Pandemic VIII: Law firm transitions

My previous post in this series offered lawyers four suggestions for carrying out triage during these first several weeks of the pandemic. Perhaps you’ve considered those ideas, maybe adopted one or two in your law business, and hopefully have seen a few early indications that they’ll have some value.

But regardless of the methods you’ve been using to keep your law business going through the early days of this crisis, you can’t triage indefinitely. At some point, as everybody gets a little more oriented to the chaos around us, you’ll need to turn your mind to some short- and medium-term ways to solidify your law business throughout the pandemic and start transitioning your firm to the next stage of its development. That’s what I hope to tackle in this post.

I want to be clear at the start about time frames and expectations. It’s been about three weeks since I began this series with an assessment of the public-health crisis presented by SARS-CoV-2 and its implications. During that time, most countries have “bent their curve” somewhat, but only a few have flattened it, and some (like the US and Britain) sometimes appear to be aiming for the opposite effect. The chances of a quick resolution to the pandemic were always slim, but outside of a few forward-thinking and fast-acting places like South Korea and New Zealand, they now appear to be none.

So I think this is what you should probably expect: The pandemic has at least another 12 to 18 months to run before a vaccine is developed and eventually deployed. During this time, we should anticipate a deep and wide global recession compounded by rolling lockdowns, supply chain breakdowns, waves of debilitating illness, and a few potential outlier occurrences that aren’t worth serious contemplation. Actual events could take a sunnier-than-expected turn, for which we would all be grateful; but prudence would suggest assuming a less-than-optimal course ahead of us and planning accordingly.

What we’re entering, then, is kind of a “siege” period, to be followed by a long and slow recovery as we edge towards a new post-pandemic economy and society. I have no idea how long either of these periods will last, but depending on your type of work, I would operate on the assumption that a significant portion of what you’d consider your “ordinary course of business” work will be suspended for some time to come. I would go further, in fact, and build into your calculations the likelihood that although some of that work should return in the new world, a pretty decent chunk of it will not.

Nobody knows when this will be “over.” But most everyone agrees that the world we wake up to on that day will be markedly, maybe even radically different than the one we inhabited before this all started. There is no “normal” to get back to anymore. The market in which you used to sell legal services is gone, and the one that eventually replaces it — the new, new legal economy — will be sufficiently different that how you ran your business before is not how you’ll run your business then.

Therefore, both for the short- and the medium-term, you need to start making some adjustments to your law business. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll figure out which adjustments to abandon and which to keep, and to get better at the latter. Here are eight potential adjustments for your consideration, some for immediate deployment, others for further down the road.

1. Narrow or drop your ancillary work. I expect that in your law business, as in most businesses everywhere, the adage “80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your clients, and vice versa” applies. Now might be the time to finally clear out some or much of the 80% of your work that generates just 20% of your revenue. Unless that 80% includes a burgeoning area of practice that you’ve just launched and that you reasonably anticipate will survive the pandemic, this category was contributing little to your bottom line two months ago and is now probably a break-even distraction at best. In a crisis, you need to focus on essentials.

Review your last 18-24 months of financial statements and look for that 80-20 split, seeking out the backbone and beating heart of your revenue and profitability in the 20% — most likely, either a few major clients or a few select practice areas, and prioritize them. Obviously, if one of your major clients just filed for bankruptcy, don’t include it on the critical list — but do look for similar businesses in its industry that you could target, or even better, stay in touch with the principal to see if you can assist with her own transition. The range and capacity of your law business (along with your personal bandwidth) have been restricted by the pandemic; you should narrow your own focus in turn.

2. Start a government benefits practice. In an economic meltdown like this, when private businesses shut their doors and the state starts sending people money to live on, it suddenly becomes very important to know how to access government benefit programs. Unfortunately, such programs are often labyrinthine and user-hostile even at the best of times, which these are decidedly not. People have a dire and immediate need to navigate these systems, but many aren’t in a position to fully access them.

So you could become known as the go-to (or at least, a go-to) expert in your area concerning the sorts of benefits people are entitled to receive, under what circumstances they can be accessed, and how to actually navigate all the obstacles and red tape to obtain them. Many clients might be glad to have a lawyer handle the whole process for them for an affordable flat fee. If you get enough business of this type and develop robust routines for accessing benefits, you could even automate, scale, and expand the geographic scope of this work beyond your region.

3. Take on the government as a client. The flip side of the previous coin is that the government (federal, state/provincial, and municipal) is going to be taking on many more responsibilities in the next year or two. This includes not just making financial payments, but also issuing health-care directives, criminalizing (or de-criminalizing) certain activities, vastly increasing taxing powers (all that benefit money has to come from somewhere), and so forth. But few government legal departments have anywhere near the capacity for this type of mandate expansion.

Enter your law business: Working on a contract or agency basis, for a reasonable monthly fee, you could take on many legal aspects of the increased government role. Don’t underestimate the potential here: Although nobody wants and few people seriously expect another Great Depression, remember how much the role of the government expanded with the New Deal in the 1930s. It is plausible that a Green New Deal, or variations in other countries, might be in the works a year from now. Your law business could start today to develop the relationships needed to get some of that work.

4. Become a business conversion expert. Auto manufacturers making ventilators? Liquor companies making hand sanitizer? Clothing stores making masks? Even if some of these stories are a little over-sold, the fact is that many businesses whose usual customer base has disappeared during this crisis are trying to shift gears to meet rapidly rising pandemic-driven demand in other areas. But there’s more involved in this kind of strategy than just the mechanical and procedural adjustments (which are all difficult enough). There’s also the legal aspects.

