Help: I’m worried about my law firm’s present and future because of COVID-19

Have clients and potential clients stopped engaging your law firm in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak? As I write this, the total worldwide cases have passed 300,000, and diagnosed US cases are approaching 27,000. By the time this is published, the numbers are, unfortunately, likely to be much worse.

Death and fear are in the air. The nation is shut down, socially and economically. And from what I can tell, people are largely divided into two camps.

There are those who have heeded the warnings and hunkered down, practicing “social distancing” by remaining in their homes and only venturing out for solo exercise and necessities like food and medicine. And then there are those who are using the “free time” to blow off steam, have parties on beaches, get the kids together to play baseball at the neighborhood school. Depending on their point of view, the camp of the “other” is either composed of wusses and fear mongers, or idiotic grandpa killers. (For the record, I’m hunkered down with my family at home as the science and news surrounding this pandemic are impossible to ignore.)

But whether they are hiding under their beds or out partying like it’s 1999, one thing that is true about almost every single person in today’s world. They are not thinking about their legal problems, just as they are not thinking about going to the dentist for a regular cleaning or to the eye doctor for a regular vision check (in fact, most people are actively thinking about how to avoid such things).

Even urgent legal problems have suddenly become less than urgent. In many places, authorities have made it clear that they will not be arresting people for petty crimes. Taxes due on April 15th? Not this year.

Certainly there are exceptions. We’ve seen a spike in traffic to law firm websites that focus on estate planning. And this makes sense because the cautious crowd is staying home worrying about dying themselves, or wondering if grandma and grandpa have a will.

Which persona is your typical law firm client?

If you’re a criminal defense attorney, chances are you make more money from people doing stupid things than you do from people doing evil things. If you’re a personal injury lawyer, stupidity and carelessness are your bread and butter. If you’re an estate planning attorney, caution is your jam. If you’re a medical malpractice lawyer, your practice targets those who are on the front line of this crisis.

You can do a simple exercise for every area of practice to help predict what the current and future behavior of your target clients will be. I’ve long said that, as lawyers, the best way to connect with, sell to, and represent our clients is to put ourselves into their shoes. Ask yourself what your typically client would be doing and thinking in normal times. Then ask yourself how your typical client’s thoughts and actions might be different as COVID-19 is spreading and people are dying, as the stock market is tanking, as restaurants and stores are closing, as travel is shut down, as people are losing their jobs. Unless you are their safety net, right now in this moment, your law firm and their legal problems may not be priority one.

Take a deep breath: For lawyers, this is the calm during the storm

Everything I’m about to say assumes that your law firm is not in dire straits because your overhead is killing you while your clients are busy focusing on non-legal matters of life and death, and wrestling the fears Americans normally are not forced to confront. If your firm is in dire financial shape, what I’m about to say will only matter if you 1) survive and 2) have good marketing in place to when the storm passes and the tsunami of legal work and opportunity (that I’ll speculate about below) arrives. If you are wondering how you’re going to survive, the first thing that you need to do is get moving. I’ll talk more about ways that you can rapidly turn things around in future posts.

After 10 years in private practice growing small firms in Washington State and Arizona (during which time I saw too many lawyers unwittingly navigate their firms into dire straits by blindly trusting and overpaying marketing agencies), the primary reason I started LawLytics was to empower my fellow lawyers to have world-class marketing while keeping their overhead low and remaining in control of their destiny. LawLytics makes this possible through the efficiency and scale of the LawLytics platform in partnership with the way that our customers use the platform to communicate with their clients and potential clients.

What smart law firms are doing right now

Most LawLytics law firms are in good shape to weather the current storm because their marketing overhead is fixed and low, and they are using this time to get ahead by putting effort into their marketing.

