Think back to December 31, 2019. You probably joined with millions of other happy, optimistic folks in toasting to a bright new year full of happiness, good health, and prosperity. We were all so innocent that night, so trusting that life would just get better and better, our businesses would thrive, our families would enjoy peace and security. Life would be good for us and those we love.
Fast forward a few short weeks. As I write this, the United States is in the midst of the worst pandemic to hit our shores in our lifetimes. It has impacted every business, every organization, every national park, every church, and every individual in this country, and the end is not yet in sight. The evening news does nothing to reduce the “scare” factor, with reports such as: “The Small Business Administration predicts 40 percent of small businesses will not survive past November.”
Consumer surveys reveal that 49 percent of respondents indicate that, if they had a legal issue, they would very likely delay seeking legal help until after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided. Interestingly, 13 percent say they anticipate legal issues directly related to coronavirus.
And yet, life goes on. You still need to eat, see your doctor, get the oil changed in your car, mow your lawn, get a haircut, take care of business, make a living, care for your clients, and keep everyone safe from the virus.
There is so much you can’t control right now, but you can control your law practice. You want to get it back on track, but where in the world do you start? Can you just walk back into your office, flip on the light switch, and pick up where you left off? Will your clients want to come to your office? Will your staff be willing to return? How do you feel about having folks up close and personal in a small space?
First things first: Don’t panic! Be realistic and stay calm. Everyone is watching how you conduct yourself right now. Make sure they see someone who is in control of their business.
Make a list of your priorities and rank them by importance. At the top of that list should be the health and safety of your family, your employees, your clients, and yourself.
If you have not fully reopened, draft a written plan as to how you will reopen your practice, the legal services you will provide going forward, who will be working with you, who your clients will be, how you will bring them to you, and the steps you need to take to move forward. Don’t dwell on what was; think about what can be. Then, break your plan down into the following sections.
Step up communications with your clients. Phone them to check on their welfare. What are their immediate needs? What challenges and issues do they anticipate facing in the future? How can you help? What can you do to better serve them now and in the future?
Determine if there is a demand for your current business model and legal services. What issues are likely to arise for your clients coming out of this pandemic? Identify new or underserved practice areas that are likely to grow out of this pandemic. Are these issues outside your area of expertise? Can you get some quick training or find a mentor to enable you to help your clients? How can you adapt your current practice to meet new client needs? Can you deliver the outcomes in different ways than in the past?
Money is going to be an issue for a lot of clients in the immediate future. Do they really need your full legal services, or could you offer unbundled services to help keep the cost down? Assign your client certain tasks to accomplish (e.g., gathering information, compiling data, or completing forms for your review) to keep the cost down for them and money coming in for you.
Review your profit-and-loss statement for unnecessary expenses, being careful not to cut anything that would impact your ability to generate revenue. That said, you may find that some things you thought were indispensable aren’t. For example, do you really need a brick-and-mortar office, or could you continue to work from home and just rent meeting space on an as-needed basis?
Rethink your fee structure. Clients love flat fees, so if you can shift some of your work over to that billing arrangement, your clients will feel more secure in hiring you as they will know the total cost going in. Perhaps a hybrid fee would work for you. Charge a flat fee for the part of the work you can control and an hourly fee for the part you can’t control. Consider a hybrid contingent fee where you take a lower hourly fee (e.g., $100 per hour) and a smaller percentage (say, 20 percent to 25 percent) from the resulting award or settlement. This allows the risk to be shared by both client and attorney, and provides you with some money as you work on a matter that can have quite a protracted life span.
There is going to be an increased demand for lower attorney’s fees as many of the 40 million people currently unemployed will not be going back to the jobs they lost or will be going back at a lower rate of pay. Low bono fees are possible by capitalizing on the efficiencies you developed in working remotely. Invest in quality hardware and time-saving software to increase your efficiency and productivity. Determine what you need to cover your overhead and compensation, and set your fees accordingly. You may not turn the profit you’ve been used to, but at least you’ll know you’re getting paid adequately.
It is even more critical now to discuss money frankly before you agree to represent clients. Help them determine whether they can afford your services—even if they don’t prevail in their matter. You aren’t doing them a favor by running up a big bill they can’t pay. This will only add to their stress and yours.
Keep accounts receivable under control. If your clients are unable to pay their bills, offer payment plans for a certain period of time to allow them to get back on their feet. You can also offer to put their work on hold for a while if there are no immediate deadlines coming up. If there is an immediate deadline, discuss how you will get paid for that and reach agreement to put the rest of the work on hold. This can provide great relief to your cash-strapped client and show your empathy and goodwill at the same time. Check in with them in a couple months to see how they are doing and if they are ready to start up again.
