On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Leah Del Percio, co-founder and CEO of Trustate, a human driven and technology backed estate administration services company. Leah shares how she gave up her fast rising career to build a company to fulfill a very specific need in the legal industry that wasn't being properly addressed.Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
Interview with Leah Del Percio
On The Importance of Radical Truth in Leadership
Honesty About Challenges Enables Teams to Tackle Challenges Together
I think it's really important when you're leading a company to be really honest, not only with yourself, but with your teammates. I had a meeting this morning at 8:30 with my business partner. We check in fairly frequently to make sure we're on the same page. And we had a conversation that was about radical truths we had to tell each other. So I was able to express some things that were on my mind in the middle of the night while dealing with my son, and it turns out we're on the same page about them and thought of a way to really tackle the day.
It's being honest about identifying potential challenges that could come your way and how to tackle them together. So it's making sure you're on the same page and everybody's rowing in the same direction, but it's also being so grateful for people to have those conversations with you.
One author I love, or a book I love is the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. So it talks about the vulnerability piece. I can say I'm struggling with this. I'm not an expert in this. So being vulnerable, I think as a leader is really important because first of all, it sets your culture so that people aren't just showing you all their wins, they're showing you when there's a problem or when they made a mistake. Cause you need to know. We don't do any blaming in our business. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn. So we really try to embody that daily.
On the Parallels of Becoming a Parent and Starting a Company
Instilling a Proper Foundation is Crucial to Growth
I always say starting a company has been like having a baby. I started my company and founded it really at the time in which I was having my youngest son. So there were a lot of parallels in child rearing and also running a business and watching it grow.
One example I love is sometimes when you don't set the proper culture and foundation, or you raise money too quickly, or you grow too fast, you have the tendency to be like a baby on roller skates. Your baby's just learning to walk. They stumble. They fall occasionally. But you know that they're going to be an awesome runner someday because you're instilling a foundation in them. You can tell those things pretty early on, but you're not going to throw them on a pair of roller skates at one and a half necessarily. And if you do, yeah, there's a chance they might do great, but there's also a chance they're going to fall and hurt themselves. So maybe wait until they're two and a half.
On Starting Her Journey Into Leadership and Estate Practice
Working in Human Capital, Wealth Management, and in Private Practice
I started my career doing contract work at Goldman Sachs. Was a really interesting foray into leadership because I was working in our human capital management (HCM) division, reviewing reviews of various employees from partner to analyst. Really, really interesting and very functional and healthy culture, particularly within HCM. So having seen that early on and just taking advantage of all the things that they have to help grow leaders was critical for me. It made me realize I love to take responsibility for things. I love to grow things. And hey, I kind of like banking, wealth management stuff.
Moved to JP Morgan Chase, private bank. I ended up getting really interested in all the different estate planning vehicles I was seeing and thought, well, this is an interesting area of law. Maybe I want to go into private practice because I do like being that source of revenue generation for a firm rather than this compliance obstacle.
Spent years almost teaching myself trust and estates, but was able to work with a really excellent group of attorneys who founded their own firms. I was working very closely with the main partner of a trust and estates boutique. Did a lot of sophisticated work for high net worth/ultra high net worth clients. A lot of asset protection planning. They were just very much on the cutting edge. Brilliant, brilliant group of lawyers. And I would get to sit in the founding partner's office almost every day and he just taught me so much.
So I spent years doing that and everything was going swimmingly. And then ultimately my family situation changed. My husband's job was relocated. I always joke around, I didn't cry at my wedding and I cried leaving this firm. And just because I really enjoyed the people I worked with from every layer of support staff to partner.
On Identifying an Unmet Need in the Trust and Estates Industry
Everyone Should Have Access to a High Quality Service When Going Through the Loss of a Loved One
[When I] moved over to DLA Piper, to their trust and estates group working with a group of five partners in Maryland, their book of business was similar in that they did sophisticated planning, but most of their clients are typically 50 million plus. And those clients just have very different needs. And particularly when there's a death in the family, they often would lean on us to do literally all of the work in that estate administration.
So I got to see these clients really deriving value from us handling literally everything for them. [But I asked myself,] what does everybody else do? What does the other 99.99% of the world do when they hire their counsel? I knew from being at a boutique that yes, there's estate administration practices. They don't have a staff of 30 like we had who does everything. And every client just flies in on their plane and signs their returns and leaves.
