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 Measured in COVID time, which eerily resembles dog years, the survey feels outdated.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

Automate Something – Anything!

Automation is the answer to improving workflows and productivity. If a given action requires entries in multiple systems – say opening a new client file – automate it. Tired of performing the same redundant task? Automate it. Want to save time? Automate! To learn how, read the story of Joe Lawyer.

Virtually anything can be automated – document production, emails, marketing, or client management. Avoid overwhelming yourself or staff by starting small. Pick one area of office operations. Diagnose what works and what doesn’t. Get staff input. Identify any steps you may be performing out of habit that no longer serve a purpose and eliminate them. That alone will improve efficiency! Now that you’ve whittled it down to the essentials consider how technology can help. Do some research, starting with a better understanding of what your existing software can do. Check out Joe’s story for ideas, then visit the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. You can also call your friendly practice management advisor for suggestions.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2019.

Should You Take a Cue from Uber?

Getting your “side hustle” on is Uber’s way of suggesting that you join their team to earn extra money. Lawyers sometimes face this dilemma when first transitioning into private practice – giving up a regular paycheck is a high price to pay in exchange for the uncertainty of going solo.

For other lawyers, the practice of law is a second career.  Does this mean they are required to relinquish their first?

Not necessarily.  However, practicing on the side or in addition to another career, does raise some red flags.

Conflicts of Interest

Assuming your employer agrees to let you “moonlight” (and that’s a big assumption), you must address potential conflicts.  At first blush, you might think this concern applies only to lawyers who currently work in a law firm and wish to “work on the side” in a solo practice.  Not true!  If your other job is working as a real estate broker, mortgage broker, financial planner, psychologist, mediator, arbitrator, etc., you must also screen for conflicts.

In her article, Multidisciplinary practice: When Wearing Two Hats May Get You Burned  Helen Hierschbiel points out:

Recognizing and avoiding conflicts of interest is one of the more common concerns for lawyers who have side businesses, particularly when their clients do business with those other companies. Oregon RPC 1.7(a)(2) provides that a current conflict of interest exists if “there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer…” Thus, when there is a significant risk that a lawyer’s personal or other financial interests in a non-legal business will materially limit the lawyer’s responsibilities to a client, that lawyer has a conflict under RPC 1.7(a)(2).

In addition, when a lawyer’s side business is doing business with the lawyer’s client, consideration must be given to the limitations set forth in RPC 1.8(a), which provides more stringent requirements for obtaining client consent than those under RPC 1.7(b). RPC 1.8(a) provides:

A lawyer shall not enter into a business transaction with a client or knowingly acquire an ownership, possessory, security or other pecuniary interest adverse to a client unless:

1. The transaction and terms on which the lawyer acquires the interest are fair and reasonable to the client and are fully disclosed and transmitted in writing in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client;

2. The client is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent legal counsel on the transaction; and

3. The client gives informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.

Note:  Learn more about this issue and other common conflict traps by attending Limiting Exposure to Conflicts on October 25, 2017.

Other Ethical Concerns

A “side practice” coupled with another job also raises potential concerns about advertising, solicitation, and fee sharing.  Here are Helen’s comments:

Advertising
“Oregon RPC 7.1 generally provides that any communication about a lawyer may not be false or misleading. Determining whether a statement is false may be simple, but assessing whether it is misleading can be more difficult. The cautious approach in making that assessment requires considering how the statement is likely to be interpreted by an unsophisticated consumer. Thus, OSB Formal Op 2005-108 concludes that a lawyer who has an active mediation practice may advertise the practice under “counselors — marriage, family, child and individual” sections of the yellow pages as long as the advertisement reflects the lawyer’s status as a lawyer offering mediation services.”

Solicitation
“Lawyers should also take care to observe the ban on in-person solicitation of legal business when providing non-legal services. The non-legal business may not be used to solicit clients with legal needs in a manner that violates RPC 7.3… (L)awyers would be wise to exercise extra caution when confronted in their non-legal business with an individual who has legal needs as well.”

Fee Sharing
“… (L)awyers should be mindful when setting up an ancillary business, not to allow non-lawyers any control or influence over their law practice.”

Employment Law and Liability Implications

Before you set up a side practice, check your employer’s policy and personnel manuals.  Some employers prohibit moonlighting altogether, others require preapproval of “outside employment activities.”  If you are a contract lawyer and a true independent contractor you should be completely free to have your own solo practice and perform contract work for other lawyers.  Be sure the principal lawyers who hire you agree.  Contact the OSB Professional Liability Fund for more information on setting up a contract practice.

Query:  If a lawyer commits malpractice in the course and scope of his or her “side practice,” could the lawyer’s primary law firm employer be held vicariously liable?  (Food for thought…. as clients have attempted to hold firms responsible for the negligence of “sole practitioners” who were leasing space in the firm’s office suite.)