Recognize that your mind-set, and that of your staff, may have permanently changed through this experience. After weeks of working at home, getting into the car for a daily commute may not be appealing. Working in close proximity to others and wearing a mask all day long may be off-putting. Everyone’s concept of work-life balance has altered. What will work for everyone going forward?
Before you all come back full-time, it’s important to talk with your staff as to everyone’s comfort level with being around co-workers, clients, cleaning crew, etc. Some may be dealing with childcare issues, the needs of a sick family member, or their own high-risk status. Be sensitive to their individual situations and work out a plan that will help you care for your clients while caring for your employees at the same time. Outline what you plan to do to ensure their safety in the office. Have a plan in place in case someone tests positive. Track your employees’ vacation destinations and any outbreaks or restrictions in that locale. You may want to have your employees self-quarantine before they return to the office.
First, determine what your state requires before you reopen—and on an ongoing basis thereafter. Some states have very stringent requirements with hefty fines for non-compliance. You may need to do a deep clean and sanitization before you bring anyone back into the office. Take proper precautions in your office to ensure the safety of your staff and your clients. Supply face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant sprays and wipes, and an infrared thermometer. Make everyone responsible for cleanliness right now. Whoever uses the copy machine, handles the coffee pot, or touches the door to the restroom, etc., must wipe down the surface before leaving the area.
Remove magazines from your lobby. Practice social distancing with your lobby chairs, reception area, and staff workstations. Put a bottle of hand sanitizer on the front desk, and position others throughout the office; require its frequent use. Serve clients coffee in paper cups that can be tossed into a wastebasket in the lobby.
Check your insurance policy for “virus” coverage. Some policies specifically exclude viruses, and that’s something you’ll want to know going forward.
Now is a great time to start working on your disaster preparedness plan for next time. No one could ever have imagined a time when businesses would be shuttered for two-plus months, but it happened. Did you have a plan in place to deal with a stay-at-home order? What would happen to your business if you had contracted COVID-19 and were unable to work for a few weeks or, worse yet, died? Is there a plan for your next of kin or another practitioner to follow to handle things in your absence? Write out that plan now while the lessons learned over the past few months are still fresh in your mind.
Make data security your top priority. If your employees are still working from home, what sort of security do they have on their phones and computers? Do other people in the home have access to their computer? Can you guarantee the security of your clients and office data while everyone is working remotely?
If you don’t already have it, this would be a great time to invest in a cloud-based case management program that will enable everyone in the office to access all client files from anywhere. Studies have shown time and again that case management software can increase efficiency and productivity many times over. This results in lower client fees but increased revenue for you as you are able to handle more work without time lost looking for a document, phone number, address, or misplaced file. A stay-at-home order is the best sales pitch there is for cloud-based programs!
While we can’t do face-to-face networking right now, there are still many ways you can market your practice personally without running the risk of getting sick. Do welfare calls with your good referral sources. Invite a referral source to have lunch with you virtually, and have a meal delivered to your guest ahead of time.
Send letters to clients announcing that your office is once again fully open, and detail the steps you are taking to keep your office clean and sanitized. For those who may be nervous about coming in, tell them you can meet with them via Zoom or in a parking lot.
Send reminders to clients about things that might need updating, such as a will, trademark, copyright, minute book, etc. Send a letter to clients suggesting possible issues they may have coming out of the shutdown that they haven’t thought of yet. For businesses, this might include employment, financial, or government-ordered restrictive issues. For individuals, this might include job loss, bankruptcy, foreclosures, evictions, medical issues, access to government entitlements, and so forth.
Spruce up your website with new photos and content. Include a COVID-19 section where you detail how you are helping clients deal with the issues coming out of this pandemic.
Send out joyful announcements! Send out a fun flyer announcing the reopening of your office or an invitation to a virtual Client Appreciation Party. We’ve all had our fill of doom and gloom—let’s make a point of sharing good news now!
This pandemic has affected us in ways we never could have imagined. For some, mental health issues have appeared. If you are dealing with depression, an eating disorder, sleeplessness, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, or some other form of altered personality traits or coping mechanisms, reach out. This pandemic has had an unbelievable effect on all of us, and to deny that is foolish. There is no shame in seeking professional help to get you feeling good again about your present and your future.
Lastly, before you rush to make changes that may or may not be necessary for your specific practice, take some time to answer the question: “What does my firm need right now to survive?”
Write down the lessons you’ve learned through this experience. How has it changed the way you practice law? The way your clients want to receive your services? The way your staff works? Have the outcomes been satisfactory? Are these changes that you can incorporate permanently into your practice?
Create your plan to move forward and adjust your practice to the new normal. Change isn’t something to be feared. It can actually be quite healthy. Good things can come out of bad, and you may just find that your reinvented practice is more streamlined and effective than the old one—and that can result in less stress for you and more money in your pocket. Don’t let your practice become yet another victim of COVID-19. Find a way to rise from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix and reclaim your place in the world!