Open Letter from the 2024 President of the Society of Settlement Planners

Dear Members of the Society of Settlement Planners,

It is an honor to have been selected by the Board to serve as President of the Society of Settlement Planners. As many of you know, I have served four previous terms as President. I feel like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day – bound to repeat this until I get it right once. I’ll use my fullest ability to lead this Society in the direction the Board wants it to go, but I’ll need your support, patience, help and prayers to pull off the ambitious agenda described in this letter.

Last week, we had a very successful and informative meeting in Nashville. My congratulations to outgoing President, Paul Isaac, Jr., the Board, the Annual Meeting Committee, and our meeting coordinator, Rhonda Bentzen, for everything that went into planning and coordinating the recurring miracle we call our Annual Meeting. I would also like to thank our great sponsors for their support. I felt professionally invigorated by the presentations, hallway conversations, and social events and I came home from Nashville with a list of ways to improve my practice.

The State of the Society is strong. I inherit the momentum built by my immediate predecessors, Paul Isaac, Jr. and Joe DiGangi. The finances are good, membership is up, the Board is active, Dan Maxwell and his team are wonderful, and we just held a great meeting. The stage is set to advance our Society to a new and higher level. I feel a weight of responsibility to continue the momentum and to advance “the cause.”  The agenda for my term includes:

  • Annual Meeting: I can announce that we are holding our next Annual Meeting in San Antonio on February 26-28 in a hotel to be determined on the riverwalk. To supplement the cadre of the best national speakers we can find, we also plan to “round up” some local speakers from the Central Texas legal community.
  • Settlement Planning Standards: Seven years ago, the SSP Membership voted to adopt Practice Standards on an aspirational basis. We will tighten those up and propose formally adopting real fiduciary standards of service, integrity, loyalty, competence, diligence and disclosure. As a relatively small professional society, we can’t realistically police these standards, but we can at least shift the objective legal standards for anyone practicing “settlement planning.” We want people to pay a price if they adopt the label without changing their hearts. Settlement planning is a profession practiced by those who serve, love and protect vulnerable people in serious need of professional guidance at a critical time in their lives. Now, people will get into legal trouble if they dare use the settlement planning label to take advantage of the power dynamics and informational asymmetries that exist in our field. After they are enacted, each member will either commit to abide by the Practice Standards or leave the SSP.
  • Society of Professionals: The SSP promotes comprehensive settlement planning provided by professionals hired by and for the claimant. Our Society maintains its focus on improving the human condition of the clients we serve. We freely share our best practices amongst our members. Hoarding “trade secrets” borders on sociopathic behavior when such selfishness might hinder the aid colleagues render to orphaned children, catastrophically injured persons, and widows or widowers. At our meetings, people don’t whisper in dark corners about gaining an advantage over their colleagues. Instead, the SSP fosters creativity, generosity, mentoring and sharing among the sharpest minds in our field. Tears well in my eyes as I recall the generosity of SSP members who have helped build my own practice. Let’s vow to never again use the acerbic term “industry” in our circles and find more occasions to use words like “love,” “compassion” and “service.” The ideal for our professional practices should look more like a ministry or a public charity than a business.
  • Increasing Benefits of Membership:  Membership in the SSP is an amazingly “good deal.” Obviously, we could raise dues and use the funds to provide more services for our members. We probably should raise dues, but there is more we could do for our members without much cost. We will identify and provide more benefits.
  • Corporate Governance:  We should elect a President-Elect and a Vice President who are actively involved in running the affairs of the Society. In general, the officers should be drawn from the Board. We need to change our current practices to better reflect the intent expressed in our founding documents. Officers can make officer-level decisions without consulting the Board. As a practical matter, for 24 years we have functioned as a Board-run organization led by a person called a President but functioning as a Chairman of the Board. Thus, the Board has been involved in mind-numbingly small decisions instead of focusing on its proper strategic role. I would like a full slate of empowered officers to handle the day-to-day administration and an active Board with committees handling strategic matters. This may mean that we need fewer Board meetings and more officer and committee meetings.
  • No Politics:  The SSP will continue to carefully avoid a seat at any policy table. We are grateful that NSSTA and AASC actively pursue influence. I encourage members to support them by joining, participating and contributing to these Associations. The SSP will not join or oppose them in any policy position. In complete candor we say, “Godspeed and Thank You.”

I look forward to working with each of you on this agenda for the coming year. Please invite anyone you encounter who works in this field and who has the heart of a servant to join us in our efforts. I’m proud of my own SSP membership and I’m humbled by the collective wisdom and experience of the Board members. We stand on the shoulders of the pioneers who built this organization. I’m eager to see what we can accomplish together to lift and improve the human condition through our continued service to the SSP.  Make sure y’all join us in San Antonio next year.

Very Sincerely Yours,

Joseph W. Tombs, President
Society of Settlement Planners