Like a family doctor or lawyer, a wealth manager is privy to highly sensitive information, but that information is not confined to just one domain. The doctor who knows everything about a patient’s body rarely knows the contents of her bank account or estate plan. The wealth manager, in order to do his or her job properly, has to know everything. As one manager put it, the client has to “undress” in front of the wealth manager. A London-based practitioner described the level of familiarity required in even more vivid terms: “When people choose a wealth manager, first they sort based on competence, then they have to pick someone they want to know everything about them: about Mother’s lesbian affairs, Brother’s drug addiction, the spurned lovers bursting into the room.”
Wealth managers need to know these intimate details of their clients’ lives because so many of the factors that affect high-net-worth individuals also affect their fortunes. As a fiduciary, the wealth manager is bound to protect clients’ wealth from risk: This includes not just financial risk but the threat of spendthrift heirs dissipating the family assets or of family members with embarrassing secrets who might be targeted for blackmail.
Through involvement in such struggles, wealth managers themselves often end up taking on a quasi-familial role vis-à-vis their clients and clients’ relatives. Perhaps in recognition of the special intimacy and trust conferred on these professionals, the 1989 Guernsey Trusts Law states that a fiduciary must “observe the utmost good faith and act en bon père de famille”—a French phrase that translates literally as “good father of a family.” In practice, wealth managers are “usually recruited in a very personal way” by the actual fathers (rarely mothers) of high-net-worth families, with the relationship cultivated carefully to ensure that the professional represents the wishes and interests of the father after his death. Some scholars have interpreted this in purely rational-bureaucratic terms: “The work of the fiduciary ... occupies, after the death of the family founder, the place of abstract patriarchal authority in a family, but what family beneficiaries literally trust is not an object or person imbued with positive family values such as love, amity and warm feelings, but a cold, rational construct of wealth—the trust and its trustee.” However, this instrumental view is belied by the statements of participants in this study, who repeatedly emphasized that trusting client relationships hinged on mutually experienced bonds of emotion.
For example, one manager in Dubai described her client relationships in terms that emphasized the emotional labor and caring involved: “They’re asking you to take care of their family. You can’t just think of it as another piece of business ... It’s not just a matter of signing documents; it’s the whole concept of doing the right thing for that family. You have to be able to say, ‘Mr. A., don’t worry—your kids are all going to be put through university. It’s all going to be okay.’ You have to be very businesslike. But also family-like.” Comments such as this point to a socio-emotional aspect of the duties of loyalty and care stipulated in fiduciary law. Beyond their rational-bureaucratic sense, in which “care” is intended to mean “prudence in business dealings,” an additional layer of genuine interpersonal attachment may arise between professionals and clients.