I’m writing my column while quarantining but am hoping—really hoping—that we’re well past that by the time you are reading this (though I suspect COVID-19 will still be a key part of our daily life for some time). Few law firms have been left unscathed, and most are thinking long and hard about how to tighten their belts and how to keep work coming in. Our firm is no different, and we’ve been grappling with how best to market in the time of one of the biggest global disasters of our lives. Even if COVID is a distant memory when you’re reading this, there are no doubt lessons to be applied in future crises.
The pandemic has created multiple threats to our immigration practice. We’ve had to re-establish ourselves to operate from 38 locations versus one, which involved a quick deployment of a lot of technology, as well as basically rewriting our systems to work in this new setup. We’ve had to deal with government agencies and courts that are severely limiting operations and trapping clients in all sorts of difficult situations in and out of the United States. We’ve faced the challenge of large numbers of clients—from individuals to large companies—having difficulties paying their bills. And we have a president who has imposed an executive order expressly limiting the reason we exist—to help people navigate the immigration system.
It’s hard to tell what the future will bring, but, in the meantime, we’ve done a number of things to keep business coming in the virtual door and keeping our lights on (at least in our homes—who cares about the closed office?).
1. Stepping Up Our Content Game
Just about every field of law has been impacted by the pandemic, but immigration law has been particularly affected from the individual unskilled worker to the multinational executive and, especially for our firm, the health-care worker (it’s our largest practice area).
When it started to look like the crisis was going to keep getting more serious and we were starting to receive announcements from government agencies about changes in procedures, I decided to create a blog tracking developments and advising the public on the changes. I secured the domain name “coronavirus-immigration.com” and in seven weeks, the blog has 90 posts.
Those posts are then pushed out to Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, which will often be the jumping off point for more posting. In one case, I posted a Twitter thread that had more than 50 parts that discussed what the federal agencies and Congress could do to make it easier on immigrant physicians (who represent more than a quarter of all doctors in the United States). You can see the thread at https://bit.ly/2VOjoEx.
When the president announced his executive order suspending immigrant visa processing around the world, we were ready and got a copy while he was still doing his press briefing. While he was still talking (those briefings go on for a while), we created a section-by-section summary of the order and had it posted on the blog followed by a Twitter thread explaining it to the public. The “Siskind Summary” has been a successful branding exercise for the firm for nearly 20 years. When a major law or rule has been passed or proposed, we prepared a detailed summary in plain English, released within hours. Speed is important here, and the document often becomes a cheat sheet for reporters trying to quickly get up to speed as well as for members of the public to get an understanding of what can sometimes be a voluminous document.
The effect was what we hoped. Aside from a lot of engagement on social media, it led to several interviews. Within a few days, we spoke to reporters from the Washington Post, Newsweek, NBC News, Bloomberg, NPR and several other outlets.
2. Client Communications
We were a little better prepared for remote operations than other firms. Our firm had been moving our systems to the cloud for many years, and we had a detailed disaster plan that we could adapt for the current crisis. We also had to improvise a bit given this has lasted months, not days. One of the smarter things we did was to set up a firm committee to help create new systems that were specific to a long-term remote work setup.
We implemented a communications plan so we could focus more on our clients who were obviously confused and dealing with their own emergencies. The plan included changing signature blocks to provide basic information about our firm switching to remote work, updating our website, providing updates on our Facebook page and blasting emails out to clients letting them know about key legal developments as well as changes in office procedures.
3. Changing With the Times
We’ve made changes in the way we work with clients in response to the pandemic that will probably remain with us after we’ve returned to normal. For one, some of our lawyers now allow clients and potential clients to schedule from our web page evening and weekend consultations and appointments. Obviously, this makes more sense for some attorneys than others. But we’re anticipating some people will decide they prefer working from home and will have more flexible schedules that will allow this practice to continue.
Like many firms, we’re heavily using videoconferencing. We’ve had this option for years for the 80 percent of our clients who are not local, but most of them didn’t have the hardware or software or were otherwise not comfortable communicating that way. That’s changed, of course, and we believe investing in good videoconferencing technology will turn out to have been wise.
We also have had to adjust to the economic reality that is facing our clients. How a firm handles clients who are struggling financially is also part of your branding. The car companies that started advertising their new flexible payment plans in the first days of the pandemic were smart, and we’ve followed their leads. More flexibility in coming up with retainer fees, longer payment schedules, more sensitivity in our collection efforts, etc. may cost the firm in the short run, but we believe this will be remembered by clients when times are better.
Finally, we’ve been thinking strategically about refocusing our marketing efforts on areas that will probably do better in a deep recession. Health care was a strong practice in the last recession and obviously is in the spotlight now. But in a high unemployment environment, immigration policies will likely favor entrepreneurs who can demonstrate they’re creating jobs. So we’ll emphasize that part of our practice (including promoting a new book we’re releasing this summer on that subject). When times are tough, the government tends to crack down harder on employers that hire unauthorized workers, and we’ll focus on our compliance practice. And we have expertise on the immigration impacts of layoffs and downsizing that will presumably be in demand.
There is only so much any of us can control, obviously, but leaning in and rapidly adapting to the changed market is a way to improve your odds of surviving a rough environment. Hopefully, firms that do this will come out stronger in the end.