Professional Liability Coverage

Lawyers engaged in the private practice of law in the State of Oregon are required to carry professional liability coverage through the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund.  This requirement applies equally to full-time and part-time practitioners.  In other words, if you are a lawyer in private practice in Oregon (as defined in the PLF plan), it does not matter whether you provide legal services 50 hours per week or 10 hours per week – coverage is required in either case – and the cost of coverage does not vary based on the hours worked.  With that said, liability coverage in Oregon is complex.  Your best bet is to contact the Professional Liability Fund for more information.

Is it Worth it?

It may not be.  If you are not an active member of the Oregon State Bar, it will be necessary to pay bar dues.  If you intend to engage in the private practice of law and require professional liability coverage, the cost is currently $3500 per year (assuming coverage is not prorated and no discounts apply).

To assess whether a “side practice” makes sense, go through all the steps you would normally follow to set up a full-time law practice.  This includes forming an entity (or not), naming your business, choosing a space option, developing a business plan and budget, opening appropriate bank accounts, consulting with a CPA, creating (and implementing) a marketing plan, and establishing office systems.  If it sounds like your proposed “side practice” is getting more complicated by the minute, it is.  Don’t assume setting up a “side practice” is any less work than committing to the full-time private practice of law.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis
Eventbrite - Limiting Exposure to Conflicts

Choice of Entity for New Lawyers

coffee-cup-and-docs-bought-at-ssChoosing a legal structure and entity type for your law firm seems like an easy decision. But is it? Consider the following scenarios:

New lawyer establishes law practice with the goal of becoming an associate

If this is you, being a straight-up sole proprietor may be the best choice, assuming you have no employees.

A sole proprietorship is the simplest and most common structure chosen to start a business:

  • No formal action is required to start your business
  • It’s inexpensive
  • No papers to file
  • Nothing to dissolve
  • Simple tax preparation

When you’re ready to make the move from running your own practice to becoming an associate, the transition couldn’t be any easier.

On the downside, sole proprietorship means you have unlimited contractual liability and potentially higher taxes.

But how significant is the liability exposure?

Lenders, property managers, and others with whom you do business will typically require a personal guarantee for loans, leases, or other business transactions.  A personal guarantee means YOU are on the hook, even if you form a professional corporation or single-member limited liability company. As a result, contractual liability protection doesn’t count for much in evaluating whether to form an entity.

The real choice between sole proprietorship and forming a PC or single-member LLC comes down to taxes and the trade-off between potentially saving money (with entity formation) and simplicity (going with the sole proprietorship model).  Talk to a CPA so you can make an informed decision.

What if I’m planning to practice business law or intellectual property?

Why would your area of practice make a difference?  And didn’t we just say entity choice is driven by risk aversion – wreaking whatever benefit you can from contractual liability protection – and saving money – courtesy of a lower tax burden?  So what difference could practicing business and IP law possibly make?

If your goal is to help clients form entities and protect intellectual property, it could look a little odd that you haven’t followed the usual formalities in establishing your own business.

Fair or not, client perception counts.  So does marketing.  And part of marketing is how you brand your law firm.  Appending a PC or LLC designation to your business name may actually be an important part of how you choose to present yourself to potential clients.

If you plan to have employees …

This is an entirely different ballgame.  Without a doubt, form an entity. If you are a solo, choose a PC or single-member limited liability company (LLC).

Both entity types offer liability protection for non-professional torts committed by your employees.  The contractual liability protection discussed above will also kick in.  Talk to a CPA, but the likelihood is that forming an entity will also result in a noticeable tax savings.

If you plan to practice with others …

This is another occasion when forming an entity is a no brainer.  Do it for the avoidance of liability discussed in the preceding paragraph and for the limitation on vicarious liability.  The ideal structure may be to form a sole owner PC or single-member LLC that belongs to the firm’s entity. This may allow you, as the individual lawyer, to completely escape personal vicarious liability.

Multi-tier entities are complex, administratively messy, and no longer have the tax benefits they once enjoyed.  BUT avoiding vicarious liability is a big plus.  To learn more about this strategy, read Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice and Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, referenced below.

Being fully informed in the premises

This post skates over some pretty significant content that deserves more in-depth thought.  Do your homework.  Recommended reading includes:

  • Sole Proprietorship as a business structure choice, courtesy of the Small Business Administration.  While you’re on the SBA site, poke around.  There is a ton of great content here.  And don’t forget about the help and resources available from the Small Business Development Center.
  • Law Firm Choice of Entity, from the ABA Young Lawyers Division.
  • Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice in Oregon, available on the PLF website. Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, available on the PLF website.  Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Tax Considerations for Choice of Business Entity, Chapter 3 of the OSB CLE Seminar Handbook Broadbrush Taxation: Tax Law for the Nonspecialist (2015). Available in BarBooks behind the member login on the OSB website.

Most importantly

Talk with a CPA.  I can’t say this enough.  This is one of the best investments you can make in getting your practice up and running.  A CPA can help you determine whether forming an entity will result in tax savings.  He or she can also help you select an entity type – which is highly driven by tax considerations.

You’ll also learn about property tax, business income tax, business licensing, and other obligations you may not be familiar with – all of which are determined by where your business is located.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis