Shifting business priorities and highlighting fragilities: why Covid-19 is the ultimate black swan

Covid-19 offers leaders the opportunity to really think about their businesses – and their lives – from the perspective of reducing exposure to ‘black swan risk’, says Alex Hargrove. Now is the time to make yourself, your business, and the systems on which you rely more resilient and able to survive whatever lies ahead

‘Don’t stop. Literally. Whatever it is, just keep going.’

A mantra I told myself frequently during the 40+ miles I had begun running during the Covid-19 crisis.

My kids were at home, 24/7. My wife was now remote. In short, I had no space. Running, I think, provided that space. For me, I think creating that space was critical to navigating the obstacles, and opportunities, that Covid-19 created. Before tackling those, how about a little background.

I run a legal technology company, NetLaw. We offer high quality online estate planning through business partners like Ladder, a life insurance company. We have sold tens of millions of US dollars in online estate plans through a network of financial advisors across more than 100 agencies.

My journey into legal tech began on the legal side, having graduated from Washington and Lee School of Law in 2011.

However, I quickly found the same skill set that I used in dissecting corporate tax law was adaptable to javascript programming and program design generally. Within my first year of private practice, I developed a virtual law platform for a boutique law firm that it used to grow to 23 states and for which it won an American Bar Association ‘eLawyering’ award for greatest delivery of online legal services nationwide.

Legal technology

With that wind in their sales, the firm’s partners raised $1 million USD in private equity and rolled the technology into a non-lawyer vehicle, Net Law Group (or NetLaw). We have since raised more than $13 million USD in private equity, and I have fully embraced my role as a legal technologist, having recently secured my first patent award with two more pending (along with my co-inventor Zlatko Pazanin @zpazanin).

Covid-19 has really increased interest in our business. Online estate planning, for a time, was one of the top Google searches, and our business grew proportionally. This growth and renewed interest by some big companies has created unique opportunities for us to really move the needle forward towards our goal of making estate planning something anyone can do entirely from the comfort of their couch.

One of the biggest hurdles to connecting users with quality DIY estate planning is the rather archaic set of rules and formalities you must follow to make the documents valid. In a digital world, estate planning remains very much an analog effort. We have long wanted to change that but it was always easier and more reliable to tell our users to follow the old analogue process.

With Covid-19, the demand from our users have shown us that that’s not good enough anymore.

We now believe strongly that remote online notarisation represents the future. The current offline process is cumbersome and a clear barrier to the ability of the average person to exercise their testamentary freedom. Currently, though, there is no way (known to me) to complete your Will entirely from your couch across 50 states. Only a handful of states authorise digital signatures on Wills, and I don’t believe anyone has set up a process specifically for one of those states.

Rethinking requirements

We hope that the renewed focus on rethinking requirements around the offline process caused by Covid-19 will help us drive the industry towards a purely digital solution. Not only remote notarisation but also remote on-demand witnesses.

Who has two ‘disinterested’ people sitting around waiting to go visit a notary with you?

Not many, especially with Covid-19. That’s what’s currently required. While there are challenges, particularly dealing with 50 state regimes, we think the wind is in our sales as a matter of public policy. Importantly, we also believe that the processes we are developing will be more secure than existing offline processes.

Besides shifting business priorities, Covid-19 really shifted my mindset. Covid-19 is the ultimate black swan, highlighting fragilities in virtually every aspect of our lives and society. I’ve begun to really think about my business and, indeed, my life from the perspective of reducing my exposure to what I call ‘black swan risk.’ Making myself, my business, and the systems on which I rely more resilient and able to better survive whatever lies ahead.

Embracing remote work

For my team, that means fully embracing remote work and a highly informal process of creating and improving our technology. We talk a lot more than we did across disciplines. No one knows what the future holds and anyone may have a unique perspective. We try to recognise fully that with our cross-functional discussions.

I also encourage everyone to take what would probably be viewed as excessive self-care time during the day. Running, meditating, long walks, whatever your thing, just take some time to reflect. My team is small and virtually everyone needs to be playing chess right now, not checkers.

While we try to work on a similar schedule, my team has a lot of latitude in structuring their day. Many people have kids at home. I have kids at home. Everyone understands. Surely that was the case before but most certainly it is now.

I’ve also learned to be more effective at communicating virtually over the past few months. Little things like having proper lighting on my desk for important meetings and making sure to look in the camera and make eye contact as if in person. I’ve even started using a greenscreen with our company logo repeated behind me (to great effect I might add). Then there’s the ice breakers at the beginning, and the ‘next steps’ discussion at the end. All of this, I feel, has improved.

Probably, this is the most practical advice I have to offer Post-Covid-19: To those just entering the business world, practice the art of the ‘Zoom.’

Get someone to critique you, record yourself, watch yourself, watch others, and get really comfortable with the camera, with pauses, handling interruptions, all that stuff that can easily distract from an otherwise good presentation. Ultimately time spent improving the vehicle you use to deliver your message is almost as important as the actual message.

Finally, let me add a note on LinkedIn. Post-Covid-19, networking has taken on a whole new meaning. Networks like LinkedIn have proven to be extremely important for my business. For companies, like NetLaw, that sell B2B, LinkedIn has become the primary way to connect with stakeholders for potential partnerships. Make sure you invest the time (and maybe even a little resources) into putting your best face forward.

Alex J Hargrove, JD, (@ahargrovenl) attended Washington and Lee Law School before co-founding a legal technology company, Net Law Group (netlawgroup.com), in 2012.

He developed the original American Bar Association award winning platform that led to the company’s founding shortly after graduating law school. His company has since raised $13 million USD in private equity. An inventor of record on multiple patents,  Hargrove has made a career straddling the line between lawyers and the world of high-tech. He currently serves as Chief Technology Officer at Net Law Group and sits on its board.  

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