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 Measured in COVID time, which eerily resembles dog years, the survey feels outdated.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

Fresh Start for the New Year

The new year offers each of us the chance to make changes. Not by setting lofty goals, but by committing to small adjustments that can make a big difference in attitude, health, and resilience. Here are 7 micro goals that anyone can follow.

Micro Goal 1 – Cut Your Work Hours

Several years ago I reported on a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine that found people “who work an average of 11 or more hours per day have a 67 percent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or dying from heart disease than people who work a standard seven- to eight-hour day.  Those who work between 10 and 11 hours per day have a 45 percent higher risk.”

Your micro goal: Commit to a 9 hour (or less) work day. The occasional exception is fine, just don’t backslide.

Micro Goal 2 – Stand, Move, Stretch

Sitting in your chair for hours on end shouldn’t be the norm. Stand, move, stretch. Consider a treadmill or standing desk. Better yet, leave the office for a few minutes and walk around the block! Your joints and muscles will thank you.

Your micro goal: Move at least once an hour. Use a cheap timer, an app, recurring task reminders, or whatever it takes to remind yourself to get up. No one will care if you stretch during a deposition or walk to the back of the room during a CLE.

Micro Goal 3 – Just Say No

Find it hard to turn people away? You aren’t alone. I don’t really have a choice. I need the money. Family, friends, or former clients are depending on me. These are things we tell ourselves. Follow this advice to turn the tide.

Your micro goal: Say no at least once a month. As you gain confidence, don’t hesitate to say no whenever necessary.

Micro Goal 4 – Say Goodbye

Too much to do and not enough time? Cull the herd.

  • Review your current client list for matters you regret taking.  If feasible, say goodbye to those clients.
  • Farm out work or delegate to others in your firm. If you’re a solo/small firm practitioner, reach out to colleagues for referrals to a contract lawyer who can get you over the hump.

Your micro goal: Apply your newfound client/case criteria to future matters and screen out cases that aren’t a good match for you.

Micro Goal 5 – Protect your Priorities

What do you want to get done? What are your priorities? When is the last time you even thought about what you wanted?

It’s easy to get pushed around by interruptions: phone calls, texts, emails, pop-in clients, or colleagues.

Your micro goal: Block out time on your calendar for work you want to get done. Treat this time as if it were a client appointment. (No interruptions allowed.) Stay off the Internet unless the task at hand involves being on the Internet. Give the matter your undivided attention.

Micro Goal 6 – Put Your Calendar First

If your calendar contains your personal and business commitments, including time blocks to get work done, let it determine the scheduling for all new promises.

Your micro goal: Check your calendar before promising completion of a time-related task. If there is no “deadline” per se, determine when you can reasonably fit the new project into your schedule. Add it to your calendar and back it up with a task reminder. You gain nothing by promising a quick turnaround if you can’t keep your word.

Micro Goal 7 – Triage When You Know You Can’t Meet a Deadline

If you’re in a pickle – a deadline is approaching and you know you can’t meet it  – the best approach is to face it head on. I know this can be hard. We assume clients or other lawyers will yell at us. The truth is, people are more understanding than we give them credit for. Everyone has been there. They get it.

Your micro goal: Renegotiate deadlines you can’t meet.

You can start over. You can make changes. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2020

 

Regain Control in 2019

Is it really possible to change your work habits?

Absolutely! The new year offers each of us the chance to make changes. Not by setting lofty goals, but by committing to small adjustments that can make a big difference in attitude, health, and resilience.

Cut your work hours

Several years ago I reported on a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine that found people “who work an average of 11 or more hours per day have a 67 percent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or dying from heart disease than people who work a standard seven- to eight-hour day.  Those who work between 10 and 11 hours per day have a 45 percent higher risk.”

Your micro goal: Commit to a 9 hour (or less) work day. The occasional exception is fine, just don’t backslide.

Stand, move, stretch

Sitting in your chair for hours on end shouldn’t be the norm. Stand, move, stretch. Consider a treadmill or standing desk. Better yet, leave the office for a few minutes and walk around the block! Your joints and muscles will thank you.

Your micro goal: Move at least once an hour. Use a cheap timer, an app, recurring task reminders, or whatever it takes to remind yourself to get up. No one will care if you stretch during a deposition or walk to the back of the room during a CLE.

Say no

Find it hard to turn people away? You aren’t alone. I don’t really have a choice. I need the money. Family, friends, or former clients are depending on me. These are things we tell ourselves. Follow this advice to turn the tide.

Your micro goal: Say no at least once a month. As you gain confidence, don’t hesitate to say no whenever necessary.

Cull the herd

Too much to do and not enough time? Cull the herd.

  • Review your current client list for matters you regret taking.  If feasible, say goodbye to those clients.
  • Farm out work or delegate to others in your firm. If you’re a solo/small firm practitioner, reach out to colleagues for referrals to a contract lawyer who can get you over the hump.

