How your legal practice will survive the Covid-19 threat

(First published on LinkedIn on 22 March 2020, just before hard lockdown started…and still relevant)

Have you ever been on a road trip with someone? Even if it was a short trip, chances are you had to discuss at least two aspects before taking the road, namely, firstly, in which vehicle would you be travelling and, secondly, what is your destination.

Operating a legal practice is also like going on a road trip. The two main aspects to be aware of while operating your legal practice are, firstly, the internal environment, and, secondly, the external environment of your legal practice.

The internal environment of your legal practice relates to all elements over which the law firm owner has control, including the leadership, management, finances, values, the target market, the legal services to be offered, the address or premises of the legal practice, the members of the firm, processes, systems and all marketing strategies and business plans.

The external environment of a legal practice relates to elements which impact the operations of a legal practice but over which a law firm owner usually does not have any control. The external environment could include the economy, climate changes, legislation, competitors, technological developments, political developments, the media and global trends.

Most recently, every household, business and legal practice in the world have been confronted on some level with the threat of the novel Covid-19 virus. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the virus threat a national disaster on 15 March 2020 and gave rules relating to inter alia travel restrictions, closing of schools, limiting gatherings of more than 100 people, personal hygiene and social distancing. The reasons for these measures are two-fold, namely, firstly, to keep our internal environments safe and healthy for the sake of our family, practice members and clients, and, secondly, to limit the fast spread of the virus to vulnerable members of society and the workforce which keep the economy going.

All these measures to make our internal environments safer are commendable, but will unfortunately not be sufficient to eliminate the current external threat of Covid-19. We must expect and accept, like with all the other affected countries in the world, that South Africa’s economy will also be severely affected by these efforts to keep our country’s people healthy, working and financially alive.

Before making a plan to navigate your legal practice in these times, consider what is the destination. If you know where you are going, how you will get there, will be easier to decide, control and execute. For purposes of this article, the assumption is that you desire to travel further as owner of your legal practice through this external environment of Covid-19 and survive financially.

Before you join the Covid-19 road trip, do you accept that this may be a bumpy road with some losses? Remember road trips are designed to challenge you, move you forward, and lead you to a new place. Travelling to an unknown territory pushes you out of your comfort zone and it is OK if you want to resist or feel a little anxious at first. However, do not let anxious tension paralyze you, but let it give you momentum to make changes in your vehicle to reach your destination.

If your legal practice is joining the Covid-19 journey, below are some tips to keep you focused on reaching your destination.

1. Keep moving

Albert Einstein is famous for saying: “Life is like riding a bicycle. If you want to keep your balance, you have to keep moving”. If your vehicle for the journey is a bicycle and you are the only passenger, do not feel alone. More than 85% of legal practices in South Africa are sole proprietors.

The advantage of a sole proprietor legal practice is that management decisions can be made fast. However, if you are not sure how to proceed, or get scared to fail, you may get stuck. How can you get yourself out of a rut? Is it an option to ask for help or soundboard with a mentor, colleague or coach?

Legal practitioners are also just human. Humans are not meant to operate in isolation and most law firm owners will agree that it can get lonely at the top! In times of severe stress, it is good to join a partner or team who can help you brainstorm the best solution for your legal practice to get you going again.

2. Control what you can

We cannot control the external environment. However, we can manage the impact of the external environment and the Covid-19 threat by controlling and possibly changing our internal environment.

On a practical basis, if you manage a physical office with staff, you could provide and assist measures for good hygiene in the office, send high risk candidates and/or sick staff home and encourage social distancing with staff and clients. (unless our government gives stricter orders after 22 March 2020).

To limit loss of productivity, consider if your current systems and ITC equipment allow for members to work remotely from home. If this is a possibility, consider internal policies to help protect client’s privileged information and mitigate possible risks to your legal practice’ intellectual property.

Doing research and dealing with internal human resources, employment issues and finances are within your control. Managing clients and service levels are within your control. Asking for help is in your control.

Most importantly, your thoughts, emotions and behaviour on how you approach problems, challenges, discomfort and uncertainty, are in your control. Legal practitioners are natural leaders, fixers and others look up to them to lead society by example. Be responsible.

3. Look for new opportunities

While on your road trip, do not forget to appreciate new views. Almost every adversity experienced by humankind creates new opportunities for some to benefit. In the case of a war, the arms manufacturers benefit as they create more opportunities to sell and distribute arms. In case of a new illness, eventually the pharmaceutical companies will benefit from sales of a vaccine.

What new opportunities could lurk for a legal practice in these times? Shall we explore a few ideas?

Most legal practitioners are overworked and at risk of burnout. Could this time in which the economy and work temporarily slow down, which also overlaps with at least 5 public holidays from March to May 2020, be a time to take a break? Legal practitioners often do not have time to prioritise themselves, hobbies or other interests. Consider if you could benefit by spending time on personal or professional development during this time.

If your legal practice is starting to suffer, consider if it is perhaps time for a side hustle or additional business venture? Consider how you can diversify your income. Is there a need for specific products in the market place you can sell online? Apart from formal legal services, is there another way to offer your legal knowledge to members of the public, other junior colleagues or law students? Could you write articles, a book or a blog? According to leadership gurus, to help high performers and leaders relax, it can also help to distract yourself with a totally unrelated intellectual hobby or business venture than your core business. If you are a practising legal practitioner starting a secondary business interest, remember to inform the Legal Practitioners Council and continue to follow our professional rules.

