Recently, ActionCOACH Enrollment Specialist Rob Maniaci interviewed John Horn as a part of their series “Business Owners Speak Out”. They discussed the estate planning business and how Horn & Johnsen has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic:
Rob: Tell me a bit about your business:
John: Horn & Johnsen SC does estate planning work. This involves helping families and businesses to transition easily, quickly, cheaply in the event of a death or an incapacity. In the case of businesses, it also includes retirement, exit strategy or things along those lines. So that, partners or people in a corporation where there are a small number of shareholders, can retire in a planned fashion without having to work until they are 76 and then have some sort of chaotic exit. We make the exit smooth from a legal standpoint. For example, we create and draft buy-sell agreements, we make sure owner interests are insured. We also take care of any number of contingencies such as bankruptcy, disability, death or simply retirement.
In terms of family, it usually means something like doing wills or revocable trusts. We are ensuring that you don’t have a probate and that your children are protected. What you might leave to them will be protected from creditors, divorcing spouses, bankruptcy and so forth, in addition to trying to keep them out of probate and the court system.
In short, what we try to do is we try to keep people away from courts and attorneys. And a key component of this is to do some planning ahead of time either on the personal side or the business side or usually both, especially if we have a family-owned business or small business of some sort.
R: How long have you been in business?
J: I have been practicing for 30 years. Horn & Johnsen has been open since 2013. Before that, I did it solo. It’s much more fun and energizing to have a partner, now though, in my opinion.
R: Who do you serve, who is your target audience?
J: Working with folks age 55-70 would be the sweet spot. They are looking at retirement or thinking about it or perhaps already newly-retired. Estate planning is best done while you are still alive and well. We want to try to get some of those loose ends nailed down for you; so if anything does happen—mental incapacity or an untimely death, we are way ahead of the curve. Age 55-70 is a good sweet spot for this; but candidly, any responsible adult needs to have estate planning in place.
Then, of course, if the client is a small business owner, that’s wonderful because we can help with that part of the transition as well. I don’t know if you have heard it said before, but many attorneys call probate the “business killer.” That’s because pretty close to 40% of value drops out of your business. It has been shown over and over again, the minute it hits probate. So, by trying to avoid probate and plan ahead, not only can we make things less messy, less difficult and avoid the courts, attorneys, open records, costs and delays and but we might be able to salvage a 40% drop in your business. It can be even worse in the event of mental incapacity, by the way. But, with estate planning, you’ll come out with your business minimally affected or unaffected. That is something that we can help with.
I can’t emphasize enough though, that every adult needs a plan. Even college kids should at least have a health care power of attorney, for example.
Estate planning not only helps you, but it’s a gift to your loved ones! There can be so many legal hurdles for them in the event of your death or mental incapacity. You can eliminate the cost and stress of this for them.
R: What has been the greatest impact COVID 19 has had on your business?
J: Less meetings in person, certainly. I had already been doing a substantial amount of work online, so I already had a Zoom account. I generally used Facetime and Skype before–but now Zoom videos. I did one estate planning consult with a client by Facetime while they were on the beach in Naples, Florida!
I guess what I was doing previously, has now become the norm. I was doing video consults with clients since 2010. We were already reaching people all around the state and also out of state, Florida, llinois, Arizona and New Mexico. But now, the clients, have sort of come along with us. I think we were a little ahead of the curve. Whenever I would offer to simply meet with me online, particularly if the clients were, say, in Rio, WI, they would say, “That’s okay, we will drive down.” It was no problem—I prefer to see people in person; but now, if I propose to consult via Zoom, the say “Sure”! So, we were already ahead of the curve, but I guess the transition has been that everybody has caught up with us! Now, we have maybe 50% of our meetings in a video format for our initial client consultations. About 50% of the people want to come in anyway, and so we do have sanitary rooms and practices.
I would say the prominence of video–and its acceptance among the community–is higher than I have ever seen. But how we do our business is still very customized, very personalized, very attentive both to the law and to the client. It is really about what they want, what their plan is and we try to make it work. In terms of volume, I would say our amount of business has been unchanged; but the flow of clients is more volatile. There are stronger ups and downs. We used to have a very steady flow of clients. Now it is just crushing and all of the sudden, something happens in the news cycle or on the COVID front, and it’s a trickle; and then it’s crushing again, and so forth. Overall, probably about the same number of people on average. If you just look at the year average, you wouldn’t think anything of it. We saw a little bit of growth in 2020, but mostly it’s the volatility factor that doesn’t show up in that average. It’s the news, so if we have a riot here in Madison, people cancel that week. If there is a really big COVID spike in Dane County, people start to cancel, but they are still coming in large numbers and we definitely increased the volume of our business over last year. Still, I would say it feels like a natural rise in business. It doesn’t feel like COVID is driving that.