It got me thinking this is a huge gap in the market. Everyone should have such a wonderful level of service when going through the loss of a loved one.
On the Market Research that Led to Her Co-Founding Trustate
Understanding Pain Points in the Estate Administration Process
I had this idea in early 2019, I just couldn't let it go. So initially when I had the idea for the business, I went to a local incubator in my area in Baltimore, actually the emerging technology centers. I met with some mentors there, one of whom was a lawyer, more of an IP kind of startup-y lawyer. And they were like, you got to start testing this out, like just go stand on the street corner and ask people.
I didn't actually stand on a street corner and ask people or go in front of a funeral home and ask people. But I found places where executors in those grieving a loss were congregating. And I didn't tell them my background. I didn't tell them I was a trust and estates lawyer, and I asked them what their experience was. I was shocked at how many people felt like this was just a life ruiner for them being appointed as an executor, or it's known as a personal representative in some states. It's just a horrible experience for them. Not only is it a full-time job, but you're trying to manage your family's grief, your own grief. It can just be really emotional.
And one of the people I asked was one of my good friends, my co-founder, cause she was going through losing her grandparents. She was helping her dad because it was that much work. She was like, oh my gosh, it's horrible. We hired an attorney. There was nothing left in the estate by the time we were done. Look at all this paperwork I have blah, blah, blah. And that's what I heard across the board from literally everyone.
So I knew, okay, lawyers need tools for them to do this work affordably for their clients because everyone ends up hating their estate administration lawyer by the time the work is done. They pay a retainer, usually between six and $15,000. And all they get is to probate, where they get appointed as the executor. And now they have all of these fiduciary duties to actually manage, handle, and close the estate. And they're already through that retainer and they're like, what am I paying a lawyer for?
So that data to me was so eye-opening, and it really compelled me to say, all right, you know what? Life is too short. I'm going to take a risk, jump off into entrepreneurship. And I know that I can build a team that can build tools to actually solve this problem, we understand it deeply enough. I've done enough multi-jurisdictional estate administration practice to know what the true needs of lawyers are, which are not just another spreadsheet or planning tool. It's more of actual tools that get the work done and really grow that and build that so lawyers can be more empowered when they're dealing with their clients.
On Why She Ultimately Chose Lawyers as the Client
Testing, Data, and Inbound Inquiries from Lawyers Who Needed Help
Initially we tried to market to both those grieving families, as well as the lawyers. So we began testing the market. And what we realized was it was very difficult to buy trust from a marketing standpoint of these direct-to-consumer clients.
We knew the lawyer had pain points. They had time that they often have to write off or can't bill for, they have really unhappy clients who, yeah, they might do the planning for them during the administration as a part of it. But they ended up never getting business from them again, after that. They're very much exposed to risk because a lot of them don't know how to do a probate and they don't know how to do an administration properly. I've seen situations where lawyers have missed tax filing deadlines and ended up costing an estate millions of dollars where lawyers didn't have the right information to actually close something out. And not only are they spending tons in legal fees because they have to work hourly for the legal piece of the administration. But they're causing litigation in the estate because of it. So to me, it was this high liability practice area that needed risk reduced by accurate data and people getting tasks done quickly.
And what we started to see in our business was that most of the estates we were getting on the service piece, where we're going in and serving as like this outsourced task manager and personal assistant to the lawyer, were coming in from attorneys. We were getting all of these unsolicited inbound inquiries without even really marketing to them where they're like, oh my gosh, I have 60 administrations. I need help on these. And to us we've settled hundreds and hundreds of estates. We can easily help these people and help them grow their client base by being able to really, really strengthen and fortify that relationship with the executor client and all of the stakeholders, all the beneficiaries in the estate administration.
So we knew that was really the path for us, but it was through testing and getting the data and spending really a year marketing towards both and then moving in a different direction.
On How Trustate Addresses Client Pain Points in the Market
Helping Estate Lawyers with Administrative Functions and Tools to Make Getting Data Easier
So, what we aim to do is handle all of those administrative functions for that lawyer. So we have a service side to our business that is working really well with lots of forward thinking trust and estates, to help them elevate their practice, to include these administrative services. It reduces their risk of malpractice because we're getting accurate data for them, closing things out and the client is getting things done. And the clients end up finding them to be the hero at the end of the day. And they're not spending time that they can't bill for administrative tasks, like calling the cable company to close out the deceased loved one's cable bill which nobody wants to do. So that's one side of our business is the service side.
