Expert Interview with Interactive Legal Elder Law College
For this month’s expert interview, we spoke with Vanessa Kanaga, President at InterActive Legal, along with Scott Solkoff, the Principal behind Elder Law College.Throughout these two companies and their partnership, they provide a seamless solution for attorney document drafting and elder law education.
Video transcript as follows:
Welcome everyone thank you for joining us. I am Andrea with Bambiz Marketing, and today we’re going to be talking with Vanessa Kanaga, the president and director of content development for Interactive Legal.
She received her law degree from Cornell Law School. She practiced in New York and her hometown of Wichita, Kansas for several years before joining Interactive Legal in 2013. In her current position she oversees the development of program content as well as guiding the company in its future direction and managing day-to-day operations.
And we have Scott Solkoff joining Vanessa today. He is the principal behind Elder Law College. He is a Florida bar certified specialist in elder law and also operates an elder law practice in South Florida. He has held leadership positions in various industry associations including the Florida Bar Elder Law Section, AFELA, the Florida State Guardianship Association, NAELA, as well as many others.
Thank you both for being here with us today. I’d just like to get started with asking you to each tell us a little bit more, just about who you are, maybe how you got into this field, and then share a little bit about your organizations. So we can start with you Vanessa.
Vanessa: So as you mentioned, my name is Vanessa Kanaga, I’m the president and director of content development for Interactive Legal. I started out practicing in the trust and estate department of Milbank Tweed in New York, and was there for several years.
Had the honor of working with Jonathan Blattmachr — who I’m sure many of your viewers will recognize that name — and also practiced at Moses and Singer in New York, and then moved back to my hometown of Wichita Kansas, and I was working at a law firm there, the Hinkle law firm, when Jonathan Blattmachr called me just out of the blue and said, you know I have this software company — which I’ll talk about in a moment — and I would love for you to come for us, we’re looking for a new content attorney. And at the time I think he had asked me to move to Dallas where the CEO Mike Graham is located, and I said eh, I just moved, sorry, that’s not a good time. He called me back several months later and said actually, you can work from home, and you know you can work remotely, and so would you like to come work for us, and I said absolutely, I wouldn’t turn down that opportunity.
So that was 2013, I’ve been with the company [Interactive Legal] ever since, really enjoyed working on the content of our documents in our drafting system, and then, had the honor of becoming the president of the company last year.
Interactive Legal for those who don’t know we are a knowledge and resource company for elder law and estate planning attorneys, we provide practical solutions primarily through our drafting software, we have an elder law program and an estate training program known as Wealth Transfer Planning. And our goal is really just to provide attorneys in those fields with tools that help them practice efficiently and accurately, and give them the confidence to deal with the clients that will walk in their door in whatever situation is presented to them, and they can handle it: whether it’s through our excellent documents in our drafting system or other resources such as our subscriber forum which is very active, or the other materials in the knowledge base in our online resources.
Andrea: And you serve attorneys coast to coast, right? All 50 states?
Vanessa: That’s correct, yes, thank you for mentioning that. Yeah, we are all through the United States, we comply with the law of every state.
Andrea: Perfect, okay. And Scott, go ahead.
Scott: I help run Elder Law College, and our organization helps lawyers to transition into the field of elder law, or to reach a greater proficiency in the field of elder law.
I’ll show you how I got there, how this all started, and it’s because of really a sharp turn I took in my life. When I graduated law school I got caught up in the third year rat race: who’s going to get the best job, who’s going to get the biggest signing bonus. That’s not why I went to law school but that’s what ended up happening to me.
So I took that job, with Alpert, Josey, Grilli & Hughes in Tampa doing securities litigation. Had a fancy office, was making more money than I ever thought I would make — it wasn’t that much money — but at the time it seemed like quite a bit. But I saw while I was there that, first of all, I had only one human being client most of the time. It was working floors, dealers, broker dealers, and that kind of thing, but the lawyers that were ahead of me were coming in when it was dark out and leaving when it was dark out, and they had children, and they had spouses many of them, and I wasn’t there yet, but I saw that that’s not what I wanted for my life, nor was I getting the fulfillment that I wanted out of that particular type of work even though it was intellectually interesting.
My father, meanwhile, was practicing helping elderly people, that’s really all I knew. I asked him if I could take my two-week vacation in his office, and he said I’d love to. So I sat there in his office as he helped family after family with some of the more core human issues that you can help with. My spouse is dying, my spouse has Alzheimer’s disease, my mother is running out of money and she needs care, really tough familial issues, and it spoke to me. So I quit my job, I took a pay cut of about 70%, and went to work with my dad, and the rest is history.
He was the first generation of elder law attorneys, wrote the first book in elder law, and co-founded most of the organizations that exist today for elder law. I had an incredible teacher who was vested in my success. Most lawyers don’t have that, and I never take it for granted.
