facing. Take the recently retired person for example: For the first time, you’re no longer making a salary and are now living on your accumulated money. That can be scary. You’re also in a new stage in life, and that brings its own questions. Where will you live? How close do you want to be to your kids? What if you or your spouse needs long-term care? When you talk to people about these things, it can be hard. It isn’t always a pleasant conversation, but you have to have it.”
David’s law degree helps him pro-actively spot issues and obstacles that might come up for his clients. “Studying law and reading cases is like absorbing thousands of stories about people’s business and personal matters. One can match the facts and relevant laws of the stories to the particular aspects of a client’s life, and advise them accordingly. It’s like putting the personal experience of thousands of different people and businesses to work for your client.”
While many assume that wealth management involves little more than choosing the right investments or setting aside enough money for retirement, the process is much more involved than that. “Money is only a tool,” he says. “It can give you choices, but it doesn’t create happiness. My goal is to give you the choices — the freedom — to pursue your own happiness.”
In David’s experience, that’s the greatest benefit his clients receive when they work together on a plan. “People are often surprised at how clear a view they can get about their future, and what they need to do to get there. For the first time, they see that there’s a proactive way they can make decisions to control their destiny. And what’s better than that?”