Silver Linings in Recessionary Times


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

The current economic downturn has affected BigLaw to an unprecedented extent, resulting in lawyer layoffs. Many smaller firms, however, have not actually seen a drop in business. This scary economic climate may actually create opportunities for smaller law firms.

Small Firm Opportunities

1. Big companies with shrinking budgets may take a chance on smaller law firms with good reputations and less expensive fee structures. Make sure you keep your corporate relationships current.
2. Your firm may attract higher quality, experienced attorneys or staff at reasonable salaries, as the result of layoffs from corporations or large firms. Some lawyers may be glad to work on an Of Counsel basis or office sharing basis, just to have a respectable place to land with the possibility of referral business.
3. More graduating law students will have difficulty finding jobs, and they may seek positions as law clerks or even unpaid interns, just to get experience. Get some help or delegate tasks you don’t like to do, without over-extending your budget.

Take Advantage of Slower Business

If your business has slowed down, this too shall pass. Take advantage of the additional time you now have available. Do what you kept wishing you had time for, when you were too busy. Here are a few suggestions to consider.

1. Take a vacation. Make it up to your family for all those nights and weekends at the office. If you are concerned about expenses, there are some good travel bargains now, but you don’t have to leave town. Be a tourist at home and pay attention to those you love. As a lawyer, I found that one way to generate additional business was to book a vacation with non-refundable tickets. Perhaps it was the perverse humor of the Fates, or the fact that I informed clients I would be unavailable for a week. Business almost always ticked up. Hint: notify your clients enough in advance that you have time to complete those “can’t wait” projects.

2. Clean up your office. You always intend to get more organized, don’t you? This is your chance. Don’t waste it.

3. Enhance your business relationships. Rekindle relationships with former clients, law school classmates, and referral sources that you haven’t talked to in a while. Check in to see how the economy is affecting someone today. Call your former client to ask how things are going after the completion of that trial or deal closing. Pass on useful articles to referral sources and prospective clients. Most people appreciate help in keeping up with our rapidly changing world. The recent legislative developments provide ample opportunity to benefit them while showcasing your expertise.

4. Write an article or prepare a talk. Think of 10 tips or 10 traps for the unwary that you can share with your prospective client audience. Contact organizations that your prospective clients may be involved in, to see if they would be interested in your article for their publication or your talk at an upcoming meeting.

5. Attend meetings of client industry associations and bar associations. Get involved, so that more people will get to see how responsible and trustworthy you are. Once you build up that trust, they will assume they can count on your legal work, too. You’ll build new relationships with potential clients and referral sources. You will probably learn something valuable, too.

6. Catch up on CLE requirements. Don’t wait until your birthday month this year. If your area of practice looks like it will be down for a long time, take courses in a new practice area to add to your repertoire.

7. Do some pro bono work. Most unhappy lawyers have lost the sense of meaning and purpose in their work. Reignite your passion for the law, and feel good about yourself, by making a difference to someone who really needs legal services, but can’t afford them. Some volunteer lawyer associations provide training and mentoring, in case your expertise doesn’t lend itself well to pro bono work. You may even get training in a new practice area, if you need some.

8. Catch up on technology. Explore the unused capabilities of your case management software; learn how to have a less-paper office; find out the benefits of online social media; create or update your firm’s website; start a blog; find useful new apps for your iPhone or Blackberry; or test out speech recognition software for your dictation. You can’t outrun (or out-retire) the tsunami of technological advances in the legal world, so you better learn to swim!

9. Mentor newer lawyers. Young lawyers wish they had more mentoring, and older lawyers wish the younger ones were more experienced or more professional. Increase the value of your firm and the productivity of your less experienced lawyers by teaching them what they need to know. If you don’t have any younger lawyers in your firm, raise the quality and perception of our profession by mentoring a recent law school grad. Just contact the nearest law school to let them know you are available.

10. Take care of yourself. For once you have time to exercise. Besides improving your health, it will reduce stress, anxiety or the blues. Sleep late a few mornings. What can feel more luxurious? Actually prepare a healthy meal for yourself and your family. Get your kids or spouse to join in, and you can turn a chore into a time of reconnection and bonding. Spend some quiet time alone each day. That will increase your resilience, lower your blood pressure, and open your mind to creative solutions that didn’t occur to you before.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Look for opportunity in adversity. Enjoy your new-found flexibility. If nothing else, call your mother. You know you never do that enough!

© 2009 Debra L. Bruce

Debra L. Bruce is President of Lawyer-Coach LLC, a law practice management coaching and training firm. She practiced law for 18 years before becoming the first Texas lawyer to be credentialed by the International Coach Federation. She is Vice Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas and a past leader of Houston Coaches Inc. You can email her at debra@lawyer-coach.com.

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