How to Pandemic Proof Your Law Firm With Chris Connelly
During uncertain times, lawyers have historically turned to mentors and more seasoned practitioners for advice. Unfortunately, Coronavirus has no parallel, there are no lawyers that have practiced in the face of a pandemic. This time, we’re all figuring it out as we go.
In this episode of Law in the Time of Coronavirus, Charlotte, North Carolina criminal defense attorney Chris Connelly reveals how his Law Firm practice has evolved and the steps he’s taking every day to stay on top.
Chris stresses the importance of focusing your efforts on surviving as a business. Optimism won’t get your business through the lean times, you need to approach this pandemic pragmatically; you need to begin making tough decisions about your overhead costs, including staffing, rent, and software contracts.
Chris goes on to explore the two Cs that lawyers must be doing: communicate competence and convey compassion to clients. This means checking in with clients by email or phone, giving them updates, and asking what you can do to help. Demonstrate that you’re in control and that you understand their needs. He also examines how you can leverage social media to engage with potential clients and tell your story.
Some parting advice from Chris, “one of the best things you can do is to take good care of yourself because we are the product that we’re selling. So don’t beat up on that product because no one’s going to buy it. Take good care of yourself. Do yoga, do meditation, do scripture readings, whatever works for you will keep you fresh for when that market returns.” Remember, you’re not alone, no one saw this crisis coming, but what you do during this crisis may define you and your law firm for years to come. What is the other side going to look like for you?
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Intro: 00:01 So the big question is this, in these uncertain times, in this uncertain economy, how are some lawyers adapting their practices so they’re not only surviving, they’re thriving while others are folding under the pressure? We’re talking to those lawyers and legal professionals to find out what’s working, what’s not, and what they’re doing to stay on top. You’re listening to Law in the Time of COVID-19.
Robert Ingalls: 00:27 Thanks for joining us on another episode of the podcast. Now, if you’ve enjoyed the show so far, I would appreciate it if you took a quick moment and left us a rating and review wherever you get your podcasts. Now, this podcast is powered by Lawpods, producing branded marketing podcasts for law firms. To bring your firm into the audio age, get started at Lawpods.com.
Robert Ingalls: 00:50 Now, we launched this podcast to help lawyers and law firms manage and overcome the stresses of practicing law and operating a business during this unprecedented crisis. And on each episode, we’re going to be featuring experts, including managing partners, firm managers, marketers, and other experts from the legal field to shed some light on how this crisis is affecting them and the strategic steps they’re taking to stay in control. Today, we’re talking with criminal defense attorney, Chris Connelly out of Charlotte, North Carolina. How are you doing today, Chris?
Chris Connelly: 01:24 Great. How are you doing?
Robert Ingalls: 01:25 I am well, and I appreciate you taking a few minutes this morning to join us. So we’ll jump right in. One of the things that I talked to a lot of people about is day one. And I know day one was a little different for everyone based on the state that they were in and when the restrictions started rolling out. But what did it feel like on day one for you when you realized that this was actually going to impact our day-to-day lives?
Chris Connelly: 01:52 Wow. I’ve been practicing law for 30, going on 32 or so years, and I’ve been in private practice for about two thirds of that since 1994. And I have literally never seen anything like this, or even heard about anything like this in my career. I was a practicing lawyer on September 11th, and I remember we were in court on September 11th when we were hearing about the towers coming down and the court was closing that day, but it reopened either the next day or the day after. I have never been in a situation where courts have been closed for weeks on end and closed indefinitely.
Chris Connelly: 02:34 As to day one, it was just flabbergasting as to how this is all going to play out. Nobody had any roadmap on how this worked out. I know lawyers who were in trouble. They planned for the rainy day, but not for what’s literally the rainy season and they’re thinking about how am I going to pay for staff and how am I going to pay my rent and pay my power and pay for my web server, my internet firm and marketing firm? And a lot of questions, a lot of fear out there. It was unprecedented. And I know this word has gotten overused quite a bit, but it was literally unprecedented.
Robert Ingalls: 03:14 It can feel like it’s being overused, but it really is a poignant word for the moment because so many people are stuck without, like you said, without a roadmap. Frequently, when things go wrong, we turn to our mentors who have seen it and been there and done it. But if someone with your pedigree, with over 30 years of experience hasn’t seen it, there’s not too many people that we can turn to right now.
