It’s official: we are headed into a recession and possibly a depression. And we’re headed into this abyss while still in quarantine, which may last until there’s a vaccine and the time needed to inoculate everyone. Government assistance – for those who qualify – helps, but can’t last forever. How do we get out of this one?!
Law firms are said to be recession-proof because whether the economy is going up or down, legal services are needed. But that doesn’t mean that all law firms will survive. Those who insist on running the way they have with slight accommodations for isolation are depending on this being a temporary situation. If they’re wrong, that strategy might not take them through the entire crisis. Further, law firm resilience in a bad economy relies on the existence of counter-cyclical practice areas: when one practice goes down, another starts to rise. Law firms that either don’t have this diversity or don’t understand how it works my not have the ability to ride out this storm.
The smart move to surviving whatever is coming is to have several strategies in play:
Plan A is short-term…it might take you well into the summer. This is a plan to survive these months in the hope that this is, indeed, temporary. If you have done what I’ve been cautioning firms to do for years – created a war chest of six months of operating expenses – and if this is short-term then you can ride it out.
Most firms have started by tightening their belt; shutting down all discretionary spending. And while there have been layoffs, firms have been anxious about burning bridges with workers they may well need in the future. But the fact is, there isn’t enough work out there to keep everyone busy, and Partnerships can’t bankroll semi-productive employees for very long. At some point, your firm will need to be honest about what it needs to survive in the short term.
Next, find out who is still busy and throw your resources behind those practices. Remove administrative duties from those lawyers; reallocated the best support staff to them; support them with whatever marketing they feel they can do/is appropriate right now. Practice areas are a law firm’s insurance policy. Let the thriving practices thrive right now. For the moment, they will help to offset those practices that are less busy.
And finally, keep in timeline in mind for revisiting whether you need a Plan A or a Plan B strategy. For example, by early July we should know what the rest of the summer and the fall might look like. Run your Plan A until then and then formally re-assess. Don’t let that re-assessment slip because “things are going fine”.
You can consider anything that takes us past the summer to require a move to Plan B. But the planning for Plan B should begin now.
Plan B requires that learn a different way of practising law. Long-term survival may require rethinking both what we practice, as well as how we practise. The key word these days is “pivot”. We’re not trying to change the firm’s ultimately service offering. It will still be a law firm. Just hopefully a more profitable one than it is today.
What You Practice:
• As before, start by identifying pockets of existing or future productivity. Those might be different in the future than they have been in the past. If you have somewhat independent practices that can carry on with minimal support, allow them to continue. They may not be the best “team” members, but they are providing a vital service to the firm in terms of revenue. Let them do their thing for the foreseeable future.
Next, determine what practice areas will be busy in future. Think about it from two perspectives:
- An elongated isolation period between now and when there is a vaccine…12 to 18 months from now.
- An “on-off” isolation environment where we are periodically given permission to open up a few more services.
Some clients will survive by taking their business on-line. Some will survive by figuring out how to take the best advantage of those open periods. Some will seek to sell their business to their competitors, some may go into bankruptcy. Think about all of your clients and what their options are – thus, what their legal needs might be. Collectively, this will tell you what areas of law you should have in place for them. Adjust your service offerings accordingly.
• Once you’ve determined which practice areas you’ll need, start to allocate resources accordingly. Traditionally, law firm determined their service offerings by the desired practice areas of their lawyers. This reverses that order. It won’t happen over night as some lawyers will need to retool and retrain. But that’s happening anyway with the PI bar. Take more control of the process to ensure that you firm’s services will be relevant for the world of the future, and that your lawyers will be as busy as possible. Incidentally, the lawyers who are willing to be flexible may be your strongest team members. Some lawyers may no longer be appropriate for the firm.
How You Practice:
- While some law firms truly embraced the virtual office, the majority still rely on bricks and mortar, and face-to-face meetings and document signing. We’re quickly learning that this business dependence is vulnerable. Experts are saying that this pandemic may not in fact be a “once in a lifetime” event. And the clients that survive might decide that they like not having to answer their lawyer’s beck and call…. that they prefer having their lawyer deliver content to them instead. My youngest son is working from home and once the crisis is over, will be asking his company if he can continue that way, at least a few days a week. This event will forever change some people. So, flip the switch. Instead of making do in this new environment, embrace it. Start making plans for a more decentralized method of practice; one that doesn’t rely so heavily on clients coming into a physical firm at any stage of their relationship with the firm.
- Create super-teams that can work virtually or in-person. Super-equip them (tech and training) to be as productive as possible. Teach lawyer/staff teams how to be effective. This isn’t about supporting a single lawyer’s practice. It’s about creating and supporting high-performance teams. Assistants may work as a pod, providing services for whomever in the team most needs it as the time. Lawyers in the team create absolute consistency in approach to make it easier for their support pod to support them all. Communication is key to the success of high-performance teams…especially those that might be working remotely at least part of the time. This is a very different way of working. Don’t try to “fit” lawyers and staff members into this process. Create a totally new process that the lawyers and assistants need to buy into.
- Determine the staff you need. This should be determined by your areas of productivity or business units. Each business unit should have a plan in place to estimate their future productivity and predict the corresponding support they’ll need. This list, collectively, determines your overall staffing needs. Ideally, this will result in greater efficiencies and less overall staff. You’ll also want to look carefully at the staff members you choose. You’ll need those who can work remotely when needed, remain highly productive, can serve a wider range of lawyers (aren’t tied to a particular one), and don’t need to be watched too closely. Determine you space needs. Depending on how much of your firm learns to operate remotely, you might not need as much physical real estate as you currently maintain.
- Invest in HR, training, IT managers and technicians. These roles will be slightly different in a remote economy. Redefine these roles and responsibilities. Focus is on creating a platform for productivity first. Marketing can come later.
Like everyone else, I will be very happy if by mid-summer we are able to push a button and everything will return back to normal. But the experts are telling us that normal won’t exist until there is a vaccination. We’ll soon see -by observing several US States – what happens when communities ignore scientists’ warnings and re-open all services. We do know that Japan’s medical system is on the verge of collapse due to re-opening and then facing a second wave. My bet is that our leaders will be far more conservative. That doesn’t mean that we should allow our economy to collapse. We must do everything within our power to keep business going, as best we can.
Law firms are a significant employer and contributor to society and the economy. And you are in a position to help many other businesses through this event as well. We are all well-served when our law firm sector is active and stable. For this reason, I would like to help. I am happy to provide one hour of free conversation/advice to any law firm in Canada in an effort to help guide them (to the degree that I can) toward greater stability and productivity in these challenging times. Just email me if you would like to take advantage of this offer. Please note that I’ve earmarked a certain amount of hours for this offer, so appointments will be available on a first come, first served basis.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org