In March 2020, gyms closed due to COVID-19, and I was forced to move my running venue to the great outdoors. When the local exclusive neighborhood where rich folks live put up signs telling nonresidents to keep off its trails, I began running at a local park that has a five-mile circuit of trails. One of the miles traverses through a crop field. Just after I started running at this location, farmworkers began to clear the crop field. As weeks passed, I watched tarps laid, stakes placed, tomato plants put into the ground and irrigation systems installed. As the summer months continued, tomatoes bloomed. Then, when it seemed the harvest was ready, nothing happened. Week after week I passed by, and by the hundreds tomatoes dropped to the ground. Then, tomatoes remaining on vines dropped with their vines. By October, thousands of tomatoes had rotted away on the ground. The seeming futile effort, and wasting product, puzzled me. As I looked for an answer, I discovered that this farm was not unique in its inability to make a profit. The reduction in demand for tomatoes due to the virus had created a decrease in price to such an extent that the owners would lose more money by paying to harvest product and driving the price down, than to just leave it on the vine to rot away.
As early as April 2020 there had been news articles about this supply and demand problem with respect to tomatoes. Apparently, some farmers simply went full speed ahead into the spring and summer without much concern for what was happening in the economy due to COVID-19 closures. It’s hard to cast too much blame on the farmers though, considering that the highest level of leadership in our nation was declaring an end to the pandemic by April.
The closures forced upon us require us to ask questions about the future of the law firm in light of a practice environment that is likely to never get back to exactly as it was before. Just like those farmers who should have considered operational changes due to supply and demand, many law firms were, and remain, faced with tough decisions related to operations. With all these questions, the organization must ask if a pandemic-related decision should be temporary or permanent. For instance, in our firm, our chief operating officer announced she was retiring just days before the shutdown. Our immediate decision was to hold off hiring a replacement. Given our commitment to not lay off anyone due to COVID-19 and to maintain nonattorney salaries, holding off on a replacement for this position was a great temporary decision. The important tasks of our COO were, however, primarily dropped on our management committee, especially its chair. For other partners, the reduction in expense was welcome—something their pocketbooks could become accustomed to. As I contemplated whether this was a long-term solution, however, I asked myself, at what cost? I realized that the questions we needed to consider should also be considered with respect to many issues and opportunities faced by law firms today.