As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Hargrove.
Alex is a co-founder of NetLaw serving as its CTO and as a member of its board, alongside an innovative team of designers, programmers, data architects, and attorneys. Alex graduated with honors from Washington & Lee School of Law in 2011. He practiced trusts and estates at Hargrove Madden LLP upon graduating and quickly found a passion for using technology to make attorneys, like himself, more efficient; and their services, more accessible. Alex designed and developed Hargrove Madden’s Online Practice Platform, which generated over a hundred thousand dollars revenue in a single quarter and garnered the American Bar Association’s 2012 eLawyering Award for innovative delivery of legal services only three months after going live. Levering that success, he worked closely with the founders to draft a business plan that helped secure $1 million in seed funding for NetLaw.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
After graduating from Washington and Lee Law in 2011, I joined my father, a seasoned high net worth estate planning attorney, in a boutique law firm he established to deliver high quality estate planning through virtual offices. We grew that to over 26 states and won an American Bar Association award. Because law firms are limited in raising capital (only from lawyers), we rolled the intellectual property into a non-lawyer vehicle and raised our first $1m of now $13m to start the NetLaw Group (www.netlawgroup.com). We now have 2 patents pending with our sights set on delivering high quality estate planning to the vast majority of people who need it and who will never go see a lawyer, no matter how many times you tell them it’s better than DIY.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that? Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There are many. When I first started the company, we hired Wayne Willis, co-founder of Hyatt Legal Services (sold to MetLife) to advise us for a couple days. He suggested that I read the Lean Startup by Eric Ries in response to my misplaced belief at the time that we needed millions of dollars to get a product to market. Given my background at the time was in law, this was my first encounter with lean methodologies and they changed how I thought dramatically. (Wayne has since become a valued advisor to our company and my personal mentor.)
While the Lean Startup changed how I thought about the process of creating and shipping a new product, The Platform Revolution by Geoffrey G Parker et al changed substantially how I thought about estate planning. Before companies in the DIY space had treated estate planning like a product to be sold on a digital shelf. The Platform Revolution got me thinking about estate planning as a conversation in which other companies with relevant products and services might like to participate. In fact, my company spent the last two years rebuilding its estate planning solution into a services platform that allows us to create custom marketing programs, built around our award winning estate planning content, for businesses. We will be launching the first such initiative soon in partnership with a digital life insurance company and a major bank.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Speaking only for myself, my goal was to take the high quality work product that my father (and cofounder) had amassed over 30+ years of high net worth estate planning, and turn it into a digital product from which the average American could benefit. With the little time I spent practicing law, I found billing by the hour to create perverse incentives and generally realized that much of what lawyers do is out of reach for the average person. I thought (and continue to think) that there are a lot of layers of entrenchment within the legal profession and barriers that ensure limited access to necessary services. In a country that affords substantial testamentary freedom, the freedom to decide who gets your assets (and when) after your death, the vast majority of people never exercise it.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Don’t stop. Literally. Whatever it is, just keep going. I’m a runner and often take that advice literally. If it’s good news, I run to celebrate and build on the momentum. If it’s bad news, I run to ruminate, rethink, and build new momentum. Of course, by don’t stop, I’m assuming you’re chasing a well defined goal. If you are constantly changing direction then perhaps you need to pause to reflect and evaluate where you are going.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My family and I live in a suburb of Las Vegas but my parents, my wife’s mother, and my college age stepson live in Kentucky (where we are from). It’s been difficult not being able to travel and see them. We’ve relied a lot on Zoom. Fortunately my team was already accustomed to working remotely before Covid-19. I was already spending my days on Zoom meetings prior to the pandemic.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We’ve been fortunate in that our challenge has been to adequately respond to the substantial increase in demand for our products and services over the past few months. The pandemic has put a spotlight on estate planning, and we’ve been working around the clock to meet the demand, fast-track new partnerships, and solve challenges unique to the pandemic such as remote online notarization. We believe strongly that remote online notarization represents the future and is necessary to really increase the number of people with valid Wills. The current offline process is cumbersome and a clear barrier to the ability of the average person to exercise their testamentary freedom. We hope that the renewed focus on rethinking requirements around the offline process caused by COVID-19 will help us realize a world where you can complete and execute your estate plan from the comfort of your couch. Importantly, we believe that the processes we are developing will be more secure than existing offline processes.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I like to think of us as being in the “peace of mind” business. We think barriers to ensuring that your wishes are respected posthumously do create latent anxiety. Our goal is to remove those barriers. The majority of families with children under 18 do not have documents naming basic guardianship of their minor children. This is not something you should have to go pay an attorney to accomplish if you can’t afford the luxury (or simply don’t want to deal with an attorney or the expense). Nor, moreover, do we think you should have to pay us for that privilege. To that end, we will soon be announcing a major partnership that is going to allow us to distribute a free Last Will & Testament (the same one of which we’ve sold millions of dollars worth) through partnerships with companies across a variety of market channels, from financial services to nonprofits.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
As mentioned above, we see huge opportunities in the remote notary space. If we are successful in our efforts to give away millions of Wills, we will see a huge demand for remote online notarization. COVID-19 has made this a headline issue as states seek to accommodate remote protocols with their Wills acts. There’s a lot of unnecessary complexity here, which is a large reason why no one has yet been able to offer a fully online digital Will across all states. We hope to be that company soon.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live? How legal services are done?
Speaking as a bit of an outsider (my license has been in escrow for many years), I think a lot of attorneys have had to quickly adopt new technologies to continue functioning in this new world that’s developed. I know companies like Clio have done a lot to educate law firms and attorneys on best practices and tools for the job. Hopefully the rapid adoption of some of these technologies will inspire further efforts to not only use technology to maintain social distance but also to improve client experience.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
NetLaw has a product for attorneys (NetDraft) that we will be launching later this year. We hope to connect this product to the market we are creating with our free Will initiative to create a market for what I call “hybrid legal services.” The hybrid legal services marketplace will be populated by users who have done most of the process themselves but want to pay a little bit to have an attorney review and make some predefined advanced changes. NetDraft integrates with our new estate planning platform and allows attorneys to create advanced documents using the data that the client has already provided as part of the DIY process. We hope this shared responsibility will empower attorneys to productize their services into divisible pieces that can be offered at a fixed price. For example, a user of our DIY product who has children from a prior relationship may want some language added to her trust to ensure her children from the prior relationship are provided for after her death. We do not offer this on a DIY basis but an attorney using our integrated system could provide this as an add-on. We think this interplay between DIY users and attorneys will become much more prominent in the future.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to contact us about our free Will program partnership :) It is a great product to offer to your members, clients, donors, customers, and prospects. We are experiencing unprecedented times right now, and our free Will program would be well received by many. It is also a value added service that can help drive business goals. Be sure to check us out at netlawgroup.com for more information.
Product plug aside, I sincerely encourage others to embrace remote work and focus on building a remote work culture. My team and I take a lot of pride in the culture we’ve created across time zones and borders using tools like Slack and Zoom.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Breathe. Seriously. If you can control your reaction to life, there’s little that can keep you down. I’m a devotee of Wim Hoff and the simple act of structured breathing has allowed me to power through the many, many setbacks you can expect to encounter keeping a technology startup alive (and giving it a chance to thrive) over nearly a decade in a hyper competitive market. This was not a skill I began with, but one I developed out of necessity over the years.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Visit us at https://www.netlawgroup.com