Clients did not disappear and matters did not ground to a halt in many practice areas during the second week of the coronavirus lockdown, research has found.
It said law firms made it through the week in a generally positive mood, with feelings of pride overcoming fear of the future
Law firm consultant Simon McCrum is conducting a weekly snap poll of firms to track how they are coping with the crisis.
The first week of the lockdown saw new enquiries fall by up to 60% and firms start furloughing staff at once, he reported, but they were “up for the fight”.
Some 18 firms, ranging from high street practices to one with a turnover topping £100m, responded this week.
Mr McCrum – former managing partner of Darbys – said the results showed that firms had got to grips with the new environment “very quickly” and expressed pride in how their staff had adapted – although several had also furloughed staff already.
He said: “Of course, having staff spread far and wide and working in isolation will ultimately bring its challenges but some firms recognise this already and are beefing up communications and conversations with staff using Zoom and the like.
“Clearly keeping teamwork going in this kind of environment will require a change-up in gear.”
Financially, many remained buoyant, having had a strong March – at least in the first half of it. “But this isn’t fooling anyone,” Mr McCrum said. “Many firms are looking ahead to April and May with some trepidation…
“There is no getting away from the fact that in many work-types, the inputs that lead to the eventual output of billing, namely file-openings and chargeable hours, are down. Clients are active but where will a sustained lockdown leave them?”
The evidence from the survey was that after the initial shock of lockdown, clients were getting in touch with their solicitors to progress existing matters – one respondent wondered whether an increase in requests for progress updates was because clients had more time to think and worry about their matters – while communications between firms were resuming as they all “get into the swing of things”.
Most were staying on top of debtors so far, even though they expected lock-up to increase over time. One firm praised the Legal Aid Agency for accelerating the payment of public funding, as bills that have to be assessed by court have slowed down.
The survey showed how some firms have re-budgeted for the year ahead, so as to build plans covering a range of scenarios. Some of these show revenues reduced buy up to 50%, and firms are talking of further redundancies in due course, especially with no sign of money yet from the government schemes.
Mr McCrum said banks “appear to be on-side at the moment” – although some of the respondents to the survey complained that it was more words than action – but who wants to borrow their way out of a problem that is likely to run for a while yet?”
While those handling property and corporate work had seen a significant drop-off, employment, personal injury, private client and deputyship practices were sharply up.
A couple of personal injury respondents indicated that defendant insurers seemed keener to settle, while there was also pressure from clients to realise their compensation.
Mr McCrum continued: “In all work-types though there is a focus on cash – the oxygen of the business. Some firms are hugely ramping up cash collection, though one has stopped chasing their debtors because they think that to do so at the moment is ‘bad taste’.”
He added: “Clients haven’t disappeared and matters haven’t ground to a halt. Lawyers can work effectively under the new conditions.”
The solicitor urged firms to “keep things simple” – charge a good price for a good service, give files the time they need “instead of snatching one unit here and there”, record time properly and bill all of it.
He suggested they also “extend proactive care to help personal and business clients to get all their affairs in order”.
Mr McCrum concluded by quoting one firm saying: “There are tough times ahead but nothing yet to jump off a cliff about.”
To help law firms understand the Covid-19 crisis and its impacts, and to help them to respond, Mr McCrum is posting regular briefings on his website, giving out relevant parts of his forthcoming book, The Perfect Legal Business.