Businesses attempting to switch their production lines virtually overnight need rapid assistance with obtaining permits, getting environmental clearances, acquiring export licenses, getting employees trained and licensed, and so on — and you could be their legal counsel. You might even use your experiences here to start a series of podcasts or webinars in which you advise businesses considering such transitions about the issues they need to deal with, thereby creating potential clients in a whole new market for legal services that you’ve effectively invented.

5. Form a Mastermind group. Maybe you’ve already heard of Mastermind groups, helpfully defined by Wikipedia as “peer-to-peer mentoring groups used to help members solve their problems with input and advice from the other group members.” The concept is nearly 100 years old — interestingly, it was first coined shortly before the Wall Street crash of 1929. But Mastermind groups have become popular recently as a forum in which several people rely on each other for insights and directions, usually in a business context.

Why would this matter to you? Because Mastermind groups need a facilitator — someone who gathers the members together, conducts or leads the conversations, ensures that everyone gets a chance to say their piece, offers timely advice and insight, and keeps the conversations motoring along. Think about clients who share a common industry or personal issue, whether it’s CEOs or newly divorced parents. Think about Zoom meetings where they share their worries and solutions in a safe and confidential environment, hosted by a trusted advisor who charges them a monthly fee to organize and run their meetings. Now could be just the moment to try this out.

6. Do as much as you can on a flat-fee basis. Your clients, I’ll assume, have never liked being billed by the hour. I’d venture a guess that you and the other lawyers around you don’t love it, either. But you’ve all felt like you were stuck with it. Right now is your opportunity to finally change that — to run an experiment in real time to see whether flat-fee billing is practical, viable, and profitable. As I discussed in the previous post, offer to set up informal arrangements with your clients to do what you can for them in exchange for a digitally deposited monthly fee. You should get at least a few takers.

Continue to record the time you spend on these files, but only for your own internal review. Make contemporaneous notes about how productive you feel when working “off the clock.” At the end of each month, run the numbers on the flat-fee work and compare it to the hourly billed files. Which generated more revenue and profit? Which did you enjoy more? Which rewarded you for getting the job done faster and moving to the next thing? How did the client feel? How could you make the flat-fee work more profitable? Some legal tasks in the future, to be sure, will still be done hourly; but much of what lawyers do will be flat-fee. Start training your law business for this future now.

7. Build social capital. Even with all these activities and other billable work, odds are you’ll still have some professional time to fill. Now might therefore be an opportunity to build your social capital by reaching out to other members of your community, both legal and otherwise, and help to “produce public goods for a common good.” In a pandemic, there’ll be no shortage of ways in which you can meet local needs, help the less fortunate, create community value, and strengthen your networks of relationships. You do these things, of course, because it’s the right thing to do, especially in a crisis. But there are tangible long-term benefits to your law business, too.

In his terrific new book Lawyer Forward, Mike Whelan explains the meaning of social capital in the legal sector context. “The problem with the modern world is that we tend to ignore just how connected we all are,” he writes. “When we resist the isolating pressure of the traditional law firm model and instead connect with our communities, we’re creating opportunities for cooperation. That may look like friendship, or lawyer-client relationships, or leadership. However you build your social capital, you’re gathering a cooperative tribe.” Find your tribe and seek out opportunities to contribute to it, and perhaps even to lead it.

8. Put your employees on the innovation file. Even if every one of these suggestions pans out, you might still have under-utilized people at your firm, especially junior lawyers or support staff. The answer, as we discussed in the last post, is not to lay them off. It’s to get them busy modernizing your law business so that it’s ready for the post-COVID world. So put these people in charge of the following projects (if your business hasn’t taken these steps already) and have them report their progress to you on a monthly basis:

  • Enable electronic billing and payment
  • Move all your documents and data to the cloud
  • Refresh your website content in light of the pandemic
  • Investigate technology for carrying out basic legal tasks
  • Revise your internal processes for greater efficiency
  • Assemble detailed client intelligence databases
  • Run the numbers to calculate client and practice profitability

Many of these items might have been sitting on your “I Probably Should Do That Someday” list, but you and your people were too busy to get around to it. Well, today is Someday. Just as is the case with flat-fee pricing, all the foregoing elements are not going to be competitive advantages in the next legal market — they’re going to be business as usual. You need to be 100% ready to roll out a modern, 21st-century law business when the pandemic finally ends and a different legal world emerges. You can’t put off starting that process until the all-clear is finally given — this is one curve you need to be ahead of.

The reality is, there are a lot of ups and downs ahead of us. Lockdowns will be relaxed, then reinstated when it becomes clear we ventured back outside too soon. Illness will sweep through your own family or workplace, if it hasn’t already, shunting everything else to one side. In this extremely volatile environment, significant political, economic or environmental incidents will generate impacts far beyond what would normally be the case. Everyone is on an emotional roller-coaster ride of unknown duration, and as you and I can both testify, that wears us all down sooner or later.

So my final thought is to remember that no matter how important our work might seem to us, it’s not life. “Work-life balance” was always an insidious term that invited us to view these two concepts as opposing sides of the same coin. But life is a multi-faceted cube, not a coin, and work is just one side. Take a deep breath and remember: Everyone is in the same boat. Nobody has all the answers, and we’re all making mistakes every day as we plow into utterly uncharted territory. And that’s okay.

We’re on a long road to somewhere brand new, and we can’t see the end of it — but I guarantee you, there is an end to it, and we will get there. Set out on that road with patience, generosity of spirit, plenty of forgiveness, and a desire to make things a little better at each turn. Before you know it, you’ll have a large group of followers around you. Because that’s how you lead people through a crisis.



9 Comments

  1. George Beaton

    Hello from Australia Jordan
    Today’s is a particularly useful post: packed with practical suggestions; thank you.
    Stay Home. Stay Safe.
    All the best
    George

  2. Karen Meggitt

    Great read. Thanks!


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