Chris Connelly: 03:37 No, and there’s not. There wasn’t even any planning for it. You couldn’t even say, “Well, okay. In a couple of months, court’s are closed down, so let me make some strategic moves and save a little money or get some [inaudible 00:03:48].” It’s literally one day the courts are open and the next day they’re not.
Robert Ingalls: 03:53 Yeah. So what you said, you said a lot of people are worrying about how are they going to deal with their staff? How are they going to pay the bills? I’m going to ask you the big question now. What are the next steps? What are the strategies that firms can be employing day-to-day to combat this crisis and keep their firms afloat?
Chris Connelly: 04:12 Well, I think one of the most important things to do is stop kicking yourself. There are a lot of lawyers I know who are kicking themselves in the butt saying, “Why didn’t I see this coming? How am I going to make it through? I’m an idiot. What did I do wrong?” You didn’t do anything wrong. Nobody saw this coming. And if lawyers are in trouble, you’re certainly not alone. This too will pass. This is not going to happen and stay on forever. We will come back. The court system is going to look a lot different when we come back, but things will eventually return.
Chris Connelly: 04:44 And as Rumi said, I think it was Rumi or King Solomon or somebody. Some really smart person many thousands of years ago said, “This too shall pass.” And it will pass. But strategically, what I think we have to focus on is how we’re going to get through this time. And a lot of questions were raised about what do we do about staff. Early in the process, we had some federal legislation which talked about the payment protection, the PPP, and unsecured loans and so forth. Those are great ideas, but they may not carry the day entirely. I think tough decisions are going to have to be made about what staff you’re going to keep and what staff you’re going to need when things return to normal and what the new normal is going to be.
Chris Connelly: 05:31 People are going to have to make decisions about, do I want to keep this person? Do I not want to keep this person? Is this person, as they say, kind of deadwood? Is there a nonproductive employee that it’s time to let them go as I restructure when things come back? A question would have to be made about, do I let this person go and I lay them off, and then when things come back, how easy is it going to be to replace them when things come back? It’s kind of a balance. How long can I afford to hold them, versus how hard will it be to replace them when things come back? So it’s a tough question, and you’re going to have to really dig deep about how valuable is this employee. And for a lot of small time practitioners, employees are like family. It’s a tough decision. That person who was not particularly productive, they’re like family to us, but it may be time for them to go because we really can’t afford to keep them any longer.
Chris Connelly: 06:32 On the flip side, we may have somebody who’s been really a great employee and we’re going to have to dig really deep to find the resources to keep them alive and it’s going to hurt. That’s one question I’ve heard raised about what I do with employees. And I think the federal legislation answered some of that question, or at least bought us some time, but it’s not the panacea. I think another question is going to be is how do I stay in front of my clients during this time? And that’s a great question. I think this is an ideal time for lawyers to be looking into how to communicate with clients and keeping that website, keeping that social media presence, the Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Whatever accounts you have, put it out there and keep it updated. I’ve seen a lot of good lawyers out there who are putting out posts probably every couple of days, if not more often. And it doesn’t have to be anything about the law. It could just be something about you, your kids, or your pets or silly pet stories.
Chris Connelly: 07:31 I’m posting something probably every couple of days about when I go out riding my horse and I put a video of riding through the woods. But it’s all part of the process of keeping yourself out there in front of people so they know that you’re still around. And also communicating that we, at least in North Carolina, we are considered an essential business and we can therefore stay open. So we’re not having to close like restaurants are having to close, or nail salons or hair salons. We can stay open, although we do have to honor social distancing and honor sanitation safeguards.
Chris Connelly: 08:05 So those are a couple of things is how do we address that big issue, and also how do we keep ourselves relevant? Short answers are you got to keep it out there, email your clients, call them. Even if there’s nothing going on, just, “Hey, I’m checking in with you. I’m still on top of your case. I know we got a court date scheduled for March or April, and it’s going to get rescheduled, but I’m looking every week, every day for those court dates to get updated.” People want to know that you’re still on the job.
Robert Ingalls: 08:29 Yeah. One of the things you said resonated with me as well about posting on social media. Really, that’s one of the things, because I’m in the legal marketing world, I work with clients who are in the process of telling their story, using a podcast. And that is one of the things I say over and over is you need to tell your story. Don’t just talk about the law.
