By Allison Wolf and Terry DeMeo for Clio
All businesses, including law practices, have slow periods. Knowing what to do when the phone stops ringing and clients stop hiring you can be a challenge.
This is true now more than ever as law firms grapple with the broad-based economic and social changes wrought by the COVID-19 crisis.
Lawyers are not immune to the anxiety, doubt, and fear that often comes when business is slow. However, with a thoughtful and deliberate approach, it’s entirely possible for lawyers and legal professionals to get through slow business periods and times of economic uncertainty, and to come out stronger and ready to thrive.
Successfully bridging a business slump requires a twofold approach: Both the inner world (thoughts, feelings, and emotions) and the outer world (your environment and your business) need attention. You must address your inner world to keep the brain and body able to perform efficiently and effectively. On the other hand, you must also pay attention to your outer world—your external experience—and carefully consider what actions to take when there actually is time to implement strategic planning for business development and for your firm’s future.
The inner world: Caring for yourself
If your law firm has ever been through a slow business period, you’ll know how quickly an avalanche of unhelpful thoughts can arise. These are typical:
- “I won’t get new work.”
- “My clients have forgotten me.”
- “I’m going to go broke.”
Since lawyers are trained to consider what can go wrong in analyzing professional cases, they’re particularly prone to negative thoughts. This can provoke fear and anxiety, which can easily lead to a loss of motivation, procrastination, and excessive rumination. Combine that with the fact that we’re all collectively grieving the loss of life as we know it, and you’ve got a veritable breeding ground for negative thoughts.
As humans, we perform better and can think more accurately and creatively when we’re calm. Managing your thoughts and feelings throughout the day can help you stay energized, productive, and focused.
Here are a few simple, yet powerful tips to help get you through times when business is slow:
1. Develop awareness of negative thoughts
Negative or troubling thoughts are usually lurking underneath stressful feelings, lack of focus, and procrastination. Check the reliability of what you’re thinking.
Your mind will naturally try to weave together a narrative, even when you only have a few facts. For example, if it’s been a week since new work has come in, you might tell yourself it means that you will never get new work.
Our brains do this automatically to try to predict the future and keep us physically safe from harm. However, this instinct is not helpful in the context of reacting to a slow period for your law firm—even in the middle of what very much looks like an economic downturn.
Lawyers are particularly prone to this type of pessimistic thinking, since the worst-case-scenario thinking that is necessary for prudent lawyers in analyzing cases can lead to catastrophic thinking in contemplating events in the rest of a lawyer’s life.
Ask yourself which of your thoughts are true—do you have factual evidence that, for example, your business is doomed or you will never get new work? What’s your actual financial situation, and what are your actual options for getting help or adapting your business model?
Dispute any overly negative scenarios with the facts, as if you were advocating on your behalf against an adversary. For example, the thought “I’m going to go out of business,” can be countered with “I’ve survived slowdowns before” and “we still have clients, who we have good relationships with, and who will be happy to refer others to us when things are better.”
2. Remember the facts
Create a list of facts to help halt catastrophic thinking and read them frequently if you begin to stress out. Here are some examples, but come up with ones that are true for you and your practice.
- “All businesses have slow spells.”
- “I have survived slumps in the past.”
- “My major client has told me they will have a new matter for me next month.”
- “It’s August and most of my clients are on vacation.”
- “I have a cushion in the bank for times like these.”
If your business is truly at risk due to an economic downturn, it’s still possible to catastrophize, and it’s still possible to halt that thinking in its tracks so you can know you’ve done everything possible to continue running your firm. Try facts like:
- “I haven’t heard back about my loan yet: That doesn’t mean I was rejected.”
- “I have several options for securing the capital I need to get through this time.”
- “I am resilient and will recover no matter what happens.”
