Go Ahead, Spend Kids’ Inheritance, Says N.Y. Power Guru Stephen Pollan

In his new book, Die Broke , Stephen Pollan-lawyer and self-described adviser on “the Business of Living”-says his office probably goes through as many tissues as a psychotherapist’s. In fact, said Mr. Pollan in an interview, a man came into his office and cried that very day. At first the man, who had been terminated from “a major, major magazine,” was dry-eyed. But, Mr. Pollan recalled, “I said, ‘Have you cried yet!’ I saw the sadness hadn’t left yet.” When the tears did come, Mr. Pollan responded, “‘Great!’ And I applauded.”

He says he gives advice on everything from how to get a raise to how to deal with “a spouse who has a hygiene problem.” He exudes boundless confidence about life’s possibilities. “I know how to ask for a raise. I can get you a raise on a dime,” he promised. “I’ve had people who had never written books write books.” He said that if a person is “having problems with the landlord, I can take of that. Having problems with an employee? I can take care of that. Having problems with Mommy and Daddy? I can take care of that.”

Even before Die Broke was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show on Oct. 21 and began heading toward the best-seller list, Mr. Pollan had won a well-heeled following, which, he writes, has accountants, therapists, nutritionists, personal trainers and “me to help them with their fears.” He said his clients include media people, including New Yorker staff writer Mark Danner, TV Guide columnist J. Max Robins and MTV Productions president Van Toffler. Indeed, some of his clients and associates refer to him in gurulike terms: the uncle they wished they had, a consigliere , “homey and menschy”; one even said, “tell them he’s my Svengali.” Said one man, “I like to describe him as a father figure without the emotional baggage.”

But along with his dear advice comes a dear bill. And apparently Mr. Pollan has an intolerance for clients who pay late. Some, all of whom refused to be named in The Observer , complained that Mr. Pollan’s fees were higher than they’d expected; in one case, a client who called Mr. Pollan to contest a billing alleged that she was then charged for that conversation by the attorney. (He replied, “If that ever happened to anybody, that’s an error.”) And the contests have spilled into court: The Observer discovered eight cases in which Mr. Pollan has sued clients over unpaid bills-one for $350-in the past several years.

Mr. Pollan, who charges $300 to $350 an hour, defended his billing practices, saying that fees sometimes go above budget for reasons beyond his control, like the behavior of lawyers from the other side. He noted that his office handles 200 clients a year and also said that he does not turn matters over to a collection agency for six to nine months, and only then when he knows someone can pay. “I think I’ve loaned more money than I’ve sued for,” he said.

Speaking in his five-person office on East 79th Street near First Avenue, Mr. Pollan was warm and gregarious, surrounded by framed posters of some of the cover stories he wrote for New York magazine ( Die Broke started out as two articles in Worth magazine) and a picture of him with his son-in-law Michael J. Fox on CNBC, where Mr. Pollan had a spot called “The Answer Man.” On the round table in front of him sat a plaque and a pile of business cards that said “Stephen Pollan: Professional Fear Remover.” Mr. Pollan, who was born in the Bronx and attended Forest Hills High School in Queens, said that when he was a boy, his father used to put The New York Times ‘ Man of the Week column under his pillow. “I was very preoccupied about being successful for my parents.” At 68, he is already a living example of one of his maxims: never retire.

“A lot of people feel defeated when they see a problem,” he said in the lingo his loyal clients admiringly described. “I tell them how powerful they are.… I try to put them in charge of their lives.” Holding his hands over his ears to indicate his head, he explained that “the secret is to get out of here” because “this is a bad place to be in, it’s a bad neighborhood for a lot of us.”

“He’s just a really empowering guy,” said Harris Salat, a former TV news producer who met Mr. Pollan at CNBC. Mr. Salat said he received an abundance of advice from Mr. Pollan, free of charge. “He has a whole radical way of looking at careers,” Mr. Salat said, referring to Mr. Pollan’s notion of being a free agent. “Instead of saying, ‘Harris Salat of CBS News,’ it’s, ‘Harris Salat, a TV producer, currently on contract with CBS News.'”

Clients said Mr. Pollan helps them move forward with decisions they may already have made but haven’t acted on. Lee Hunt, president of a TriBeCa company that launched MSNBC, recalled that when he felt nervous about expanding his company, “He said, ‘Look, you grew the company this far by trusting your gut. You’re not showing me one reason not to, so do what your gut says.'” Mr. Hunt, who has been to Mr. Pollan’s annual fall family barn dance at his country home in Sharon, Conn., said, “I go to see him twice a year, if not more often.” (Mr. Pollan, married to New York magazine columnist Corky Pollan, is often described as very close to his children, who include actress Tracy Pollan and author Michael Pollan.)

Mr. Danner first went to see Mr. Pollan when he was buying two apartments, but said “the specifics [of why I hired him] are less important than his general philosophy of life.” For instance, Mr. Danner said, Mr. Pollan strongly encourages people to buy property and advises that “this fear of owning is foolish.… His general philosophy is there are almost these canards, like buying is something you get to at a certain point, these rigidities that make no sense.”

Indeed, Mr. Pollan’s current success is owed, at least in part, to a smart packaging of contrarianism. Though some of what Die Broke offers is common sense that doesn’t live up to the book jacket’s promise of “a radical, four-part financial plan,” the book, which was published in October by Harper Collins Publishers, offers the provocative idea that dying penniless is good. (One of Mr. Pollan’s oft-quoted lines is that your last check should be to the undertaker, and it should bounce.) Stop worrying about amassing an estate, writes Mr. Pollan. Instead, live well, buy annuities and give your children money while you’re alive. “To hear thanks for a gift is wonderful. You can’t hear thanks from the grave,” he said.