After the storm, for those law firms that have the right legal marketing mentality, and use the current calm period to position their firms, there will likely be a gold rush of business. What you do now, especially how you approach your law firm’s website, will determine whether, and to what extent, you’ll be able to capitalize when that time comes. While I do not have a crystal ball, my best guess is that the following will happen (amongst other things):

Impaired Driving Arrests Will Spike: Right now, DUI arrests are way down. This is because most people aren’t going anywhere, and those who are out partying on the beach encounter fewer other vehicles to crash into on the roads. Bars are closed. Alcoholics are drinking at home. Social drinkers are either not drinking or having cute Zoom parties with BYO Chardonnay. When bars reopen, both types will likely waste little time making up for lost time as they shed their cabin fever and venture out.

Domestic Violence Crimes Will Need To Be Sorted Out: Right now families are stuck together indoors. While this provides great bonding opportunities for some, for those with an abuser (or a person who is prone to becoming an abuser) in the house, what’s happening indoors may be scarier than what’s going on outside. As the confinement in close quarters draws on, there will be more domestic violence incidents, resulting in a backlog in currently closed or hobbled courts. In fact, we’ve already seen criminal defense and DUI attorneys who normally don’t focus on DV cases but who are good at marketing pivot to them in their marketing.

Divorce Consultations and Filings Will Spike: Spouses who are stuck together who might have been considering divorce before the pandemic now have forced time to either sort it out together, or, as will likely be the case for many, to get on each-others last nerves and move beyond that breaking point. And while most will not move out or initiate a separation or divorce while sheltering in place, you can bet that once it’s safe to go out again, there will be a rush. There are already reports of this happening in China. And, you can bet that those who are stuck together but considering divorce are researching their options (and finding your law firm’s website if you are doing it right). And thought they may not reach out to you today, the impression that your website can make on them today (or in the near future) will make it much more likely that they will contact you and hire you when their confinement is done.

Bankruptcies Will Spike: We’ve all seen this movie before. Even before the COVID-19 induced financial strife, household debt levels were showing flashbacks to 2007, even while myths that economic gravity no longer existed ran rampant. The economy was solid (or so the public was told). Interest rates were low. Welcome to the very beginning of “The Roaring ’20’s, Part Deux – The Credit Card Edition.” And investors, just weeks ago, seemed desperate to deploy cash into businesses, regardless of how recession-proof the businesses and target markets. But for some businesses and professions (not lawyers), the music has not only temporarily stopped, but even when it’s safe to go out again, will likely not bounce back quickly enough. For example, businesses and workers who (begrudgingly) traveled to conferences in the past may not be excited to jump back onto planes and pack into freezing conference halls with hundreds or thousands of others collecting swag and watching clocks. And who will be the first to get back on a cruise ship? The hangover will likely last longer than some businesses’ ability to stay afloat. Despite government assurances, most small businesses and individuals who need a “bailout” will find the only viable bailout option to be in the form of business or personal bankruptcy. Between lost business, lost jobs and the accumulation of medical liabilities, when the dust clears get ready for bankruptcy lawyers who market well now to be overwhelmed with new business.

Foreclosures Will Spike: As of Q3 2019 there was $11 trillion in US house mortgage debt, and another $3 trillion of debt held in commercial. Even with interest rates on much of this debt at or near historic lows, the writing was on the wall (at least in some locations) even before COVID-19 became a factor. With many local markets already overvalued pre-pandemic, with equities portfolios currently decimated, and with small businesses and professionals reeling, many homeowners will likely be unable to make their mortgage payments or may make the financial decision to stop paying. On the commercial side, small businesses will be unable to make rent (and many of them will be gone before the pandemic passes), putting pressure on landlords, who may not have the cash reserves to cover their mortgages. And small business that don’t fail (because they could operate remotely), when they see that they can thrive in an all-remote mode of operations, may decide that a physical office is an unnecessary expense and a hassle, and may decide to terminate or not renew their business leases. And co-working spaces may also lose their appeal, and if the big ones (that have tied up a lot of office space in major cities) fail, there will be a lot of landlords, and in turn a lot of lenders, left holding the bag.

