As a small-business owner, the one thing I know that is constant, is change. I started my firm during a recession, kept it going through a personal international move to Dubai and back, and as a Houstonian, a few floods and hurricanes, like Harvey. There are lots of great AILA member practice resources on COVID-19, including this “Pandemic–Proof Your Practice” resource, but I wanted to offer a few tips that I learned along the way in my daily work, and share five key points to consider:
1. Move your law firm virtual and remote ASAP. The irony is that I started with a virtual business back in 2009 and had to perfect it in 2011-2012 to run my firm from Dubai. Even in 2020 I was looking at 12 staff members and we weren’t functioning virtual as we had a brick and mortar location and weren’t leveraging technology the way we could. So we have begun:
- Setting up staff for success in remote work – laptops, printers, scanners, etc. Make sure they have a dedicated workspace, fast internet, place to focus, etc.
- Ensuring access to files remotely (VPN, Dropbox, etc.) Keep in mind if you needed to restrict access for various reasons, that you would be able to do so remotely.
- Phones – Voice over IP might be an option, or forward calls to cell phones. We are using Vonage and sent the receptionist home with the main phone that take multiple lines to transfer to our cell phones which are connected to our extensions.
- A staff communication policy – We are using our Gsuite chats, email and Vonage apps to communicate. We hold Google Hangout meetings to talk together as a firm or in small groups. We tried out a Google Hangout before going remote to make sure everyone knew how to use it and also how it worked. We also did one on our first day of being fully remote to make sure it worked at their own locations.
- Moving consults remote – phone, Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, etc.
- Figure out process for taking payments, sharing documents, etc.
- Making all contracts digital (we had an optional service, but now will make all contracts this way)
- Checking mail for documents from clients, government notices and payments
- Encouraging online payments, but can provide bank deposit option for the client who wants to deposit cash
- Reviewing documents electronically
- Filing motions for continuances if needed (monitor all the closures)
And if you choose not to move to complete remote work, then use masks, gloves, Lysol, Clorox wipes, and remove the toys/area where kids could play in the office. Follow all the precautions they are suggesting even consider that mail, documents, and physical payments from clients could be infected. Have a strict no-work-at-the-office-when-you-are-sick policy. Last week we made one staff member work from home while we were transitioning the office and another we asked to sit separately from the staff as he wasn’t sure whether he was sick.
2. Communicate updates and resources to your clients
- Website – Be able to update it regularly and communicate with clients and potential clients about changes
- Social media – this is a great place to communicate very quickly and you can ask your clients and potential clients to monitor your social media for updates and changes.
- Newsletter – If you had one before, you can use this to communicate updates.
- Language – Remember to provide key information in the languages of the majority of your clients
3. Take a hard look at finances. Know your normal budget, cash flow, and cash reserves. Maybe you can’t figure it all out right now, but be realistic about what you can do and how long you can keep normal operations if no clients are paying or they stop paying soon. Here are some ideas:
- Be prepared for a reduction in hours of staff (whether because you don’t have the funds to pay or because they are not available due to childcare or other family needs)
- Get a line of credit if you don’t have one already (and the Fed lowered interest rates so now is a good time to lock those in). Normally the process is that you have to apply and show your business financials for a few years. If you don’t have one already, work on this ASAP. It is best to have one for when you need it, not apply when you need it.
- Know your limit on your business credit cards
- Reevaluate all costs and see what you can reduce or eliminate (for example, you might not need everything you used before if you are working remotely or you have a staff reduction, etc.)
- Assume that you won’t be bringing in as much revenue in the next few weeks or longer.
- Know your labor laws in your state and keep watching what the Federal government is doing to assist business owners. There is a pending paid leave bill, but it will exempt very large businesses. The Small Business Administration is instructed to give more loans to small businesses affected by the COVID-19. Local and state gov are also passing bills and relief for those who are required to lay staff off, and for those getting laid off.
4. Silver lining: Time!
- Time to work on Q2 projections
- Time to create marketing materials that you can use in the coming months
- Time to figure out more efficient processes for your practice operations. Write out your processes from the beginning to the end and find ways to make everything more efficient
- Time to unplug, journal, help your neighbors.
5. Stay healthy and positive
- Keep a routine – get up at the same time, get dressed, etc.
- Maintain your mental health – schedule calls or virtual talks, playdates, parties with friends and family, meditate, etc.
- Read the books you never had time for (Like, say, Build and Manage Your Successful Immigration Law Practice (Without Losing Your Mind))
- Workout – walk, go up the stairs, do workout videos at home, ride a bike, etc.
- Stay positive – Don’t watch the news or social media 24/7. Make sure to unplug and have positive time with your close ones – board games, cooking together, gardening, YouTube videos, home improvement, etc.
- Take care of your body – from food, water, and sleep, etc. You want to stay in optimal health.
Yes, you need to act quickly with the idea that you might have to adapt to the new circumstances. This is nothing new to immigration practitioners, so we are already semi-experts on this and have a sense of how to approach it!