Elder Law College is really a result of my father teaching me that you give back to the bar. He had lawyers coming into his office all the time and would train them and give them his documents.
So Elder Law College, a longer story, but the bottom line is together with a law office consultant and a management professional, we started the company, and it’s really taking off, and we’ve helped transition many lawyers, changed their lives, and get them out of practices that they didn’t want to be in. It’s exciting for me. The issue is trying to put together a program that helps those lawyers succeed.
Andrea: Absolutely, and there’s such a huge need for that. And now tell us a little bit about the relationship between Interactive Legal and Elder Law College and what drove you guys to actually start working together.
Vanessa: Well I was thinking as I was listening to Scott talk, I was thinking, well first of all, who wouldn’t want to work with Scott and Elder Law College after hearing that story? I’ve heard it a few times now, and every time I still am amazed by it.
One of the first things, one of the things Scott said to me that really impressed me the first call that we had together was that he wanted to provide a father in the practice, and that really spoke to me.
And part of the reason it really spoke to me is because we had noticed for the last couple of years at Interactive Legal that with respect to the subscribers of our Elder Law program, unlike the estate planning subscribers that we have who have kind of a built-in network. I mean that practice has existed for a long time, estate planners tend to be in bigger firms — not all of them — but they tend to be in bigger firms with people they can turn to as resources, and there’s just a lot of resources out there for estate planners to help them get up and running and kind of mentor them in the process when they’re first getting started.
There wasn’t much in the way of that mentorship sort of lead-in to the practice for elder law attorneys, available as a resource for elder law attorneys. And we had a lot of people who were subscribing to our Elder Law program, and quite frankly were saying, “I’m sure these are great documents that I have access to here but I don’t know where to turn to, I don’t know, you know, this is the first elder law client I’ve had, I’m not sure what I’m doing here. I don’t know where to start with these documents.”
So we saw this real need for education and not just CLE, but education and how to learn the substantive law, where do you go to find the substantive law, what are the topics that you need to be looking at, in order to really get up and running in an elder law practice. How do you run your practice, you know, some of those practical issues as well. Because elder law attorneys, we’ve also found tend to be the solo practitioners or at smaller firms and they really need those additional resources, the very practical resources in addition to the substantive education.
This is a need that we had seen the last couple of years, and we were trying to figure out the best way to serve the needs of our subscribers by providing that education and mentorship. And we could do it in-house, we thought about that certainly but we thought is that really the best way to meet this need? There’s only so much we can do with our resources. We would be starting from scratch whereas there’s got to be something else out there that we could partner with, someone, some organization that we could partner with to help bring quality education and resources to people getting started in the field of elder law. And it was through a mutual colleague, actually, that we were introduced to Scott and his business partner Dan, and we started talking.
Scott: That’s exactly right. It’s really amazing that we met, and I see now that when companies meet it’s like mates meeting, you have to fill that gap for the other. Even us, we spent a lot of time developing a curriculum that was going to work. Our focus was solely on education, and making a program, a three and a half day boot camp style program that would allow lawyers to go back to their office on Monday and be able to start taking clients, believe it or not. And that’s a challenge.
But if you set it up the right way and then having ongoing support — we created, for example, our member portal with documents and videos and instructions and then monthly check-in calls and incredibly active tutorial list serve where people can post their fact patterns and get help. We had all of that. What we didn’t have was a document assembly program that provided solutions for all 50 states. We had forms, but not that type of system. We knew we were missing it, we knew that our people wanted it, we’re asking for it, and so we were looking for the best solution, and frankly there are a number of solutions out there, but we consider ourselves the quality in what we’re doing and we wanted somebody of that type of quality that had a similar culture of wanting to succeed because their members succeeded. Interactive Legal had already established, how long had Interactive Legal did it start Vanessa? How long ago?
Vanessa: It’s been through a few different progressions, but in one form or another since 2003, I believe.
Scott: I had known of it as the ultimate estate planning software, that this where the best lawyers would go to get their documents, and to think of that in elder law context for us, was really a gift, and so I’m very very pleased to be with them and then the organization itself with Vanessa and others, it’s good people, and that matters, that shows to our members.
Andrea: If someone makes the investment in Interactive Legal say, and they join, Vanessa tell us briefly what are the first couple of things they can expect to see improve at their firm?
Vanessa: Well, I think that what I always say is what you’re improving is your efficiency and your accuracy. Certainly there’s an investment of time when you first get started, you have to learn the software, learn the best way that it fits within your firm, because everybody, every firm is a little bit different in how they use any tool and how they use our system, but once you get up and running with it, you’re able to draft documents more efficiently, faster.
You’re not spending all of your time working through the technical details of drafting, trying to search and find, search and replace. Scott and I were talking about that the other day: the hunt and peck method of finding a document that you did for the previous client.
