Recently, a client, I’ll call him Nick, told us that he had gone from a staff of 5 attorneys and 4 assistants to a staff of a single attorney and his Office Manager, who happened to be his daughter because of the court closures and COVID-19. He was distraught that he had to lay off his staff.
“We were like a family here.” He said. Not to mention that each attorney on the staff had a specialty area that they handled for our clients, who are mostly small business owners. “I had a real estate attorney, who handled contracts, closings and landlord/tenant issues.
One specialized in debt collection. Another handled bankruptcies and foreclosures and we had an attorney experienced in setting up corporate entities. We had everything a business owner would need, under one roof and we had a really successful practice.”
Over the last 9 months. Can you believe it? 9 months, we’ve heard this and similar stories from so many of our clients and our contacts in the legal industry. What’s worse, or maybe better, depending on your perspective, is that as moratoriums lift, cases are allowed to be filed, discovery begins to move and the courts are working virtually, demand for legal services has gotten higher and higher but in many cases, like Nick’s, incoming revenue is at a standstill. Rehiring is not in the budget and outstanding bills for legal services rendered are not being collected.
“Clients are concerned. Some are even desperate. We have clients who own commercial real estate with tenants not paying rent.” Said Eileen, a solo practitioner in Queens. “Clients have vacant space they can’t rent, tenants not paying bills, damage to buildings and bills piling up.”
“I’ve gotten calls from so many new potential clients who are at risk of foreclosure because they can’t pay their mortgage and others who fear eviction proceedings because they can’t pay their rent,” said Robert. “I just don’t have the staff to service these clients and I am strapped for cash myself.”
These clients, like so many of our clients, are not alone.
The New York City Bar Association’s Small Law Firm Committee established a subcommittee to examine the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Solo practitioners and small law firms. That report found, in part:
“There were three categories of issues that members reported as being the sources of impact:
- factors causing loss of revenue,
- factors rendering work more difficult, and
- factors impeding advocacy on behalf of clients.
With respect to loss of revenue, this stemmed from reduction in demand for services including loss of the peak season, clients who already owed fees for services becoming less likely to pay invoices timely, and inability to conduct usual marketing activities such as in-person networking.
Factors rendering work more difficult included loss of access to mail and files, working without separation from family, and internet connections and software at home that was not equal to the level of at the office.
Factors impeding or relevant to advocacy included closure of courts, urgency of evacuating clients from jails that accelerated the spread of COVID-19, and difficulty with signing documents for which original signatures are a legal requirement”.
To read the whole text of the report go to REPORT ON IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON NYC AREA SOLO AND SMALL LAW FIRMS BY THE SMALL LAW FIRMS COMMITTEE COVID-19 TASK FORCE SUBCOMMITTEE
Citing concerns about the “return to normal”, respondents to the study anticipated significant court backlogs; and controversies involving delinquencies in rent, mortgage payments and bankruptcies.
Among the biggest concerns expressed by respondents would be the need to hire staff on the heels of significant financial depletion and the potential need to diversify practice areas away from those adversely affected by the crisis.
Of further concern is the potential for a wave of new cases generating a need for legal services at the same time that many clients are financially strapped to pay legal fees and law firms are understaffed.
The watch word for 2020 has been resilience. Developing resilience for yourself and for your business is key to surviving and possibly even thriving. Lawyers who have developed and exercised their resilience muscles may have an easier time:
- Tolerate change, stress, uncertainty and other types of adversity more effectively than low-resilience lawyers do. They develop healthy coping strategies which are more likely to mitigate the impact of stress and adversity.
- Believing that they can produce results in their lives. And they are more likely to believe that problems can be solved as a result of their own efforts. These beliefs, in turn, buffer against developing a “giving up” mentality and learned helplessness.
- Staying motivated to achieve in many different areas of their lives and are flexible in their ability to adapt to challenges, adversity, and changing life circumstances.
- Promoting the development and maintenance of high-quality relationships, and they draw upon these connections when they need help coping with stressful life events.
