When the going gets tough for law firms...

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Published on 5/11/09

"Stop the world - I want to get off."

The title of the popular 1960s Broadway show seems to say it all, voicing a wish to put a braking effect on our world before it spins out of control. That, for sure, is how folks who have been laid off from law firms must feel. More than 10,000 people have been terminated from large firms. Who's keeping track in smaller law firms? But, then, who is counting anymore?

What started me on this thought path was an e-mail exchange I had recently with a friend. In the years he and I worked together, I had worked with a woman in his company when he was absent. During a recent call, I learned she was no longer with the company. I asked my friend what happened to her. "RIF" was the reply.

In his biweekly column, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Publisher David L. Yas recently quoted a young laid-off lawyer: "If you were ever going to be laid off, this seems like a good time. ... In the past, there was a stigma. Well, now, it seems like every third person you meet has been laid off. So there is an empathy, a sympathy, like we're all in this together."

On a hopeful note...

The definition of recession is when someone else is laid off; the definition of a depression is when you are laid off. In other words, when the problem comes close to home, we just might go into panic mode. Until then, we tend to be sanguine.

I was talking with a lawyer last week and asked him how his small firm practice was going, whether he suffered any loss of revenue. ... His response? Clients are either not paying or paying more slowly than before. His revenue decreased by 15 percent, and he considered himself lucky.

What to do? Here are several suggestions that I believe will benefit every firm:

  • Take a deep breath, many deep breaths. Nothing good happens when we "starve" our body and our mind from the oxygen they need to operate. Our breath is the primary engine that keeps us going.

  • Look at the expenditure numbers. What is it that you need to live on? What is it that you need to keep your law practice operating? Be open, be honest with yourself. Consider where you are in the economic spectrum, and think about reducing where you need to so as to keep your head above water.

  • Review your revenue numbers. One good increase usually will offset many small reductions in expenditures. Where has the revenue decreased? Why? Is it that your clients are also in panic mode? Is there something you can do to help them by "partnering" with them or deferring a portion of your fee, as long as they pay a base minimum, or finding another creative billing alternative? How can you show them the extraordinary value you provide that will allow them to make significant profits?

  • After considering the pros and cons, the revenues and expenditures, and the alterations of life style as may be required, make a to-do list. Be very specific. Set a timeline that tells you, realistically, the date on which you will do the given task. If others can help you achieve certain tasks (whether for a fee or as a favor) to expedite your recovery and deliverance from panic mode, ask. This is not the time to be proud. This is the time to be quick and effective.

Let me end with the beginning. There is hope. Thousands of people are reaching out for help and receiving it. We will get and retain new clients by showing them the value of what we provide. And we will walk proudly with those who have weathered this storm and come out the stronger for it.

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