5 Ways to Protect Your Reputation
You’re there for your clients through life’s most landmark moments—births, bris ceremonies, baptisms, graduations, marriages, home purchases, retirements, and even deaths. You become an extension of your clients’ families in some ways, because you share a mutually vulnerable relationship with them. For your clients, it’s all about their lives and their futures. For you, it’s your career and your good name. So what can you do to avoid accusations of wrongdoing from a client or a client’s family, were they to have a negative experience with their investments? How can you stay ahead of the curve enough to preserve your good name?
1. Keep Records on Money Management Consultations
It goes without saying that good, clear meeting notes and copies of your transactions are both key to your career success as well as your ability to defend your good name. Unfortunately, some advisors choose to let this best practice go by the wayside. This is a recipe for disaster, as those advisors will find it difficult to build lasting relationships with clients and defend themselves in difficult times.
Advisors who do keep good records, on the other hand, have a greater chance of self-preservation. Late last year, one AdvisorLaw client was accused of taking out a life insurance policy without his client’s consent. During the arbitration hearing, the advisor was able to present a copy of the life insurance policy application signed by the client. As a result, the advisor was able to have the false accusation expunged from his BrokerCheck profile.
2. Maintain as much client information as you can when you transition
If you plan to transition out of your current firm, take as much of your past client information with you as is permissible by your employment agreement. It may seem unnecessary, but holding on to your client notes can be the thing that saves you, if a sneaky or disgruntled client comes back to wreak havoc on your career.
For example, an advisor client of ours was recently accused of wrongfully selling a tenancy-in-common (TIC) investment to two seasoned investors, just before the 2008 market crash. The claim, raised until six years after the customers sold the investment and the advisor changed firms, alleged that the investment was unsuitable—even though both customers met the suitability requirements for the TIC investment, and the TIC was suitable for the customers, based on their overall portfolios.
During his hearing for expungement of the dispute, the advisor was able to turn the conversation around by providing a copy of the PPM that had been given to the customers. The PPM showed that both investors met the suitability requirements of the TIC and that the customers were made aware of the risks associated with the investments. He was also able to share copies of the customers’ investment applications, a record of the extensive conversations that he’d had with the customers about the investment, and additional evidence to corroborate his claim of no wrongdoing. As a result of the advisor’s ability to provide proof, he was able to remove the wrongful claim of unsuitability from his BrokerCheck record.
3. Set realistic expectations around investment performance and strategy
Trust and vulnerability are key pillars in the advisor-investor relationship. Your investor clients are constantly vulnerable to your recommendations and judgment, and they’re trusting you to do right by them. To protect your good name, your best bet is to always act in the best interest of the client and to set realistic expectations for an investment. Be explicit and candid about the risks, and avoid inflating the investment’s potential outcomes.
4. Avoid Selling Unnecessary or Unsuitable Products
Sometimes, you may find yourself towing the line between generating profits for your firm and acting in the best interests of your investor clients. While your clients’ needs always take precedence, there might have been times when you found yourself pressured into a situation where you felt the need to facilitate a transaction for a proprietary product that the client did not need or select an investment that wasn’t a good match for a client’s risk profile.
Being objective in a sales- and performance-driven role is exceptionally difficult, yet, more often than not, it is the best path to take. When you avoid selling unnecessary products and unsuitable investments, you’re protecting the client, as conflicts of interest such as these can impose a risk upon meeting client objectives. Likewise, you’re also avoiding potential FINRA investigations and ultimately protecting your career. Avoiding conflicts of interests helps to ensure that everyone wins in the end.
5. Give All Clients Equal Respect and Priority
It’s normal to give priority to the people who share a stronger bond with us. Though, in the investment business, it’s best to avoid falling prey to this tendency, even if we want to attach the label of “favorite” or “most important” to our top investors or the folks to whom we feel closest.