On 18 March 2020, new regulations were published in the Government Gazette which form the new laws for new “Covid-19 crimes”. To help enforcement, this law could require more state prosecutors and defence attorneys and advocates to deal with citizens who contravene these laws.

Further, with many entertainment events, hospitality arrangements and business transactions being cancelled, more clients may require the services of legal practitioners to help negotiate settlements or resolve possible disputes. As our court processes are slow and large public gatherings of people also became illegal at courts during this disaster time, legal practitioners will have more opportunities to offer alternative dispute resolutions to clients. Such negotiations, mediation or arbitration sessions do not have to be physically attended by the parties, but could be held online.

Legal practitioners play an important role to keep order in society and support business owners and consumers in this time of crisis. Consider what opportunity does this disaster time present for your legal practice to diversify services and serve more clients based on their needs during this specific time.

4. Embrace technology

Living also in the times of the fourth industrial revolution, there are many options to embrace technology more in helping legal practitioners to provide professional legal services remotely to clients and in more geographical regions.

If you are a small start-up legal practice, the only technology required to service clients may be a smart phone. Cell phones are such advanced communication and processing devices. Are you exploiting all your cell phone’s functions and abilities? Do you have to always give a typed written opinion to a client or can you, with the consent of your client, send your advice via voice note?

Are you saving your records on a cloud-based system? If not, could you consider OneDrive (available from Microsoft 365), iCloud (if you are using an Apple/ISO device), or other Android solutions?

There are also numerous free applications available to download which can help record progress, upload, share and save documents. In this regard, some legal practices enjoy using, for instance, Outlook, Trello or Monday.com. to diarise and track progress on legal matters and leads.

Similarly, there are various free and affordable billing and accounting applications available for small legal practices. There are of course also numerous online practice management systems available which are specifically developed for legal practices.

Consider what technologies can help substitute physical face-to-face meetings. If you have WhatsApp, can you consult with a client on FaceTime? Could you consider to explore Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Duo or Zoom for meetings with colleagues, staff or clients?

Digital marketing is not prohibited in terms of our legal profession’s code of conduct and digital marketing is often regarded as a very effective marketing strategy for some legal practices. In this regard, if you are on any social media platform, consider how you can start sharing information about legal services your legal practice can offer professionally and effectively, remotely and with the help of technology.

Technology can not only help us keep connected in time of possible social isolation, it can also help us provide possibly better and faster legal services to clients in crisis. Will you embrace the technology in your pocket to help your legal practice reach its goal?

5. Learn from others

We are not the first country facing the impact of Covid-19 and therefore have the advantage to learn from other countries’ leadership, examples, failures and successes. We are also not the first generation which experienced panic buying or national emergencies. South Africans are resilient and will bounce back as a nation from this time. It appears China took 5-6 months to contain the virus threat. As we are also approaching winter in South Africa, cases of the common cold and flu will be common, and panic high, we should expect and plan for a slow down or interruption in our normal operating ways until at least Spring comes in August or September, provided all our citizens do all they can now to avoid the spread of this current incurable virus.

However, while in the storm, what lessons can we learn from others?

For most of us, social media and international news agencies are the channel for getting most of our Covid-19 news. Be careful of fake news and reporting which may stir emotions. Be selective about whom you will trust and follow for information on how this national disaster is dealt with. Educate yourself, focus and face hard facts.

There is no reason for legal practices to close, if they can allow members to work remotely. Clients will continue to require legal services and their legal practitioners. Make it comfortable, safe and easy for clients to access your legal services by embracing technology and thereby expanding your availability and service offerings. Consider what legal assistance will be most in demand during the next few months.

Fast reaction and preparation in a crisis are key. Consider the budget, risk plan and business continuity (BCP) plan for your legal practice. If your firm does not have a sufficient reserve fund to cover salaries and expenses and/or a good pipeline of work to carry you for 6 months, consider which expenses can you cut.

Covid-19 is a developing national crisis (and just like other businesses, governments or corporates), legal practices will have to adapt fast to necessary changes in their professional and business environments. Communicate regularly with staff and clients.

Conclusion

We are on this road trip on our way to a new place, whether we like it or not. But we are going together. No hardworking and committed legal practitioner have to be left behind. Decide on the internal workings of your vehicle fast and if it is possible to make changes to travel lighter and with less risk through the pot holes. We cannot control the external elements, but we can plan around it, develop solutions and remain positive about our destination.

As legal practitioners, let us help set a calm and positive tone for business to continue and rise as leaders in our communities. Ending with the words of a famous song by Queen “get on your bikes and ride”! Looking forward seeing all our legal practitioners on the other side!

Please note: This article is not meant as legal or professional advice, but to support South African legal practitioners, bring awareness and stimulate ideas to take our legal profession forward. LawyerFirst offers business coaching to South African lawyers via Skype or FaceTime at 10% discount from April until May 2020. Emmie de Kock is a qualified attorney with over 16 years experience, former law firm owner, qualified SA Business Coach and NLP Life Coach. For more information, email [email protected].

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