Although Mr. Pollan and his collaborator, Mark Levine, have written other books-among them Lifescripts , which played out scenarios for asking for a raise and other touchy situations; The Field Guide to Home Buying in America (which was co-authored by Michael Pollan); Your Recession Handbook -none but Die Broke have gotten Oprah -level exposure-such a sure ticket to success that Harper upped publication of the book to fit Oprah Winfrey’s schedule. As of Dec. 1, Die Broke was No. 4 on USA Today ‘s list of business best sellers, just behind Donald Trump’s Trump: The Art of the Comeback .

“There will no doubt be some people who find this attractive, and bully for them,” said Andrew Tobias, author of The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need , who noted that the book was engagingly written and that it would be “fun” to argue with Mr. Pollan. “But it sure would make me feel nervous and helpless to have nothing but annuities to count on for what might wind up being the last 20 years of my life.” William Zabel, a Manhattan trusts and estates lawyer who represents George Soros, added that most of what Mr. Pollan suggests does not seem to require dying broke, and some of his advice could be dangerous. “I think it’s a new packaging of a simple concept, which is to enjoy life and to leave less in inheritance. That’s not new,” Mr. Zabel said. He also asserted that, contrary to what Mr. Pollan says, “there is no national obsession with inheritance.”

That may be because most of the nation-most of the viewers of Oprah , for that matter-can’t afford to die broke, according to Ginger Applegarth, a financial adviser who appeared on the show with Mr. Pollan. “It’s gimmicky. It appeals to people who want to spend money. The luxury of deciding to die broke,” she added, “is the luxury of the rich.”

Mr. Pollan said that after he contracted tuberculosis in his late 40’s, his perspective on success changed. “I was climbing Mount Olympus,” he said of his former self. “That was when I was most influenced by my parents’ ambition.”

Some of his ex-clients would quibble with the idea that Mr. Pollan has lost his former killer instinct. Although none would go on the record, five of them complained to The Observer about what they viewed as his aggressive billing, and his suits against several of them. “I find it so unseemly and hideous behavior,” said one man. He added that after spending two hours with Mr. Pollan, who said he would look into his problem, “I started getting these huge bills, 1,200, 1,400 bucks. I had no choice but to pay.”

Mr. Pollan said it was hard to comment on a given case without knowing more information. He said that obviously this client wasn’t aware of all the work done on his behalf.

One former client, who said she ended up the target of a suit when she refused to pay a portion of the bill, said it came to well over $5,000, even though she had already negotiated the purchase price on the house. “I didn’t freak out until it went over $4,000, and we weren’t even to contract,” she said, adding that she was billed for meeting with Mr. Pollan to discuss the disputed bill. “I can’t believe I paid as much as I did,” she said. “I’m not Donald Trump.” Mr. Pollan replied that if the cost exceeded $5,000, a complication must have arisen.

Another woman said that after she had an initial consultation with Mr. Pollan, he referred her matter to another lawyer. She then called his office to say thank you and to make sure her file had been closed. “I did that specifically because I found him to be an aggressive biller,” she said. But the woman she spoke with on the phone began asking her questions, “and I thought, ‘I’m going to be billed for this call.'” Sure enough, she claims she was. “I called to question that, and they kept sending me bills.” Eventually, the matter was turned over to a collection attorney whom this woman called “a pit bull.” The woman said that after trying in vain to speak with Mr. Pollan, she decided to pay up. “It was not worth my time and energy to take it further. What was contested was $350, perhaps.” Another former client gave similar reasons for deciding not to fight the suit brought against her, even though she believed she was sent bills “that couldn’t possibly be legitimate.”

“He talks a good game,” this former client said bitterly. “He makes you feel that he can work miracles and do anything for you.”

To be sure, Mr. Pollan’s firm is hardly the only one to sue over unpaid bills, and other clients interviewed by The Observer did not mention such problems. Kevin Goldman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and now an author of nonfiction books, said getting sued by Mr. Pollan did not affect his warm feelings for him; in fact, he didn’t even consider himself sued. “You know that expression, ‘It’s not personal, it’s business.’ That was what it was,” said Mr. Goldman, who paid up.

“No one is ever overcharged, that’s impossible,” Mr. Pollan said, adding that a percentage of his business is done for no fee. He said that he gives clients as long as it takes to pay, and would never charge for discussion of a bill. As for suing over a mere $350, Mr. Pollan said it would be foolish. “Sometimes I’m not even aware,” he said, noting that he does not handle accounts receivable and had never met the collection lawyer. “We tell people to call us if they have a problem.”

Mr. Pollan, who has written 13 books-and who has every intention of dying broke himself, saying he and his wife have already given his children one of their homes on Martha’s Vineyard-said he hopes “to sell a personal Lifescripts soon. I’d really like to get involved in relationships.… I can tell you how to seduce a guy. I can tell a guy how to seduce a girl. He said he would like to do a script so that you know how to talk to the person next to you on the plane, or if you don’t want to talk to the person, a script about [that].”

His immediate plans, however, are about money, which he calls “the way we measure the value of everything and everyone, including ourselves,” in a chapter of Die Broke. Mr. Pollan has a working title for his next book: Live Rich . Go Ahead, Spend Kids’ Inheritance, Says N.Y. Power Guru Stephen Pollan