I’ve been through this before. I need to draft a will with a Clayton QTIP, and it has long term trust for kids in it, who did I do that for last? Oh let me go find that document, I’ll probably change the name, make sure I take out that special gift of the painting that they have in there. You’ve got to make sure that you’re reviewing it carefully to ensure that it meets the needs of this client that you’re working on now. And a lot of attorneys draft that way. Like I said I used to draft that way.
Andrea: That’s scary, that’s almost a little scary, you can miss something very easily.
Vanessa: Right. And we’ve all heard and seen, hopefully not created the horror stories that result from that. So you’re able to draft those documents more quickly, you don’t have to go and search for the last document. You have it right at your fingertips. You’re starting fresh every time. We’ve got the forms there ready to go for you.
You’re running into that scary situation, you’re increasing your accuracy because you’re not worried about “oh did I leave somebody’s name in the document, did I leave some reference to their tangible property in the document, you’re starting fresh, clean, but you’ve got everything you need right there to get up and running.”
We’re very fortunate to have some really loyal subscribers who will speak out on our behalf. And they are our best promoters and cheerleaders. And what I hear them say, maybe not in so many words, but when I hear them talk about why they like Interactive Legal what I hear them saying is that they get to spend more time talking to their clients and coming up with creative solutions for the issues that their clients are facing, and less time on the technical drafting.
They’re not spending time at their desk coming up with ugh, how do I draft this clause to make sure that it works correctly. They’re providing the solutions for their clients, which I think is why most of us went into the field of law in the first place.
Andrea: That’s great. What a lot of our clients are doing is they are spending time in the community. Primarily most of our clients use us for workshops, for potential clients, where they’ll go out and speak, in community centers or the library or restaurants or different places like that. And that does require a time commitment, to be away from the office. So it sounds like with some of these systems that you offer, that they would be getting that time back, and giving them more time.
Vanessa: Yeah, absolutely. It allows you to process a volume of matters, which of course increases revenue, but you can do it with confidence that you’re doing it accurately and really providing a good quality product for your client.
Andrea: Okay perfect. Well, you’ve both, of course, been in this field a while, so what’s the number one piece of advice that you’d give, say an estate planner that’s thinking about adding elder law to their practice? What’s some advice that you can give them to get started?
Scott: I would say, don’t be overwhelmed by all of the bubbles in the air. When you look at elder law, it can look overwhelming, because you’ve got Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, VA benefits, estate planning, all of these things all put together, asset protection planning. And it seems too much. But if you have a system and you say to yourself, what do I need to know right now, and then attack those issues in an order that makes sense, well that’s what we’ve put together, then it’s doable. And you’ll succeed, and the other thing I’d say is, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, make it happen…
Vanessa: Yeah we all fall prey to that sometime, and if I could just add something to what Scott said, I just wanted to say that I had the privilege of attending the Elder Law College 360 college earlier this year, and that was exactly my takeaway from it.
You know my background is in high net worth estate planning so my first experience with elder law was through Interactive Legal and I learned a lot in the several years that I’ve been with the company but it’s taken a lot to get there and there’s still so much that I don’t know. I really never felt confident that I could just go out and open the door to an elder law practice if I wanted to do that — which I don’t — but if I wanted to do that, that I could do that.
But after attending the 360 conference I really felt like I could because I think it’s that acknowledgment that you’re not going to learn everything in one boot camp, in one immersion course, but what Scott does and what his team does is that they give you, like he said, the basics of what you need to know right now, and that helps to put you on that path to figuring out what else you need to learn, and what direction you want to take your particular practice in, and I think it’s that acknowledgment that there is a lot out there, that it is overwhelming, but there is a place to start.
I think that’s really the spark that Scott has, and that his company has hit on is just saying, look it is overwhelming, there’s a lot to learn here, but you can do it, you should feel confident that you can do this, and we’ll give you the tools to do it. So that’s why we’re so happy to be working with them, because it’s the first time that I had really felt like, oh wow, if I attended this conference, I would feel this overwhelming sense of relief that I can do this, I can get started, I can be an elder law attorney.
Scott: And that’s what happens on Sunday. You see these lawyers with this light bulb over their head and an aura that they haven’t had for years, and it’s so cool.
Andrea: Well since we’ve kind of touched on that, Scott why don’t you give us maybe just a very brief overview of what the three days [at the Elder Law College 360 Practice Builder] look like.
Scott: Three and half days, so it starts on a Thursday night with an overview of elder law, we call it Real People Real Lives, because you get into so much detail and we sometimes can forget that these are people with children and grandchildren and immigrants, it’s hardworking people, and we talk about that, talk about the issues they face and what kinds of things an elder law attorney does and how lawyers in my field have now figured out how to make money, and good money by doing good work.
