Like most businesses, small to medium-sized law firms depend on business as usual to meet their revenue targets and cover expenses. Most can withstand an economic downturn, the loss of an important client, the sudden need for new technology hardware, etc. Preparing for a longer-term threat is a different.
We are facing a pandemic. While its lethal rate is low (around 3% – not insignificant but it could have been a lot worse), it brings with it other threats that could be far more deadly to our firms. This includes financial panic which has already affected financial markets; practical concerns about travel, entertainment, dining, etc. which is causing smaller businesses to falter; and the reality that at some point, a good portion of your staff and lawyers may either be home sick, or preemptively in quarantine if members of their household have been exposed or are sick. We need to do what we can to prepare now for what might be a difficult year.
I want to caution that I am not a health expert, nor am I an expert on business continuity plans. That said, I’m a business strategist who has been trained in emergency response and has assisted with the development of business continuity programs. So for what they are worth, here are my tips for preparing for a possible pandemic:
- Stay calm:
Many people who contract COVID-19 experience mild to moderate flu symptoms. And exposure can be somewhat limited by regular hand-washing, and keeping common surfaces (like door plates and handles, banisters, counter tops, etc.) disinfected regularly. Also, keep in mind that we live in a part of the world where great medical attention is more readily available. But the biggest benefit of living here during this challenging time is that whatever we’re facing is still in front of us. We have time to make decisions and take steps that help to limit exposure within our firms – and that’s a gift.
- Prepare for the long-haul:
This won’t be an overnight issue. I understand that incidences of sickness may increase between now and the summer, drop off slightly due to the warmer weather, and pick up again through the fall and winter. Keep this in mind when creating your business continuity plan.
- Bulk up on Supplies
A surprising amount of supplies come from countries now infected with the virus. Do what you can to bring in extra supplies (while you can) to ensure you can carry on business even if supplies get more difficult to find.
- Be Liberal with Sick Days
This sickness is contagious. The best way to limit exposure is to ensure people who might be sick stay home. You DO NOT want individuals who feel symptoms of flu coming on to go to work because they think that’s the most loyal thing to do, or because they are out of sick days. Start by educating members of your firm on what symptoms to look for, and by being clear with your lawyers and staff that once the sickness comes to your city, it will not be beneficial for them to be stoic and come into work when they feel sick. In fact, they will be putting everyone in the firm at risk. Next, consider allowing additional sick days for the remainder of the year. Remind people that this is for the benefit of everyone’s health and should not be abused. Will you get some abuses anyway? Probably. But in the long-run, you’ll be better-served by putting up with some under-productivity from this than from loosing the better part of your staff for an elongated period of time.
- Prepare to Work Remotely:
While individuals might be truly sick for a period of time, they will also require a longer period of time in isolation despite feeling much better. Or some members of your firm might be in isolation due to possible infection of someone in their house. Ensure that everyone is able to work remotely. This might mean working with IT to bump up internet capabilities and install software, providing training to lawyers and staff, etc. You’ll also want to develop alternatives to client meetings, such as video-conferencing (if you and your clients have that capability), or Skype.
- Check Your Insurance:
Check your insurance policies to see what is and is not covered, both from a “business interruption” perspective as well as from a short-term disability perspective.
- Build in Redundancy:
Consider the individuals (lawyers and staff) on whom your firm depends, and find ways to create redundancy around them. Lawyers on major accounts should have a buddy who gets to know the client and can step in if needed. For staff who are in critical roles, divide their responsibilities and ensure at least one other person can handle each function for a period of time. This is a great practice in normal times; but especially critical in anticipation of a pandemic.
- Keep Your Clients Informed:
Your leadership team should meet regularly to determine a common message for clients. If it’s business as usual, say that. If you decide to reduce in-firm meetings for a period of time to limit everyone’s exposure, say that and explain the alternatives available. Your clients will be going through the same challenges and will appreciate your honesty and proactive suggestions.
- Limit Daily Exposure:
Institute temporary policies that will help to limit the spread of germs. Perhaps your office might consider a “no handshake” policy until the New Year? Consider leaving hand sanitizers throughout the office. Perhaps bathrooms could have antiseptic wipes for use on counter tops and door handles. Make sure everyone knows how to wash their hands properly (don’t laugh, it needs to be done properly to be effective). Have a policy of wiping down common areas with disinfectant after meetings (reception desk, boardroom tables and doors, kitchen counter tops, reception area surfaces).
When I do strategic planning with my clients, I often encourage them to maintain an emergency fund equivalent to six months of operating expenses for such occasions. That’s not much help to firms that have not already done this…but does encourage them to consider this in future. For now, understand that some of your clients may not financially survive this pandemic; others may be severally hampered I terms of their business goals. This will trickle down to individual lawyer billings. Law firms will need to decide if they are going to carry their team members through this challenge, or if they are going to reduce their expenses through lay-offs. Of course, such actions are not necessary at this point in time and with luck, it will never come to that. But I would always encourage partnerships to talk about possible scenarios and resulting policies well in advance of an emergency when our thinking tends to be less logical and more emotional. My hope is that law Partnerships would decide to be steadfast and compassionate through the tough times.
Let’s hope that we don’t need this level of planning, but do it anyway in case we do.
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