Focus your attention on your breath and breathe slowly and regularly, inhaling and exhaling to a slow count of four. Inhale-2-3-4-exhale-2-3-4. Over and over. If your mind wanders and you start to feel stressed, you can use a simple mantra to help yourself stay relaxed, such as, “Breathe and stay calm, breath and stay calm, breathe and stay calm.” Even if you feel you only have a few moments to do this, this exercise will make a huge difference in your day-to-day.
Breathing triggers the relaxation response of your nervous system, telling your brain that you are safe. By taking a few moments to breathe, you will be able to think more clearly and feel more productive in a very short period of time.
Don’t think you have a few moments? Keep in mind that a minute or two throughout the day can save hours lost to stress and rumination. It may seem counterproductive at the time, but thoughts like “I don’t have time to spend noticing my breath,” are just more instances of unhelpful and untrue thinking.
Try it for yourself. You’ll find that the more you practice, the more effective breathing techniques become.
4. Establish good self-care routines.
Depending on your situation, you may or may not have extra time on your hands with business being slow. But no matter what, you’ll need to take care of yourself to get through this, so engaging in a self-care activity that’s important to you will be critical to your success. Here are a few examples of actions you can take:
- Exercise regularly. Bodyweight exercises are the perfect at-home workout. You don’t even need equipment!
- Check out some online yoga videos and stretch your stress out.
- Commit to sleeping eight hours each night.
- Stock up on healthy food and get in the habit of eating nourishing meals.
- Pick up a new hobby just for fun, for example, painting, crafting, or even learning a new language.
- Learn mindfulness meditation if stress and anxiety continue to be a problem.
Not only will you feel better, good self-care will also support your other efforts: Taking care of your mental health will ensure you’re better prepared to weather the periods when business is slow and take positive action. Learn more about best practices for lawyer wellness and mental health in this post.
If nothing else, don’t be afraid to reach out for help when managing your inner world during times of crisis. A coach like Terry DeMeo can help guide you through the process.
Once you’ve solidified a few routines for taking care of your mental health, you’ll be better positioned to succeed at taking practical action to help your firm. Trust us: It’s worth it.
The outer world: Practical tips for navigating slow business periods
As you focus on caring for your inner world, you’ll quickly notice that you have more focus and confidence, and you can move into action. Now is the time for reflection, planning, and getting important but not urgent business needs moving forward.
Invest in business development
There’s no time like times of economic uncertainty to invest time in law firm business development. Begin by answering these three questions:
- What clients or referral sources can you reach out to?
- What opportunities for your business have you been neglecting that you can now act on?
- What specific steps can you take to bring in more business, based on your answers to these questions?
Your answer to question three will guide you in prioritizing initiatives and developing a focused action plan to move forward. Learn more about law firm business development strategies here.
If you’re not sure where to start, consider that your existing clients and inactive clients can be an excellent source of new opportunities for your practice, so prioritize communications with these clients. Which brings us to our next point:
Strengthen client relationships
Especially during times of economic uncertainty, simply reaching out to clients to see how they are doing may not just uncover work for your firm: It will also help strengthen your relationships with clients and show them you really care, leading to lasting long-term relationships.
Your clients are central to the success of your firm, so investing in these relationships is worthwhile. Building trust means building business relationships where clients will be willing to come to you for legal services more than once, and may even recommend your firm to others.
Create or update your business plan
Next, if you have a business plan for your practice, review it to see what initiatives you can move forward, and what changes may need to be made in light of different economic circumstances. Maybe you want to add a new practice area, for example. Having a plan can give you a sense of stability and control in uncertain times.
If you don’t have a business plan for your practice, develop one now. The Clio Blog has some great resources on creating law firm business plans and marketing plans to guide you.
Create or update your law firm budget
If you don’t currently have a law firm budget, there’s no time like a slow business period to write one. More than ever, during slow business periods it’s important to know how money has been allocated at your law firm, and what your expenses are, so that you can make adjustments if needed. If you’ve never written a law firm budget before, you can learn how to do so here.
