COVID and Law Firms

Consider these headlines from the ABA Journal:

May 2020 – Law firm revenue takes nosedive during COVID-19, new survey data shows

  • Roughly 81% of law firms have seen their revenues drop during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • 27% of firms experiencing loss of revenues saw business decline by more than half
  • Nearly 20% of firms have been forced to shrink their staffs
  • More than 60% said they believe it will take from four months to a year for their firms to revert back to their financial positions before COVID-19

June 2020 – Top law firms fared surprisingly well during COVID-19 pandemic, survey says

  • Demand for the first five months of the year was down only 1.4%
  • Cash collections were up more than 3% through May
  • Expenses were essentially flat as law firms reduced discretionary spending
  • 54% of the law firms reported increases in client requests for discounts in May, compared to the previous month
  • 52% reported more requests for extensions the same month
  • Lawyer layoffs have been modest
  • Layoffs of nonlegal staff members have been concentrated in jobs that don’t lend themselves to remote work
  • Transactional practices, such as corporate and real estate, were most affected by the slowdown
  • Practices have been active in bankruptcy, banking, labor, and employment
  • Liquidity is good, with almost 90% of law firms having the ability to cover at least three months of monthly expenses, excluding partner draws
  • More than 50% of the surveyed law firms cut or delayed partner contributions, which gave them more cash on hand

So… which is it?

Good question! There’s a difference between a nosedive and faring surprisingly well, although the devil is in the details.

The top law firm data is based on a survey of 52 of the nation’s top 100 grossing law firms and 20 midsized and regional law firms. Such a list would include very few, if any, offices with a presence in Oregon.

Additionally, the data was gathered four to five months ago. Measured in COVID time, which eerily resembles dog years, the survey feels outdated. Notice too that the firms judged to be “doing well” nonetheless laid off staff and reduced spending. Half received requests from clients asking for discounts and extensions, which were no doubt granted.

Either way we know our truth. Oregon is a state largely comprised of small firms and solo practitioners – lawyers who make a living but aren’t among the nation’s top money-wise.

So as we work to restore our livelihoods and practices, what should we keep in mind?

Five thoughts to keep in your head

  • We can and will bounce back.
  • Continue following COVID guidelines and don’t let your guard down. Staying healthy ensures that your practice remains open.
  • Deal in facts. Know the economic indicators for your firm.
  • If you have been neglecting marketing, you absolutely, positively must get going.
  • Make a plan and take action. Now might be the time to consider other practice areas.

What to do next

Work on your mental mindset

You are more resilient than you think.

Consider the tough times you’ve lived through. Losing someone you loved, struggling over student loan debt, or ending a relationship. It felt bad at the time, and I am not minimizing how bad. However, you did survive. You are here. You moved forward.

Furthermore, I am willing to wager that you had help. Someone supported you. Said something or did something that made you feel better. Reach out to those people today. Reach out to the attorney counselors at the OAAP for free, confidential assistance.

Your physical health

If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to help others.

You know what to do to stay physically healthy, so you won’t see it repeated here. Mental health is another matter. If you are struggling, pick up the phone and call the OAAP. They can help.

Just the facts mam

What are your outstanding accounts receivable? How many clients are 60 or more days overdue? When did you last compare your actual income and expenses against budgeted projections? Do you have a budget?

Financial management may not be fun, but we have to deal in reality. You can’t guess who owes you what or how much, you’ve got to know. Start now.

Begin by adjusting or creating a budget for the remainder of 2020. Yes, I know we only have four months remaining in the current year, so this is a task you could easily procrastinate about. Don’t do it. Face the numbers now while time remains to make a plan and take action.

On the expense side, ask for no-penalty extensions, negotiate new rates, request discounts, and get tough on discretionary spending. You may need to collect retainers for litigation expenses you previously fronted.

On the income side, get on top of overdue accounts. I’ve said it before: the most effective thing you can do is pick up the phone and talk to your clients. Screw up your courage and do it. Accepting monthly payments or a discounted amount due is better than no money at all. Offer contactless payment through your website or Square account, accept Zelle or Venmo. Be flexible. Find out what works best for clients.

Marketing

I devoted the month of July to marketing tactics centered around the new normal of COVID-19. If you didn’t catch those posts, or need a refresher, access my blog archives from July. From the home page, locate the sidebar on the right portion of your screen. The archives are midway down the page.

