A lot of law firms are suddenly finding themselves treading water in uncharted territory. Courts are closed. Deals are on hold. Clients’ businesses are facing stoppages. That’s a lot to have to manage all at once.
The temptation is strong to focus on the here and now and handle the future as the future comes. Survival first.
But now can also be a good time to pay attention to what Mark Haddad calls megatrends. These are trends that will influence the state of the legal industry and the law itself years down the road. Some of the questions Haddad advocates examining include: “Where is the law and the legal industry going? What will the regulatory environment look like? Where is there likely to be opportunity in the future to provide clients with needed advisory and legal counsel?”
We live in a unique time (to say the least), and megatrends might be unfolding right in front of us at high speed. We might have not to wait years to see how the current virus crisis changes the state of the law. There may be a need for rapid evolution among law practices — now. As such, it is wise to focus not only on what needs to be done today, but on how to prepare for what your law firm’s business might look like 3, 6, or 12 months from now.
Here, small law firms have an advantage due to their agility and nimble structure.
I recently spoke with Charles Rittgers, proprietor of Rittgers & Rittgers in Ohio. His firm, like many smaller law firms, focuses on areas of general practice that are already seeing a drastic slow-down in the current climate: criminal law, divorce, and personal injury. “Courts are closed, and there really isn’t an opportunity to call current or former clients to ask if they’ve been arrested or in a car accident recently, or if they’re planning another divorce,” Rittgers explains.
We might have not to wait years to see how the current virus crisis changes the state of the law. There may be a need for rapid evolution among law practices — now.
So, how can he keep his firm’s 18 lawyers busy?
Beyond deploying the usual response measures of moving to virtual meetings and remote working, Rittgers has already started to think about how he redeploys his talent. For example, one of the firm’s satellite offices is in a college town and typically deals almost exclusively with issues for students. The summer is always a slow period for them, but now they’re facing a prolonged quiet time, with an uncertain prospect of whether students will be returning in the fall.
In response, the firm is looking at aggressively converting that office into a southern Ohio bankruptcy hub and is exploring the resources it would need to get its attorneys up to speed on that new practice area. Clearly — and unfortunately — bankruptcy seems to be a likely growth practice in the near future due to the sudden and dramatic changes of economic fortune for so many.
According to Rittgers, this could be a temporary stop-gap measure, or it could become a permanent way of how the firm does business.
Should students return in the fall, that may well mean that the demand for bankruptcies is lessening and the firm can return to more normal operations. If the students don’t return, the firm will have hopefully established a new practice area it can keep in place. Rittgers said he is also optimistic for a best-case scenario where the office actually becomes more of a blended practice, incorporating both the old and new practices, possibly even requiring the hiring of an additional lawyer or two.
As law firms rapidly look for what the future holds, they will have to make tough decisions. But the result of some of those decisions may be a law firm that is better positioned to weather challenging economic times.
Small law firms may be at a disadvantage due to a smaller number of diversified practices or a shallower bench of allied professional talent; however, they have the advantage of being able to more quickly move toward new opportunities — if their vision helps them to identify what those opportunities might be.