Closely monitor your law firm’s cash flow
When times are tough, cash is king. Taking a hard look at your law firm’s cash flow during slow business periods can lead you to see where your firm is at, and look at options to help maintain cash flow as soon as possible. Here are some tips on improving cash flow, and what to do if your firm is having cash flow problems.
Support your team—and draw support from them
Whether you’re a solo or part of a team of 20, slow business periods and times of economic uncertainty are the time to reach out to close colleagues and industry acquaintances so that you can stay connected.
Ask staff how they’re doing, and if there’s anything they need to be more productive during difficult times. Be open and honest about your plans if things go south, but also use the tips above to help staff manage their inner worlds to give your firm the best chance of coming out thriving.
If you’re a solo, keep in close touch with fellow solos so you can refer relevant cases to each other.
If you’re facing a slow business period for your firm alone, your community will want to help. If you’re all facing economic uncertainty together, the best way to succeed is by joining forces and problem solving to help each other’s firm survive, one step at a time.
When business picks up again
Soon enough, you’ll be through the slow period and you’ll see business start to pick up again. All difficult times, even worldwide economic downturns, must come to an end.
But, it’s important to remember that investing in law firm business development isn’t just for slow periods.
Here’s how to make time for tasks and strategies to help your firm grow, even when you’re busy with plenty of clients.
Stay on track with business development
You can’t make the corn grow faster because you are hungry, and the same principle applies for your legal practice. Scrambling to call all of your referral sources when work dries up during slow business periods isn’t a sustainable strategy—the best results come from consistent investments over time.
Most lawyers don’t keep their business development and marketing plans moving forward during their busy periods. The pressures of client work are intense and demanding.
But consistency pays off. The trick is to learn to use small increments of time for keeping your non-billable initiatives moving forward (and remember, these tasks, if done right, will bring in new clients, so they actually will make you money!).
Tackle business development in small steps
You might have a great business plan, a solid marketing strategy, and the ripest opportunities within your grasp but this one thought—“there’s not enough time right now”—is what will stop you dead in your tracks every time.
Nodding your head because this happens to you? You are not alone. “I’ll do it later” throws most lawyers off their best-intentioned plans.
Here’s what is important to know: Successful business development can be done in small steps. A five-minute investment can keep your plan on track. With 10 to 15 minutes, you can get some key tasks done.
Here are some examples of important actions you can take in less than five minutes:
- Look at your business plan or contact list and decide—who do I want to connect with this week? What action do I want to take this week? Get this item onto your to-do list.
- Send an email to a business prospect or referral source suggesting a meetup—you could even do it over a video conference, which removes geographic limitations.
- Review your website or online profile and decide what needs to be updated.
- Start brainstorming topics for the conference presentation proposal you are sending out next month.
- Email an article or link to a client telling them you thought of them when you read it, with a few words about why you thought it would interest them. (Maintaining strong, meaningful relationships with clients is key if you want them to refer their friends and family to you.)
Take it step-by-step
It’s amazing how much can be done with minimal investments of time.
Even if you only have a few spare moments a day, these are your opportunities to make an impact on your future.
Keep your business development to-do list on your desk and challenge yourself to move something forward every day. Make use of the small pockets of time available to you, to develop and execute on your plan, and to ensure that you are steadily investing in your prosperous future.
Whether you are a solo practitioner, a partner in a small firm, or an associate in a large firm, today’s lawyers are expected to stay productive and effective in both their professional and business spheres. By managing both your inner and outer worlds, you can not only survive when business is slow, but effectively use these times to build and strengthen your practices:
- Think twice. If it seems as if all is lost, challenge that thought. Likely, your business isn’t doomed, and staying calm will allow you to take action to get through a slow stretch.
- Start small. Think about what’s most important to helping your business get back on track: Calling existing or previous clients is an excellent source for opportunities.
- Stay consistent. When business picks up, don’t neglect your long term business development plans. Even a few minutes a day can add up to a big investment in your future.
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