Giving one client priority over another or, perhaps, giving your most profitable investors exclusive access to certain investments, can lead to a downgrade in client satisfaction and blame. Giving all clients the same time and opportunities is the pathway to greater success for all involved. When clients are happy and have equal access to suitable investment opportunities, you open the door to improving your clients’ lives, strengthening the meaning of your good name, and elevating your career.
Recently, a formerly-registered advisor who now practices as an IAR sought expungement of an occurrence filed by two customers in 2014. The investment in question was a real estate tenancy in common investment (TIC) that the customers purchased in 2008.
One of the two customers had just sold a real estate property and was seeking a Section 1031 exchange to avoid taxes on the sale. His investment in the TIC comprised about 10% of his portfolio. The other had also recently sold real estate property and was seeking to avoid taxes on the sale. His investment in the TIC comprised about 17% of his portfolio. Both customers’ investor profiles met suitability requirements, in that each had experience investing in real estate, an annual income of at least $150,000, a net worth of $1 - $5 million, a moderately aggressive to aggressive risk tolerance, and low to no liquidity needs. Both customers were seeking income and capital appreciation from the investment.
The Investors Complained After Holding the Investment for Six Years
Shortly after the customers’ 2008 real estate purchase, the world experienced one of the worst financial crises in history. Despite that the TIC actually performed as expected for some time, and it never lost principal value.
The customers voiced no concern over the investment for the next three years. In 2011, the advisor switched firms and did not bring the customers with him. Then, in 2014, the customers filed for FINRA arbitration against the advisor’s previous firm. The customers alleged over $600,000 in damages, some of which were punitive. The firm responded, denying all allegations against them and against the advisor, even though the advisor had not been named as a respondent. Eventually, the firm made a business decision to settle for a little over $97,000. It did not ask the advisor to contribute.
Luckily, the Advisor Was Able to Share Proof of Investment Suitability
At the advisor’s hearing for expungement of this dispute, he provided a copy of the PPM given to the customers, highlighting that each customer was accredited and met the suitability requirements of the TIC and illustrating that the PPM disclosed all risks associated with the investment. To corroborate his testimony regarding the customers’ investor profiles, the advisor supplied copies of the customers’ account applications.
The advisor testified to the extensive conversations he had had with each customer regarding the investment and to the volatile market conditions that followed shortly thereafter. He presented a copy of his previous firm’s response to the customers’ complaint, stating their position that the investment was, in fact, suitable for each customer. The advisor highlighted that he had been registered with FINRA for 14 years and had only received this one complaint. Neither customer submitted a response to the request for expungement, nor did they attend the hearing. The advisor’s firm did not oppose the request for expungement.
The Arbitrator Confirmed the Economic Downturn, Not the Advisor, Was the Source of All Financial Loss
It is absolutely ludicrous that two accredited investors, each with real estate investment experience and moderately aggressive to aggressive risk tolerances, each seeking to avoid taxable gains from the sale of real estate, could even fathom making a claim that this investment was unsuitable for them. It is even more ludicrous that FINRA not only allowed, but required, such a far-fetched claim to be published on BrokerCheck. Luckily, the arbitrator hearing the case agreed, highlighting the customers’ experience with real estate investing, their desire for Section 1031 exchanges, and the fact that the subsequent financial crisis was truly to blame for any alleged losses. The advisor’s CRD record and BrokerCheck are now squeaky clean.
Are erroneous complaints holding you back? Learn more about our FINRA Customer Dispute Expungement offerings.
Over the years, AdvisorLaw has been asked the same question hundreds of times:
How does a disclosure on my CRD impact a move to a new firm?"
The answer to this question is a bit complicated, as every disclosure is somewhat unique. Depending upon their caliber, firms vary in their responses to applicants with disclosures.
High-End Firms Automatically Disqualify Any Application with a Disclosure
When considering a potential transition to a high-end firm, you will be judged on many different variables, and the disclosures on your record are just one of them. Many of these firms pride themselves on having a disclosure-free team. So, in general, a disclosure on your BrokerCheck will immediately disqualify you with many high-end, boutique, or family office firms. Simply having a disclosure on your CRD can render you a non-starter—these firms are not interested in the circumstances or the story behind it.
