Many lawyers are worrying about their professional survival during the coronavirus pandemic. Courthouses have shuttered. Lawyers at small firms, who are essentially running their own small businesses, are applying for payroll protection loans, and worrying about how to pay their employees and cover rent. Big Law is canceling summer associate programs, delaying first-year associate classes, and either enacting significant payroll cuts that are expected to become permanent, or laying off large numbers of staff and associates.
The tsunami of layoffs that started in the gig economy, swelled into the hospitality and retail sectors and across blue-collar manufacturing, is now crashing into white-collar America. Those who can work remotely, are now seeing their jobs disappear. Layoffs are spanning sectors and income groups that traditionally do not apply for unemployment assistance. That includes the professional service class. That includes lawyers.
Within a month of the pandemic breaking, some 22 million people filed for unemployment. Last week, those numbers swelled by 4.4 million more people. Economists are no longer wondering what will happen: it is clear that we are on the brink of the largest gutting of the U.S. economy since the Great Depression. Estimates are that we’ll lose 12.8 million jobs in the hospitality, food & retail sectors, 1.5 million more in manufacturing, and 3.4 million jobs in the professional services industry as well. Lawyers are feeling the pain.
Here’s what I think: never have we been closer to our clients and their plights. It’s our struggle, too. One day last week I took calls through Court Buddy’s COVID-19 hotline, where we offer free, credible, practical information and assistance to people impacted by the pandemic. One of our callers was in tears about having to work from home when her apartment had mold and was noisy. She was afraid of losing her job if she couldn’t work successfully from home. She needed to know how to talk to her landlord, or what type of letter to write. Later that day, I was on the phone with Court Buddy’s own landlord for our office space, inquiring about any available rent reduction or deferral programs — since our entire team is working remotely and not using our space. I see myself in the people who call into our hotline: people who have financial stress and anxiety, people worried about their health and their jobs (or those of their colleagues, friends and loved ones), people who need help.
I’ve watched this crisis unfold in real-time. We run a platform aimed at making working with a lawyer easier, accessible, and affordable for individuals, families and small business owners. We match those clients with attorneys — typically, solo and small firm attorneys — and we help manage the cases. Our specialty has always been litigation services, nationwide. Our clients are the ones who are struggling first during this pandemic.
Solo and small firm lawyers have, of course, been hit hard by the pandemic, too. Where in the past it was extremely reasonable to charge $250- $400 for a consultation and first service, what we’re hearing now is that it’s too expensive for many people. Paying anything for legal services might be out of reach for the 65 million Americans in the middle, at least, right now.
What we’ve seen in the past two months is a three-fold surge in inquiries. The phone lines, chat lines, and site visits are spiking almost beyond our capacity to respond. But people are no longer calling in to ask “can you find me a good lawyer,” rather, they want to know how to file for unemployment, how to make sure they have health care, how to handle their outsized debt, how to ask for rent relief, how to educate their children at home (and what to do if their children are not being educated at home). We are watching the pandemic play out in real-time: more people need help, but fewer of them feel they can pay for it.
What should lawyers do? What can we do?
We all need to keep the lights on, as we try to serve the millions of people who need our help. Court Buddy has decided to be more generous with our time, our resources, our expertise. We are prioritizing people over profits. It’s a business decision, and it’s one I believe attorneys should adopt during this pandemic: focus on the business relationships you are building right now, not on your short-term revenue stream. This will pass, and people will remember how you treated them when they were in need. Even if they cannot pay you for all — or even any — of your time right now, they will come back if you treat them well.
We’re using our network of attorneys to try our best to step-up and meet the need, and I would be doing the same thing if I were still in private practice: finding ways to give away more for less. As a company we’ve partnered with the attorneys on our platform, as well as law students and other qualified volunteers, to staff hotlines, curate news articles, create blog content, provide a Resources Directory with useful, actionable links, sample letters, and forms, and to host Legal Meet-Ups, where people can have their questions answered by lawyers in real-time, for free. We want to give our attorneys a platform they can use to be of service as well, and in being of service, make connections, promote themselves and their practices. You can make similar outreach efforts, and do well by doing good.
Here are five things you can do today to cement your client relationships for the future.
- Give away free consultations. Fifteen minutes of your time, or even a half-hour, is well-spent if it develops a future client relationship.
- Contact your clients and check-in with them about their circumstances and budget. If they need to pivot and postpone or scale-back the scope of work you are doing for them, think of how thrilled they are going to be if you are the one to initiate that call, rather than if they have to make it. If you do so, you’ve just positioned yourself as a valuable business partner for your client.
- Consider offering your clients a fixed deliverable for a fixed price wherever practical. Budget certainty is valuable when money is tight.
- Offer your clients payment plans.
- Write down new bills and existing balances, and transfer balances to payment plans. Work with your clients.
We’re implementing this advice. We are doubling-down on building our long-term relationships with our potential clients. We’ve embraced being revenue-negative (for now). We’ve brought on an army of volunteers to help us; we’ve launched an entire initiative around the idea of being of service, for free. And we invite you to join us. Whether you join our platform or not, we hope that you will answer more calls. Give away more free advice. Write down bills for clients. We think that taking these steps now will cement your partnerships with those clients: loyalty to you and your firm is priceless.
This pandemic will pass, but the business relationships you build right now will remain. The goodwill will last.