One year into lockdown: COVID-19 lessons from a small firm
I remember the day clearly when our government announced we were in a pandemic. I thought my law firm wouldn’t be affected and so I told my staff not to worry. Within a month, I was hoarding toilet paper, had to furlough my staff, and felt anxious to admit I was wrong. I worried about the future of my small business that I spent almost a decade building.
In March of 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I attended a webinar hosted by American entrepreneurs in China advertised as, “A Glimpse Into 6 weeks Ahead – COVID-19 Experience Share.” I listened to advice from international business owners adjusting to lifestyles of lockdown and business shut down. The advice there, and in many other discussions within entrepreneur and small business communities, share commonalities about what can be done to help your business in a pandemic. Here is what I learned:
Cut expenses and try to save 3-6 months of overhead. Ask yourself if each line item on your expense report moves the needle forward or matters to your client. If not, consider cutting that expense. To save money, I pulled my profit and loss report for 2019 and went down my vendor and expense list cutting fat everywhere possible. I got rid of the internet at the office, canceled my membership with various professional organizations, and gave notice at one of our office locations that we no longer needed the space. I applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, the Emergency Disaster Loan, and every single grant our law firm qualified for. Many government loans in response to the pandemic have a 1% interest rate over a 30-year term. That is almost free money. Better to have that on reserve in addition to a line of credit as a backup. Stack cash like a grizzly bear in the winter gathering food to hibernate. The best time to borrow money is when you don’t need it.
Do it good, then make it better
Our law firm restructured operations by looking at our workflows and asking what was necessary and what could be more efficient. We got rid of software we relied on for years and used new technology that catered to working remotely. Rather than overthink, and over plan, we went into action mode and identified new procedures that made sense today. We then used technology to identify what can be automated or made into a checklist to streamline workflows. No need for perfection. Good is good enough. Once implemented, we identified what needed improvement. We responded to the times and bought outdoor heat lamps, the kind you see in restaurants, to put in our patio areas so that we could get fresh air while working.
We did this when we realized covid fatigue was real and staring at a screen can get exhausting. We took meetings in our cars when we had a full house and bought high-powered car chargers. We took electronics out of the office and set up shop in our living rooms, kitchens, basements, and anywhere we could get internet service. We had to revise the action plan multiple times in response to all the changes that kept happening, including the courts temporarily closing and local procedures changing repeatedly. As these changes rolled in, so did our plans. We did it good then made it better.
Get the right people in the right seats
While being in a pandemic seems like an unfavorable time to hire new people, there is an influx of A-player employees out there exploring options and considering new places to work. Both big and small businesses are dissolving, leaving talented people looking for new opportunities. In that same pool of talent are people looking to relocate out of California because of the high cost of living. Hiring people out of state may save you money. Scaling a solo practice or small law firm cannot be done alone. And if your goal is not to grow your practice, identify what parts of the business you don’t enjoy so that you can outsource it and leverage your time. You need the right people in the right seats.
Start with drafting an organization chart and strategize the way you want to operate 1-3 years from now. Then identify what 3 main tasks each box in that organization chart is responsible for and hire new talent based on those boxes and those tasks. If you need a new receptionist, find an extrovert who likes to talk. Be clear about what the main tasks are like managing the phones, updating your calendar, and screening potential new client calls. Use tools like the Gallup Strengths Finder test to identify a person’s top 5 strengths. Someone might say their top skill is talking to people, but the Gallup test might show otherwise. This can help you put that person in the right seat. The DISC profile is a test that helps you understand how a person operates. Does the person like to work alone or with a team? Do they like to work independently at first and then in collaboration with others or vice versa? To have your business not just survive, but thrive, it’s best practice to have the right people in the right seats. This also includes you as the owner. Are you spending your time wisely? Can your time be better spent doing income-generating work? Are you and your team burned out and thinking about other types of jobs? If so, now is the time to reevaluate your roles and put together an organization chart and identify each box’s main 3 tasks.
During this pandemic, I had more turnover in 9 months than in the past decade. I terminated my longest employee, another employee moved to Idaho, and we hired a new person in Michigan. The current team is strong with high morale and time goes by fast because we are doing what we love as we sit in the right seats. Whether your practice is busy or slow, make it a habit to hunt for new talent and identify what seats need to be filled and what skill sets are needed to thrive in that position.
Carve out at least 15 minutes a day for yourself
This pandemic has taken away a lot things we took for granted like coffee or lunch with colleagues, going to the movies or the gym, and just plain old physical human interaction. Ask yourself what activities give you energy and carve out time for that consistently even if it’s only for 15 minutes a day. Personal development always precedes professional development and in times of pandemic and restriction, we need to take care of ourselves to be the best version of ourselves for our families and our clients. And more importantly, for ourselves. I make it a habit to get up early in the morning when it’s quiet with no interruptions. I meditate to calm my attorney mind down and help me strategize big-picture decisions. It is often guided meditation and as little as 5-minutes. This allows me to consider what is important in my endless to-do list. I stretch and move my body and remind myself to take breaks from my desk. My heart and spirit are often nourished with practicing gratitude, cuddling with my dogs, eating meals at the table with family, and doing things that make me feel human and not just a hustling lawyer. Your inner child, family, and work colleagues will appreciate it when you make time to be the best version of yourself. 2020 was the year of change and a deep dive reflection of what’s important and necessary.
In 2021, I hope these tips help you, your clients, your loved ones, and your community in times of uncertainty.
ACBA member Givelle Lamano, Founder and Principal, Lamano Law, is a Bay Area criminal defense attorney. She has represented people from all walks of life including gang members in prison appealing their life sentences to first time offenders who have never been arrested. She is licensed in both state and federal courts and has served as a court appointed attorney for the Alameda County Bar Association.