With the ability to tolerate change, stress and adversity comes the ability to start seeing solutions in a crisis. We’ve heard from some of our most resilient clients that they’ve taken steps, like these, to help the businesses survive over the last nine months and to maintain their businesses for the foreseeable future.
Changes in Expectations: A number of our clients have told us about adjustments they have made in their expectations for their business, their employees and themselves. Working from home brings a lot of challenges. Mix in kids home from school, episodes of exposure, unexpected quarantines and constant changes in how the courts are working and we may not be as productive as we’d like to be. Having reasonable expectations of how things are going to go, how people are going to perform and what roadblocks might pop up along the way, is the key to surviving during a crisis.
Becoming Solution Based: For many clients, and frankly for ZRPD, getting past the problems and looking for solutions has been vital to our continued existence. “When court appearances just stopped back in March, we really had to regroup, says Connie Rinaldi, Co-Founder and Managing Director of ZRPD.” Regrouping took a while. “We had to find ways that we could be most helpful to our clients and discover what clients really need from us during the pandemic? What was the best way to reach out?” Says Rinaldi. These were the questions that many businesses were asking themselves.
Re-evaluating: “We have a number of clients who realized that certain practice areas would have a need once things started to open up again.” says Cesar Zuniga, Rinaldi’s partner. “Bankruptcy, foreclosure and landlord/tenant cases are going to be abundant in the coming months.” Many firms have started gearing up for new practice areas and are servicing clients where the need is.
Looking for the Silver Lining: For many people this has been a time spent with family or a time to find new activities. Both Cesar and I were working from home, full time, for the first time in years. We both were able to spend time with our respective children (Both Zuniga and Rinaldi have young families) in ways that were able to before. It has been so wonderful to see everything my daughter does in a day, says Rinalidi and to spend so much more time with her than usual. For Zuniga it's the same. “Homeschooling four kids under 8 is definitely challenging but I have a whole new understanding of how each of my kids learns and watching them grow over this time has been a real gift.”
Look for the Things You Can Control: Nobody can control how the pandemic impacts the courts or what orders might come next from the Governor, the Mayor or OCA. We can control how to make use of what is still available to us. A number of clients have told us that they couldn’t control whether the court would hear a discovery motion but they could get on the phone with their adversaries and settle cases or schedule depositions until things changed.
Weathering the Storm
These past 9 months have been among the most challenging for our business, as it has been for most businesses. When court appearances pretty much disappeared last March, we went from providing coverage for 150 or more appearances per day to having nothing on the calendar. “It stayed like that for a while, says Rinalid. “We had to make some really difficult decisions about staff and office space and so much else, early on.”
But what then? ZR had to start looking for other ways to Make Attorneys’ Lives Easier and stay true to the mission. “First we started hearing that even without court appearances, depositions were happening on line.
We shifted our focus to helping attorneys get depositions scheduled, by offering some free calendaring services.” Says Zuniga. “We’ve always provided coverage for depositions, so it seemed only natural that we’d expand those services.”
We knew many clients had laid off staff but still had work that needed to be done. That is how ZR’s Virtual Associate Services were created. “Per diems needed work to do and clients needed work to be done. It seems like a perfect fit.” Says Rinaldi.
Most recently to further expand deposition coverage help to clients, ZR has partnered with Bee Court Reporting Agency, allowing ZR to fully service the deposition needs of short staffed attorneys. We make the calendar calls, find coverage for the deposition, book the court reporter and provide a comprehensive report.
Resources for Resilience
Resilience in a time of crisis can take many forms. Personal, physical, business and family resilience are just some of the ways we need to practice resilience in uncertainty. We’ve collected some resources to help you and your firm be resilient and weather the storm.
- NYSBA Coronavirus Information Center
- Small Business Guidance & Loan Resources - COVID-19
- Workplace Resources for Coronavirus
- Coronavirus Relief Options
- Adjusting the COVID-19 Response: How Law Firms are Altering Austerity measures
- American Bar Association - Tips to help stressed-out lawyers during COVID-19 pandemic
- Mental Health Resources for the Legal Profession.
- Lawyers Assistance Programs throughout the Country
- 8 Tips for Lawyers on Building Resilience