Why I decided to run for the board of directors of NSSTA.

"I decided to accept the nomination to run for the board of directors for NSSTA earlier this week."

For anyone that has known me, or of my career as an advocate for the right of plaintiffs to have equal representation at the settlement table for the last 20+ years, those words are some what surreal and probably hard to imagine  Yet here I was earlier this week deciding it was in the interests of the greater good of our profession that I, at the very least, should stand for election. Let me share with you how I arrived at this decision.

When I was first notified a few weeks ago that my name had been put into nomination for a board seat with NSSTA, (The National Structured Settlement Trade Association), my first thought was to the quote attributed to the great Union General, William T. Sherman. He famously said, when asked by reporters if he was going to run for President after the war given his great popularity with the northern half of the country, " If nominated, I will not accept, if drafted I will not run, if elected I will not serve."  I like everyone else in our business is too busy with other projects, am involved in the lives of my sons who are still in school and now starting careers, and am sensitive to the concerns of my wife who continually guards against my propensity to take on more work and travel then I can reasonably handle. I know that while I have my gifts, the gift of organizational ability and administrative efficiency are not at the top, and that despite my best intentions i've often failed in returning phone calls on time, staying on top of correspondence and that I will often place the urgent matter in front of the mundane daily tasks on the priority list. In short, I've been on a lot of boards over the years, and I am not the shining example of administrative excellence.

While I pretty much made up a list of reasons in my mind why I shouldn't put my name into nomination for the board, I got to talking with several of my clients and friends who know how hard I've worked in the last 20 years to further the rights of plaintiffs in negotiations, to open access to annuity markets to plaintiff experts and brokers, and to develop products and innovations that educated trial lawyers and plaintiffs as to the vital importance of proper settlement planning. All of that while facing often brutal resistance from defense brokers and casualty firms that saw my efforts as nothing more then an attempt to take commissions on a sale they felt they were not obligated to share. My career decision to leave defense work behind back in 1985 cost me professionally and financially, and for a solid decade I was laboring essentially alone except for a few fellow travelers who shared my conviction that the decisions made at the time of settlement by an injured person or his survivors are too important and life altering to be decided with out proper plaintiff representation, and via an open and transparent pricing process. I owe it to the attorneys and families that loyally supported my business for the last 20 years to at the very least keep my name on the list for consideration by the membership.

A lot has changed in the structured settlement industry since I entered it in 1981, some of it very good, and a lot of it not so good. We weathered the financial shake out of Executive Life and other firms, saw the industry opened up with the Weil case and in the last 3 to 5 years there has been a welcome change in the willingness of both sides of the industry to work cooperatively on cases for the mutual benefit of our clients and our respective firms. What was once a closed club has begun to open the doors a bit, and the winners will be the injured, the ill and the survivors who will have access to the accumulated talent and wisdom our industry has to offer. 

However, we really do stand at a cross roads in our business today and all is not well. Lets not fool ourselves ladies and gentlemen, this industry is not growing and is in fact probably contracting over the last couple of years. Three of NSSTA's oldest and most respected member companies, Mass Mutual Life Insurance, Symetra and Genworth, all have either exited the structured annuity business or with drawn from membership in NSSTA. That is not a sign of good health and prosperity. While our industry members have been frantically protecting their own shrinking market share, we have been getting our lunch eaten on the front end by banks, brokerage houses and financial planners in the competition for settlement dollars, while our industries most recognizable spokesman is a cheesy actor in a bad suit saying " It's YOUR money, use it NOW." Sure, you and I know he's not our spokesman, but to judges, lawyers, plaintiffs and annuitants he is the face of our industry and he's on TV, Cable, radio and the internet, and we have surrendered the battle field for the minds of our future clients to a cheap huckster. If you don't define and articulate who you are and what you do, your competition is going to do it for you.

In short, while I don't believe I have all the answers I do believe I know many of the problems, and that I have a reputation in our industry for engaging both plaintiff and defense interests in efforts to raise our profession to a higher standard. If elected to the board I will work to do the following:

  • Bring a greater perspective of plaintiff issues and concerns, and how our industry and brokers often thoughtlessly push our best potential clients into the arms of banks, brokers and financial planners who don't offer our product. We MUST become transparent in pricing, underwriting, commission sharing and stop using approved broker lists as a tool to avoid competition. People are voting with their feet and the numbers don't look good for us.

  • Act as a liaison to the trial lawyers and their allies to repair some of the harm done by predatory factoring companies that degrade our product through misleading advertising as well as other "plaintiff experts" who have made a living off scare tactics about rebating, after case underwriting and undisclosed daily rate pricing. Transparency and honesty is our best weapon and our greatest natural ally in this battle is the American Trial Lawyer. They know our product works, they know their clients need it, but they are just totally turned off by our commission squabbles, approved lists and lack of transparency on an industry wide basis. We, through our past and current behavior are making the rope by which our enemies are going to be hanging us.

  • Work to build up new products and ideas that meet the needs of todays clients and cases, while preserving the bedrock integrity of the structured settlement annuity. People and their advisors require greater sophistication now and we need to play a little less golf and get to work on promoting some of the new ideas in non-qualified products, structured sales, structured legal fees and mass tort innovations.

  • Work to promote a positive and progressive image of our industry. We need to get out of the shadows, be proud of what we do and what we offer and take back our name on the internet and in the minds of consumers. It doesn't happen over night but the plan needs to be worked on and devised by our industry. We have a great product and great professionals selling it, lets capitalize on that.

  • Support the efforts of other board members, officers and voting members to promote and protect our industry.

Well, thats it. I'm running, there isn't a lot of gray area, you either like what I think and vote for me or totally disagree and vote against me. What ever the outcome i'm fine with it. However, I do want you to step back and consider that we all need to appeal to each others better nature, stop fighting old battles, look at the challenges we face as great opportunities for new markets and commit yourself to greater involvement in our industry on any level to work in a noble profession that helps the broken, injured, sick and orphaned to have a chance at financial security and a better life through our efforts. You can contact me to discuss any of my views by going to the Wahlstrom and Associates page and finding my contact information there.

Posted on April 6, 2007 .