Make a plan

You are in control. Make a written list of what you will do differently, starting today and in the future. Be specific and lay out next steps. For example:

  • Read up on COVID and marketing. Identify 5 or more ideas you want to pursue. Set timelines for each and execute your plan.
  • Prepare a budget-to-actual comparison. Identify what you need to adjust, and act accordingly.
  • Review accounts receivable. Decide on a strategy for each overdue client and begin making calls.

Commit by scheduling out each planned activity. Allow adequate time to get tasks done and don’t overcrowd your calendar.

Scheduling isn’t busy work. It protects your intentions to follow through on your plan and increases the likelihood you won’t brush tasks off.

If you really want to ensure success, find an accountability buddy. Another lawyer is nice, but not necessary. Anyone who is willing to partner with you in goal setting will work. The purpose is not to critique, but to incentivize you to follow through because you’re answering to someone other than yourself.

Once you have a buddy, schedule weekly phone appointments. You won’t be sharing confidential client information. This is a “how did you do this week?” type of conversation and it doesn’t have to be a major time suck. If you want the exchange to go a bit deeper, obviously it can. You can ask for feedback and offer suggestions. It’s up to you.

All Rights Reserved 2020 Beverly Michaelis

Phase One Guidelines for Reopening Your Law Firm

Last week we talked about considerations for reopening your law firm.

While some of Oregon’s most populous counties remain closed, most were cleared for a phase one reopening three days ago. As a result, we now have new resources for all businesses, including your firm.

The guidelines come from state and county health departments and include 15 documents you should download, read, physically post, and deploy in your office:

Your firm should develop written protocols regarding:

  • Recommendations or requirements for face masks for employees and clients/consumers 
  • Conducting daily health assessments for employees (self-evaluation) to determine if “fit for duty”
  • Maintaining good hygiene at all times, hand washing and physical distancing
  • Cleaning and sanitizing workplaces throughout the workday and at the close of business or between shifts
  • Limiting maximum capacity to meet physical distancing guidelines.

Client businesses can check for sector-specific guidance on the state webpage here.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to Deschutes County for publishing this helpful information.

Questions? Call your county health department.

For those of you continuing to work from home, watch for a post about tech and security next week.

All Rights Reserved 2020 Beverly Michaelis

A Scam in Time for Christmas

Law firms routinely collect and issue W9 and 1099 forms. But if you receive an email requesting a tax form and weren’t expecting it, think twice. Ask yourself:

  • How did the email arrive? Via a website contact form, via your blog, or addressed to a specific person in your firm who would deal with such matters?
  • Do you recognize the sender?
  • Does the sender’s domain exist?
  • Does contact information given in the email match what you find on the web?
  • Do your records reflect that you did business with the sender this year?
  • Does any part of the email message seem “off?”

Remember scams can seem innocuous, even apologetic:

We are updating our new financial software and see that we don’t have a current W-9 or your tax id number in our system. If we could get this at your earliest convenience that would be wonderful. We realize and understand that you are tax exempt, but we would love to have the information fully entered into your new system. Thank you for your help and understanding. If you would like you can fax it to XXX-XXX-XXXX.
Have a great day!

When a request seems fishy (we understand you are tax exempt?) or oddly worded (we would love to have the information fully entered into your new system?!) take the time to independently verify legitimacy. Check your records, run a web search on the purported sender, and pick up the phone. Don’t use the contact information given in the suspicious email. Avoid replying, submitting a fax, or clicking on any links the message may include. Most importantly, educate staff on all levels and keep your antennae up for new variations of scams.

All Rights Reserved 2019 Beverly Michaelis

Time to begin year-end tax work

Too early to suggest working on your taxes? Absolutely not!

Once Thanksgiving hits, the rush to year-end becomes more hectic.
Start organizing your records now. Pull together and sort income and expense documentation – whether stored digitally or physically. Evaluate 2018 deductions before it’s too late. Tax questions? Call your accountant or tax preparer in the next two weeks before they’re buried by work.

