It is always a good time to plan for the future – and that includes business succession and estate planning, according to Skyler Johnson of Sage Legal.
You’re never too young to start planning, she said.
That’s sage advice, indeed.
Johnson specializes in estate planning at the firm her husband, Mark Johnson, started in 2014 in East Grand Forks, Minn. What started out as a part-time venture for her husband, who practices business law, turned into something else entirely for Johnson.
After her husband was elected to the state Legislature, Johnson found a way to promote the business and serve clients through means that, more often than not, were unheard of in the legal professionals business: using videoconferencing and other technology to serve clients. More recently, however, other law firms, because of the coronavirus pandemic and out of necessity with social distancing orders, followed suit.
Since Johnson was ahead of the curve on the technology point, the pandemic affected her and her husband’s firm in a different way: Now she knows she has to come up with something new to make their firm different from the crowd.
When Mark Johnson was elected to the Legislature his time was lessened even more. And though he still attends to business law and other responsibilities with his firm as time permits, his wife is there to help.
Johnson officially joined her husband’s law firm in January 2019, but long before that she had been tossing around ideas different than what other firms were doing. What she noticed was that most traditional firms still took out ads in the yellow pages and the larger firms rented billboards, she said. Many had mahogany walls and an air of prestige.
She wondered, “How could we grab market share in a city where there's a different law office on every street corner? And if we needed a large office building with mahogany walls, how could we afford it as a growing firm?”
Johnson said she didn’t want to compete with the larger firms in town.
“That seemed like a losing proposition,” she said. “I wanted to go after an untapped market – everyday people who needed a legal plan, but were price-conscious and didn't feel comfortable with the mahogany walled firms.”
She turned to estate planning, something she said affects everybody, especially since seven out of every 10 Americans do not have a prepared will.
“Young families want the peace of mind of naming a legal guardian for their young children; empty-nesters want to transfer their property in the easiest way possible, so their children aren't left with a mess after they are gone,” she explained. “I wanted to appeal to the families that weren't likely to go to a traditional firm, yet needed what I had to offer. But how could I reach this group, aside from billboards and the yellow pages?”
The answer was in front of her the whole time – on her phone or at the computer or tablet. If she was going to connect with a younger crowd, she needed to use the same tools they were using. They were the same tools she, as a now 35-year-old mom, was using.
Johnson and her husband have a traditional office they use when clients wish to visit or have papers to sign, but much of their work takes place outside of those walls by means of virtual visits, email conversations and text messages with clients.
It proved a successful business model and put Johnson ahead of the curve when the pandemic happened.
Now, as more law firms grasp the benefits of using technology in their practices, Johnson is a little baffled. She understands why some might be using it more than they used to, such as video tools to meet with clients during the pandemic, but she’s surprised that the attorneys she’s talked with are saying they will likely keep using video because generally “the legal field is very slow to change.”
“Honestly,” she said with good humor, “part of me is a little disappointed that these traditional firms will be operating in a tech-forward way because that was a huge selling point for us before the pandemic and made Sage Legal stand out. But now I’m brainstorming new ways that we can be forward thinking. … I’m just going to be thinking about the next big innovation in the legal field.”
Johnson isn’t the only one who said the legal profession is slow at adopting change.
Jessica Merchant, 39, an attorney with Olson & Burns in Minot, N.D., said much the same thing – but with a caveat. Yes, she said, firms often are slow to change but, at least when it comes to things like technology, there is a reason.
“I think that, especially in the legal profession, it's hard because we want to make sure that all of our client information is protected. … I tend to think change is slow to a certain extent because before we switch everything lock, stock and barrel, we want to make sure that we have proper cyber security, that all the metadata and everything like that is protected.”
In essence, Merchant echoed what the American Bar Association has said. For those lawyers who choose to embrace technology in their firms, the ABA urges them to identify how they best can communicate with their clients under challenging circumstances while being “mindful of their obligations to keep abreast of technology relevant to legal practice.” It said caution is paramount, but that lawyers “must embrace the technology … needed to do so. Lawyers should also recognize the limits of their technology expertise and retain consultants where necessary to ensure that client matters are handled appropriately and securely.”
Apparently, there is such a thing as “Zoom bombing,” a type of cyber-attack on unprotected videoconferences. “Alexa and Google Home are similarly vulnerable to hackers, and lawyers must ensure that any discussion of confidential information takes place while these off-the-payroll personal assistants are unplugged or out of their range.”
While many attorneys and court systems will likely be more at ease holding conferences and hearings by phone or video after being forced to do that by the virus, that doesn’t mean everyone will be doing it. Merchant views using technology with a client a little differently. She said there’ll still be lawyers who stray from using video after the pandemic and that she likely will be one of them.
For Olson & Burns, video meetings have been adopted to help serve clients during the pandemic, but Merchant said she will not likely keep using video tools – or at least not as often – once things improve and the office’s lawyers begin again to meet with clients in person.
In-person visits, in Merchant’s opinion, are much more meaningful than video meetings.
“I typically meet with people for estate planning for about an hour and 40 minutes. That might seem like a really long time but part of that is it takes them about that long to trust you. And it's hard to get that connection with the computer,” she said. “When I meet with people they get a good sense of who I am.”
She can also better get to know her clients, view their body language, see how they react to topics. That’s not always the case over a video chat, especially when someone might have home-based distractions that divert their attention from the discussion, such as children running around or dogs barking in the background.
“I think if you can go to the location with the law firm, and you're sitting there like this was the intended purpose for the afternoon. I think it's easier to focus a little bit.”
Johnson and Merchant may have contrary views about using technology in their practices, but each has found what works best for them. And despite the challenges that the pandemic has caused many businesses, both have been able to keep busy serving their clients.
February is usually a busy month for estate planners because it’s soon after the new year when people start thinking about resolutions, Johnson said, noting she’s been keeping busy most of the year.
Merchant has been keeping busy too, noting that the pandemic has heightened people’s awareness about having a plan in place for their families if the unthinkable were to happen.
“Unfortunately, I think because of the pandemic, people are a little bit fearful of the unknown, maybe a little fearful of the future. A way to maybe deal with that is to have some sort of plan in writing for their families,” Merchant said. “When I do estate planning, I typically also do a power of attorney and health care directive … documents your family can use if you are incapacitated or unable to make those decisions for yourself.”
When is a good time to make a business or estate plan? Now – and for those who already have a plan, it might be time to review and modify it.
“Typically, it makes sense to have some sort of estate plan,” Merchant said. “A lot of times people think they don't have anything that they need to worry about. But sometimes it's just the peace of mind that everything is taken care of and streamlined. Unfortunately, we all have an expiration date and we don’t know when that will be. … There's never a set time to plan but typically, earlier is better.”
Parents with young children, for instance, should consider guardian issues if the unlikely were to happen; a young married couple should evaluate what they might want to draw up in a will; parents with older children should consider topics at their age, including business succession planning, and empty-nesters should evaluate their will and what other plans they should make or revise.
In essence, while law firms may be slow at adopting change themselves, they urge their clients to not procrastinate and instead make a plan today.
Don’t be slow at planning your business or family’s future, Johnson said – just as she knows she’ll have to come up with her next big idea sooner rather than later if she’s to stay ahead of the local competition.
“I don’t have any ideas just yet,” she said about what she might do next to stand out from the crowd. “I’ve been busy with clients, but when things quiet down I will spend more time brainstorming. That’s my plan.”
Prairie Business Editor Andrew Weeks may be reahced at email@example.com or 701-780-1276.