And then we have the product side, which is we're building tools right now for lawyers. Super exciting stuff where we're actually going to be able to do a lot of the actual finding that data, figuring out what great aunt Sally owned and what she owed literally at the click of a button. So we're excited to be rolling out those tools over the next couple of months.
On What Makes an Excellent Lawyer
Excellent Lawyers Are Always Thinking About How to Help and Make Things Easier for the Client
Frankly the way I see it, good lawyers are stewards of their client. They're thinking about what their client is thinking about all the time. Every excellent lawyer and successful lawyer I know has a lot of clients going through this. So they're a good client for us to think through like, how can I make this easier on my client? How can I help my client with this? They're obsessed with their clients in a way.
Those are the lawyers we want to work with, are lawyers who are scaling their business. They want to maintain a level of service or elevate the services they can provide to their clients so that client keeps coming back to them.
On Working on Emotionally Elevated Matters
It’s Working With a Team That Is Driven to Help Clients Who Are Grieving
I think it comes down to the team, having a team that can handle having to deal with heavy, heavy stuff sometimes. And we certainly do. And I personally think that when you're doing this work and your goal is to make this process suck less for someone whose life is really sucking right now. That is motivating in a completely different way.
We're helping them take stress off of them and ease some of the burden from handling that call with the phone company to close out an estate. That's often a huge source of stress for that person.
One thing we learned early on from some of our early clients was that every time they had to call a customer service line, they were reliving the death of their loved one. So they'd wait on hold for three hours. Then they'd have to explain the situation. Relive the death of that loved one while explaining it to then get transferred to another department and have to do it all over again.
So to us, we said, this is work that we can work through your lawyer to get done for you. So you're able to have the emotional space that you need to cope with your loss. So while we're not a grief company and we are a business-to-business software company, our mission is just so strong and we see it with our clients and we're delivering those wins through the lawyer now, but we know how much this work means to that end client.
And that is cathartic for all the emotional stresses that I think our team sometimes endures from dealing with a heavy subject matter.
On What Leadership in Law Means
Growing and Managing a Team That Embodies Your Mission
[It’s] building and managing a great team. It's being able to do things that are beyond just your own personal needs and accomplish things. Nobody can just be a singular person that runs something and does something and builds something great.
So you have to be able to get the most talented people that you can find who believe and embody your mission and get them all rowing in the same direction.
Learning what motivates people. So it's really, particularly as an attorney, about the management side of things and about growing that team, setting the vision, and letting that vision carry the rest of the team through proper and responsive management.
On One Thing She Would Improve About the Legal Industry
Need to Use Technologies, Services, and Products to Elevate the Profession Beyond the Billable Hour
Oh, I have so many things I would improve about the legal industry. So, I'm sure you can guess my biggest issue with being a lawyer and in private practice was that your time is your trade. So you're only making as much money as those billable hours can rake in. To me, that's totally a backwards and problematic way of doing things. It's very difficult to scale a business and to provide a really high level of service and keep your billables up at the same time. So I think by building and managing a great team and being a lawyer who leads, you can offset that to other people and that's really where I think the future of law needs to go.
It needs to be using technologies and products so people aren't flipping Word documents from 1997 that have bad old tax language that they may have to go and fix. Using technology to your advantage, to help you elevate your practice beyond the billable hour. That's what needs to change in the legal industry going forward.
On What People Seem to Misunderstand About the Work She Does
We're Not in the Business of Grief, Rather Trying to Ease Administrative Burdens for Those Grieving
Oh, goodness. So many things. So first of all, we're not estate planning software. We're not going to draft wills and trusts. So that's number one, I think.
And number two would be, we're not in the business of grief. We're not a Talkspace. We think there's a space for those companies. We think there's a space for a therapist for clients, but that's certainly not the work that we're trying to do. We're simply trying to ease the burden for those people administratively. So maybe it can be helpful to them to have that space so they can do things like counseling or find some.
On Her Favorite Self-Care Practice
Slow Running and Thinking
Oh, I actually love running. I am a slow runner. I used to be a much faster runner and run lots of long distances. I don't have time for that now, but I try every other day at this point to do a 30 minute really slow run.
My mind is always racing. So it helps me to let it go a little slower. It allows me to flush out the day. And I do my best thinking on those runs. That's usually what motivates me. It helps me secure my vision for the company.
Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession.
Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.