Your micro goal: Apply your newfound client/case criteria to future matters and screen out cases that aren’t a good match for you.

Protect your priorities

What do you want to get done? What are your priorities? When is the last time you even thought about what you wanted?

It’s easy to get pushed around by interruptions: phone calls, texts, emails, pop-in clients, or colleagues.

Your micro goal: Block out time on your calendar for work you want to get done. Treat this time as if it were a client appointment. (No interruptions allowed.) Stay off the Internet unless the task at hand involves being on the Internet. Give the matter your undivided attention.

Put your calendar first

If your calendar contains your personal and business commitments, including time blocks to get work done, let it determine the scheduling for all new promises.

Your micro goal: Check your calendar before promising completion of a time-related task. If there is no “deadline” per se, determine when you can reasonably fit the new project into your schedule. Add it to your calendar and back it up with a task reminder. You gain nothing by promising a quick turnaround if you can’t keep your word.

Triage

If you’re in a pickle – a deadline is approaching and you know you can’t meet it  – the best approach is to face it head on. I know this can be hard. We assume clients or other lawyers will yell at us. The truth is, people are more understanding than we give them credit for. Everyone has been there. They get it.

Your micro goal: Renegotiate deadlines you can’t meet.

You can start over and you can make changes. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2019

 

Take a WIFF!

Arson, theft, floods, windstorms, landslides, earthquakes, illness….  These are not pleasant topics of conversation.  So much so that we easily talk ourselves into believing “Nothing will happen to me.”  But as this excerpt illustrates, we are all vulnerable. Emergencies can and do happen. You owe it to yourself, your family, your employees, and your clients to prepare.  So follow along with me and learn how:

Copyright 2010 Beverly Michaelis

How to Take a Vacation from Your Practice

We all need a break.  We all want a vacation.  So why is it that our loved ones practically have to drag us, kicking and screaming, from the office?

I Can’t Afford It

“If I’m not at the office, I can’t bill.  If I can’t bill, I won’t get paid.”  True enough, but there is a solution:  budget for your vacation.  A bit of research and number crunching is in order here.  First, calculate your vacation expenses. This should be relatively easy.  Next, quantify the lost revenue you need to replace during your time out of the office.  Now that you know how much you need, begin setting aside funds every week to meet your financial goal.  If necessary, find little ways to cut back that can really add up: like bringing your lunch to work, deferring your daily Starbucks fix, using public transportation, or telecommuting.  Saving weekly will keep you on track and help manage expectations. If you’re just getting started, then your plans this year may be more modest.  Next year, you can begin saving for your summer vacation in January.

I’m Too Busy

Work will never go away, but I guarantee that if you look ahead in your calendar you will find a block of time with no commitments.  Even if you haven’t made plans yet, block the time out now before your calendar fills up.  If you have a habit of backsliding, enlist your family as enforcers.  This time should be sacred.  If you need an extra incentive, consider non-refundable travel reservations.

Preparation is Key

If you’re a member of a firm, going on vacation is a matter of meeting with other lawyers who will be covering cases during your absence.  If you are a sole practitioner, use the buddy system.  Find a colleague who is experienced in your practice area and willing to cover for you.  This arrangement is usually reciprocal and is helpful if you have an unexpected absence from the office due to injury or a medical condition.

Get a game plan in place:

  • Notify clients, opposing counsel, judges, or other appropriate parties that you will be out of the office;
  • Prep your files.  They should be well-organized and current, with status memos so your buddy can easily step in if needed;
  • Create a “Countdown Schedule.”  Identify what needs to be done when and whether certain tasks can wait until your return;
  • Allow for wind down.  As your vacation approaches, leave time in your schedule to finish up last minute work.  Reduce or refer out new matters;
  • Train staff.  Do they have a clear understanding of office procedures?  How will they screen client calls during your absence?  Give them parameters for contacting you or your buddy in the event of an emergency.
  • Resist constantly checking voice mail, e-mail, or text messages.  Technology is a God-send, but part of rejuvenation is taking a break from our instant Internet society. Checking in is okay, but stick to a schedule to avoid obsessing over what is going on back at the office.  Remember – you have an emergency plan in place.  If something happens, staff or your buddy will get a hold of you.
  • Avoid post-vacation overload.  Just as you blocked out dates to go on vacation, allow yourself time to get back up-to-speed.  Otherwise, you’re right back where you started.

Give yourself and your family a well-deserved break.  With a bit of organization, you can budget for (and enjoy) your time off.

Copyright 2010 Beverly Michaelis

Many thanks to Tanya Hanson, who permitted me to utilize her terrific article, Plan Now for Your Summer Vacation or Sabbatical, which originally appeared in the PLF publication, In Brief in May 2004.