To help you get started, here are some tips from the experts:

Tax preparation checklists are available from a number of public sources, including Nerd Wallet, H&R Block, TurboTax and others. The best come from your accountant or tax preparer. In either case, rely only on credible sources. For example, avoid irs.com. Remember: all government websites use the suffix .org.

Taking small steps now will ease the pain of tax return preparation later. Open your calendar and find 30 or 60 minute appointment blocks for specific tax-related tasks, like gathering records, sorting records, scanning receipts, or calling about your tax questions. You’ll be glad you did.

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis [2018]

Get Your Financial House in Order Now

thFor the last few years I’ve shared an
annual tradition with you: getting financial records organized for year-end.

This entails gathering up receipts, identifying deductible expenses, updating your accounts, running reports, and possibly pre-paying some 2017 bills.  Whew!

Fight the Urge to Procrastinate

With all the responsibilities that vie for our attention this time of year, it’s easy to push aside the task of gathering, organizing, and updating financial records.  Don’t succumb!

Getting organized for year-end is an absolute necessity – especially for the sole practitioner.

Step 1: Get Started

If needed, begin with a little background reading from the experts:

General Tips on Tax Preparation

Tax Deductions FOR SOLOS AND HOME-BASED LAW PRACTICES

Step 2: Learn How to Organize Tax Records

Step 3:  Begin the Process by Chipping Away at Organization and Prep

I don’t recommend a marathon session of tax organization and prep.  The only time it makes sense to do this is if you’ve procrastinated and you’re up against a filing deadline. The point here is to avoid that.  It’s too stressful!  And as we all know: when you’re up against a deadline the odds of making a mistake rise exponentially.  Let’s not go there.

Instead, open your calendar and schedule some dates to start gathering and organizing records.  30 or 60 minute appointments will allow you to chip away and make progress:

First appointment

Assuming your accounts are reasonably up to date (income and expense entries are current), do a quick check. Does it make sense to pre-pay 2017 expenses [bar dues, professional liability coverage, rent] or contribute to your IRA/retirement fund? Make this assessment early to take advantage of 2016 deductions.

Second appointment

Prepare to organize your records.  Physically gather receipts.  If necessary, schedule follow-up appointments to finish the process.  If your records are digital, use this time to pull all receipts into one 2016 expense folder.  If you have unscanned receipts, catch up on your scanning.

Third appointment

If you are paper-based, label a manila envelope “Personal Expenses.” Start sorting your paper receipts.  For now, anything that is a personal expense goes into the “Personal Expenses” envelope to be dealt with later.  If your records are digital, create a file folder labeled “2016 Personal Expenses” and segregate personal receipts.  Once you’ve achieved this basic separation, start organizing your business expenses.  This can be done a variety of ways – see the reading above.  While date order is good, it is preferable to sort by expense category first, then by date.  If necessary, schedule follow-up appointments to finish the process.

Future appointments

You get the drift. Even the most robust procrastinator can generally commit to increments of 30 or 60 minute appointments.  Keep moving.  Anything you do helps advance the cause.

Step 4: Jumping Ahead to the CPA

If you already work with a CPA, hallelujah!  If your CPA is like mine, he or she will automatically send you a tax organization packet, which will go a long way toward helping with the steps above.

You Do your own taxes?

I know some of you are stubbornly independent, as I once was, and you prepare your own taxes, as I once did.  Please: at least contact a CPA for a ballpark estimate of what it would cost to delegate this task.  What can it hurt?  You can still prepare your own taxes if you prefer.

But my taxes are simple!

Kudos! Guess what?  The cost to prepare your return will be nominal.  If your taxes are complex, anything you pay a CPA will be well worth it.

I have used CPAs for business, personal, and trust-related tax preparation and have never been sorry I did.  The prep work is enough for me!  Try it at least once and see what you think.  I’ll bet you free admission to one of my future CLEs that you won’t go back to doing your own tax returns.  Select the Contact page on the menu above to take me up on this offer.

A Quick Thought About Apps

The tech-savvy among may you may be curious about apps, so here are two suggestions: 7 of the Best Apps to Scan, Track, & Manage Receipts and Best Free Finance Apps for the iPhone and iPad.  (The latter is my list of favorites.)

Parting Thoughts

Get started now by scheduling those appointments on your calendar!  I promise you that doing a bit here and there makes the process less overwhelming.  Good luck!

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis [2016]