Average Firms Use a More Holistic Review Process (for the Right Disclosures)
Applications with Mildly Derelict Disclosures Get Some Grace
The average firm (e.g., banks, regionals, independents, RIAs, and most wirehouses) does care about disclosures. However, these firms will not necessarily disqualify a candidate off the bat simply because a disclosure appears on the candidate’s CRD. Instead, disclosures are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Certain aspects of a customer dispute disclosure on a Form U4 can prompt a firm to exclude a candidate, such as allegations of unethical practices of forgery, theft, or a gross misrepresentation, for example. Some firms have thresholds, in that they will not consider an advisor with a settlement over $15,000 or more than three investor complaints.
Tax Liens, Bad Credit, and Severe Disclosures Can Be a Dealbreaker for the Average Firm
There are red-flag disclosures that the average firm will review, though it will prove to be an uphill battle for the candidate upon applying for employment. The first type is a tax lien or serious financial disclosure, which many firms across the spectrum view as grounds to eliminate a candidate. Financial professionals who have trouble managing their own tax liabilities or credit are viewed by many firms as irresponsible, and firms do not want sales production being influenced by outside financial pressure, such as a tax lien or bankruptcy disclosure that is viewable by potential clients.
U5 Disclosures Can Also Damage a Rep’s Chances for a Smooth Transition into An Average FirmClick To Add Text
The next disclosure type that can be a major speed bump is an Employment Separation After Allegations disclosure (ESAA), or a U5 termination disclosure. These bad boys can be a nightmare for a rep who is trying to transition to a new firm, in part because the previous firm will often take a heavy-handed approach to the language used in reporting a U5 disclosure. Often, firms will do so in an attempt to prevent the departing rep from competing with them at a new firm so they may sure to check the box that displays the U5 on BrokerCheck. This is an unfortunate reality in our industry, and many do not realize its gravity until they have lived for some time with the impact that these Form U5 disclosures cause.
Average Firms Won’t Touch Records with Regulatory Investigations
The next type of disclosure that can cause myriad issues for an advisor is any regulatory disclosure. These clearly pose a risk directly from FINRA for a hiring firm. However, what is not typically taken into consideration is the fact that FINRA and the state regulators tend to aggressively push for a settlement or an Acceptance, Waiver & Consent (AWC) after a regulatory investigation. The cost of fighting a FINRA enforcement action tends to prevent most parties from having their day in front of a judge or arbitrator. While many state and FINRA regulatory disclosures on BrokerCheck appear much worse than they are in reality, the firms view them as toxic.
Smaller, Lesser-Known Firms Give Everyone a Chance—But You May Lose Some Clients
The firms that will hire otherwise unhireable professionals in the industry tend to be smaller, lesser-known firms. These firms are still selective, because they have to be. While they tend to look at candidates based on merit and risk, they are more open to hiring an individual with negative disclosures. The downside for the candidate is that these firms hold all of the leverage, because they are the only remaining option. As a result, transition/compensation packages for candidates tend to be low to non-existent, and the rep’s existing clients may be wary of moving to a firm that does not have a brand name in the market.
Employers and Clients Outside the Industry Can Still Find Your Disclosures After You Leave the Industry
Some individuals with serious financial, customer complaint, U5 termination or regulatory disclosures opt to go RIA-only or leave the industry altogether. Yet they still find that their public BrokerCheck record (and Form ADV if they go RIA) haunts them for many years to come, because it still ends up being viewed by employers and potential clients conducting background checks. This is a sad truth. Be prepared to answer to that allegation, even the meritless ones, for at least the next decade when you leave the industry.
Because all will be picked up in an employment background check, our advice for transitioning with a FINRA disclosure on your CRD is to be up front about any and all current or pending allegations, whether or not you believe them to be reportable.
And if you want to remove the disclosures, contact us. We are in the business of protecting your livelihood.
This blog is our ongoing effort to inform and educate FINRA licensed professionals about the evolving regulatory ecosystem in which we operate.