So we address that the first night and then we start off the second day with an estate planning overview but in estate planning in the context of how we do it in elder law, focusing on the lifetime needs of our clients as opposed to what happens after death although we deal with that too. Then we deal with special needs planning, Medicare, social security, and that takes us, that’s enough for one day, it takes us into the next day. And by the way, we break and we have fun and we do other things because the way we learn as adults requires sometimes shifting gears a little bit, and there’s some of that science built into the program. I won’t ruin it by telling you the kind of fun that we do together but it’s fun.
Andrea: That’s funny. That reminds me I attended a conference one time and they actually put playdough out and they said adults do very well learning when they have things to do with their hands, and so they gave us play dough and I’m like, this is actually pretty good!
Vanessa: Yeah I will give a little spoiler and say there is some hands-on activity that goes on at the 360 conference, so just to put that out there, if you’re looking for that, you will not be disappointed. That’s all I’m going to say.
Scott: I don’t want to sidetrack too much but I’ll have to say that there are some members that say they go back home that’s the first thing they talking about, the activities they did. And the spouse says, that’s what you left us for four days? It actually is by design, there really is some truth to what Vanessa just said, and what you just said Andrea, that adults learn better with play dough in their hands or whatever it is that you’re working with.
So we go on from there, and we learn about how you put it all together into a deliverable to the client where you can learn about Medicaid planning and different approaches with the healthcare laws and how rehabilitation works, sheltering assets in a way that’s legal and ethical to help protect people, middle class, upper-middle class people as they move into the long-term care system which is otherwise financially catastrophic. It will wipe people out.
So we do that, we show them how to deliver a product, a package to the client with pre-determined documents that are includable in a package to the client with the documents, with instructions, and we talk about pricing, we talk about marketing, put it all together, and it’s a lot of information, but it really is true that on Sunday, when it comes all together, it’s just beautiful to see.
Many of our members, they are our best salespeople, and if you go on to the website you’ll see they’re talking about their experience, how maybe they were family law attorneys, maybe commercial litigation, or insurance defense, and how things have really helped. You see the people that have just come to the program and you see people that are a year or two years in in doing elder law, it’s really rewarding.
Andrea: Definitely a feel-good area of the law.
Scott: You make money. You get a hug and a check. .
Andrea: That’s even better. So as we wrap up here, where would an attorney go if they wanted to learn more about Interactive Legal and how to get started?
Vanessa: I would definitely start with our website www.intereactivelegal.com, you’ll find lots of information about the document assembly systems as well as additional resources if you’re looking for them, blogs or articles or our roundtable webinars. You can access them there, and you can click on a spot for a demo, go ahead and get a demo scheduled, if you’re interested.
They can also email [email protected], and that will go to our customer services sales department, we can get you started that way.
Andrea: And how about with you Scott, if someone wanted to learn more about Elder Law College, or maybe sign up for an event, where would they go to learn more?
Scott: Same here, www.ElderLawCollege.com, and you can watch videos about what we do, sign up for the next program if you’re interested, and get some articles, get a sense of what it’s like to be an elder law attorney.
Andrea: Okay, so you both it sounds like you have a lot of resources on your websites as well that people can get for free just to learn a little bit more before making that commitment.
Vanessa: Absolutely, and I also just wanted to mention that we [InterActive Legal and Elder Law College] are working together.
Interactive Legal is going to be at the next 360 conference which is coming up next week as we speak — it won’t be next week, by the time your viewers see this, but as we speak it next week, –and we’re going to be tying the drafting software into the education that Scott offers during the program. Then in the future, hopefully everyone will stay posted, we are working on putting together a package offering that will offer people the best value for what both of our organizations have to offer. So just to put that out there, hopefully everybody will keep posted and be on the lookout for that.
Andrea: How frequently are the Elder Law College events?
Scott: We do three to four a year, all over the country, next one’s in Denver, and after that that perhaps the viewers will be able to attend is Boca Raton, Florida in February. That’s three or four times a year, and then we do an advanced program as well.
Andrea: Any last words you want to add?
Scott: Well I’ll just say I’m excited about the interaction with Interactive Legal, and that is largely due to our members now being able to get a 50-state solution in their documents is huge, and to be able to put them together in the right way, without one document spelling the name this way.
I have to admit that, I’ve been practicing for 25 years, and we do sometimes make those mistakes where one document will have a different spelling of a name and it drives me absolutely crazy until we moved in to a document assembly solution. Of course then everything is uniform. That means if you spell it wrong one time, it spells wrong every time.
Vanessa: It is only, it does require good input, but yeah, that’s absolutely right. And we’re really excited about our interaction as well, because it really is going to provide the best solution for both of our members, and we just enjoy working together and I think that’s going to come through in what we’re ultimately able to offer to the public as well.
Andrea: Well thank you, Vanessa and Scott, for being here with us today. We appreciate your time, and we will make sure we share that information with everyone on how to learn more about each of your organizations.