Evictions Will Spike: While the safety net that the government throws out for laid off workers, and workers from companies that go under, may help some people for some time, the amount distributed may not be sufficient to cover rent for occupants in expensive areas of the country. And, although jobs in the private sector will likely bounce back quickly as for profit businesses recover, and as vacated shops and restaurants are replaced with new ventures that acquire abandoned equipment on the cheap, and negotiate better leases because of the glut of commercial space available, the overlap with the safety net may be insufficient. And jobs that are lost in the non-profit sector may will likely not easily be replaced because charitable giving will decline and non-profits typically move and build slower than for-profits. All this will likely put pressure on tenants to make rent, and on landlords to evict. I still remember how frustrating it was, as a criminal defense attorney, getting stuck on a docket behind many unlawful detainer cases in 2008, and while the tenants were typically pro se (which is why those dockets took so damn long), the landlords usually had lawyers. I expect to see the same thing happening again.

Civil Litigation Will Spike: With all of the broken contracts, and with all of the people and companies that will likely be left holding the bag, opportunities for civil litigators should spike.

Employment Law Firms Will Be Overwhelmed: Plaintiff-facing employment law firms that have well-positioned websites will be inundated with traffic and inquiries. Not only will there be a high number of newly unemployed people, the jobs that come back may be “lesser” for quite some time, and employees are likely to have complaints. While employment lawyers have to sort through a lot of cases to find good ones in normal times, we expect it will be even more so for the foreseeable future. And this is good news for firms that position themselves to be able to attract and handle the inquiries.

Estate Planning Business Will Spike: We’re already seen a spike in traffic to some of our well-positioned estate planning attorney customer’s websites. When the dust clears, having faced a stark reminder of our own mortality, many of us will finally get around to getting that first-time estate plan done, and many others will update old plans.

Estate Litigation Will Grow: Unfortunately, there will be a lot of deferred cleanup and backlog in this area.

Medical Malpractice Consultations Will Skyrocket: Just like plaintiff employment lawyer consultations, medical malpractice lawyers who have great marketing in place will see an influx of inquiries around treatment availability, quality and outcomes surrounding not only COVID-19, but other “usual” conditions that the medical infrastructure was unable to address adequately due to need to triage the pandemic. While there will be many inquires to sort through, there will be more business for medical malpractice lawyers who establish the marketing and intake infrastructure and are ready.

Conclusion: You will survive this, and you can position your law firm’s marketing for success by leveraging your time today

These are just a few predictions for the ways in which law practices will accelerate when the threat of COVID-19 subsides and the nation and world starts to venture out and return to life and business. I’m sure there are many others, and I’m also sure that I will not be 100% correct with all of these predictions. My goal in this post was not to tell you what is going to happen, nor how you should think about building and preparing your practice for a brighter future. Rather, I hope that this post helps you think through the following:

  1. How you should be most productively spending your time now to position your practice to capture the opportunities ahead.
  2. How your clients and potential clients are thinking now, how they are likely to think in the post-pandemic future, and how you can use your time now to provide them with valuable information that will help then in the present and the future, thus solidifying your firm’s standing in their minds.
  3. How it pays to be compassionate with yourself and your firm, and with your clients. These are trying and uncertain times. Your job as a lawyer is to support your clients (past, present and future) through uncertainty. You’re their rock. What are ways that you can show them this? I have some ideas I’ll share in a future post, and would love to hear yours?

Now is the time to take charge of your practice through smart planning and engagement with your marketing. If you’re wondering what your marketing agency is doing for you, and if you’re spending time being worried about or frustrated by the money you’re spending with an agency, this is the perfect time to take control of your firm’s expenses and future.

If you’re already a LawLytics member, we’re here to help you with strategy and support. And if you’re not yet a LawLytics member, especially if you’re getting ready to write another big and frustrating check to a marketing agency, maybe it’s time to spend 20 minutes to see LawLytics in action so you’ll understand the difference and can make the best decision for your firm’s future, today.

About The Author

Attorney Dan Jaffe previously built successful small law practices in WA and AZ. He currently serves as the CEO of LawLytics.

Other posts by Dan.