Nonetheless, the awareness of estate planning is now acute. That has changed a lot. People are coming-in “woke” and ready to get down to business. They understand how important this is.
R: What actions (pivots) have you taken to make a difference?
J: Well, in addition to the increase in video consultations, a lot of pivots have been procedural. First, the sanitation procedures include all the usual ones: masking, and wiping everything down between meetings, along with sitting on opposite ends of our ten-foot conference table.
Second, for those who choose it, we have adapted our documents signing process for wills and trusts. We can review and discuss the plan via Zoom. Then, the client drives to our office and can sign the plan materials in our driveway. They can sit in the car; or we can sign it at a picnic table in the front of our office or in their favorite park!
We met the challenge to become more nimble in our signing procedures. As you probably know, in most estate plans, the signing procedures are very structured–they are statutory–but we’ve taken them and put them in a different context, environmentally, so we are not just sitting in a conference room. We might be in the client’s driveway or we might be in our driveway, after having the first part of the signing meeting by video. Our staff has become very good at witnessing on either side of a car, and passing materials in a binder through a car window. So, that is another innovation that we did right from the get-go—and that probably got us through the worst of it. Other firms—big, rigid, downtown firms, for example—had simply shut down for a while.
I must say, though we all miss normal, direct client interaction. I’m looking forward to getting back to that. Although it is clear now that we will continue to maximize flexibility for the client by use of video consultations and unique signing processes, as needed.
R: It has been said that smart people learn from their mistakes and wise people learn from the mistakes of others. What mistakes did you make along the way that other entrepreneurs can learn from?
J: Marketing can be hit or miss. Sometimes, you’ll try a marketing idea that maybe is just a little bit different; and you aren’t quite sure how it is going to work or if it is going to work at all. Or, the idea that was so solid a year ago, all of the sudden nets nothing now. It’s always about trial and error, as things change around you. So, I think real artistry is finding the new way to do it, or correcting what didn’t work and rolling it out another way. That is what we have been able to do.
So, for example, we would traditionally do community and educational outreach work in an in-person lecture, workshop or seminar format. Often, a portion of the people who attended ann in-person seminar would sign up to do some estate planning work with us. That technique used to be quite common and helpful depending on the season. (It didn’t work well in the middle of January, for example.) But, an in-person meeting of 25 people no longer works, for obvious reasons. So, we’ve had a lot of success with online educational meetings and conference—and the number of attendees, is basically unlimited—an interesting consequence.
We’ve also tried unique and innovative video outreach. We have one-minute estate planning segments on YouTube right now, using hand-puppets! As always, we’ve been writing articles and getting published a lot. And, we recently published our own book. It’s available on Amazon; and we also have copies here at the office.
In short, we changed a little bit from in-person gatherings to several tactics intended to replace that way of doing things. We like to learn from others, so we do a lot of observation. We watch what other law firms are doing. We look online. We look at their Facebook. We look at how many friends they have. We look at all kinds of factors to give us some indication of what they are doing and how they are doing it. That being said, I think it is also an adage that you have to just be you and do what you do—you can’t worry about the competition. Ultimately, we are just looking to the right and left of us, occasionally, as we are running this race just to see what is in our periphery. But we are really focused on what is ahead and not what people are doing behind us.
R: Anything else you’d like to add?
J: We have two exceedingly experienced and astute attorneys here at Horn & Johnsen: myself–John Horn—as well as my law partner and friend of 25 years, Dera L. Johnsen-Tracy. That experience translates into effective planning for you. We offer no-charge initial consultations. People can get a feel for what we do and how it might help them.
R: What is most inspiring to you today?
J: I am interested in a quickly evolving trend. It’s here to stay. Businesses generally, along with law firms, particularly, are becoming a bit more socially aware and are trying to make an impact with their voice on the betterment of society for all of us. I see that as part of their marketing–real genuine goodwill and sincere offers of service and support are to showing-up from large corporations and some smaller ones too. That is exciting because why shouldn’t we have the best corporate citizens and the best business citizens? It’s nice to have all these different corporations, groups and businesses interested in lifting all our boats, together.