Chris Connelly: 08:48 Right.
Robert Ingalls: 08:48 Because frequently your client is probably having a problem, but at the same time, they’re coming to you to determine if is this the person I want to work with. And letting them into your world a little bit, telling that story, opening yourself up is what is going to help them unlock and start to know like, and trust you. So I think that, that’s a really good idea in this moment when people are reconsidering, whether or not they need a lawyer right this second. I mean, the courts aren’t open. So even like, if you’re a criminal defense attorney and tell me what you think. When someone has been charged, if they’re not going to be going to court until August, I think there’s a fair chance that they’re going to say, “Maybe I’m going to wait until August.”
Chris Connelly: 09:30 Right. And that is a problem that a lot of lawyers are having is that clients who realize that, “Okay, that case that I got, that speeding ticket I got, I’ve got a few months to figure it out.” So there’s a distinct lack of urgency among the customer base about whether or not even to hire a lawyer. It used to be that clients will think, “Well, I just got charged with something, so I should hire a lawyer now because I know I’ve got court next week and I want to plan a little bit ahead.” They don’t have that same problem right now. They don’t have that same urgency of hiring a lawyer. So we’re going to have to put ourselves out there.
Chris Connelly: 10:08 We also may want to tell clients that this is actually a golden opportunity for us to work on your case because we can work on it uninterrupted. We can talk to witnesses. We can even talk with the DA. I have gotten really, really, really good deals in the last couple of months because the DAs know that they also don’t want to get deluged with cases come July and August or June. So they’re trying to get rid of stuff now. I’ve got some deal that I couldn’t believe I still would not have gotten a couple of months ago. I had a guy with a pretty bad traffic record. I got him an improper equipment because the DA right now is looking to clear their docket so they’re not swamped come June, July or August.
Chris Connelly: 10:49 The thing about communication with clients is that you have to model how the pilot talks to you when you’re in on a flight and in turbulence. It’s the two Cs of communications. First of all, you have to communicate competence. You don’t want to pilot coming on the intercom saying, “Uh oh, we’re really screwed here. We’ve got turbo and I don’t know what we’re going to do. Start reading your Bible.” You want a pilot who conveys confidence. “I’ve got this under control, and we’re going to handle this. We’re going to go down a couple of thousand feet and we’re going to get out of turbulence. I’ve been there, I’ve done this. I know how to get out of it.”
Chris Connelly: 11:26 The second C is that you want to convey compassion that I understand how upset you are. I understand how upsetting this is. I understand how you feel. We are taking care of it. So it’s when a lawyer is communicating with a client, the two Cs would have to be, the short version, the two Cs to focus on would be compassion and competence. I got this and I understand how you feel.
Robert Ingalls: 11:50 There was a lot in there that I thought was really good advice, especially if you’re a criminal defense attorney that is listening to this. That’s some of the best advice I’ve ever heard is now’s the time to get in. There’s a lot on that docket and the DA is going to be really concerned about clearing it. And I can’t imagine what court is going to look like for them on the next day one, the day one that things do start to open back up. So if you’re able to get in and talk to your lawyer now and get some kind of deal worked out, I would expect now is the time to strike on that. That is great advice.
Chris Connelly: 12:22 And we also have the way to contact them. These DAs don’t live in a vacuum. We’ve got their cell phone numbers. We have their email address. They know us, they know who the good lawyers are, and who are not the good lawyers. The lawyers who are going to keep their word. We can reach them in a way that the public can’t. The courts are pretty much closed, or they have a couple of hours where you can go to a window and try to talk with the DA. That’s easier said than done. That line is long. Those DAs are hurried. there’s one DA doing the work of about 40 of the other DAs. They’re overwhelmed. They’re not going to want to listen to the story. They’re not going to want to hear about why you were driving so fast or why you did this, or did that.
Chris Connelly: 13:07 We have access to the back channels that we can make stuff happen. And we know how to present it in a manner that is digestible for them. It’s a thing. We know what they want, what kind of information they want. And that’s not something that the general public has.
Robert Ingalls: 13:24 Sure.
Chris Connelly: 13:25 That’s also something that we can get done now while things are kind of precarious.
Robert Ingalls: 13:31 Now, we’ve talked a little bit about changing your strategy for client acquisition. Is there anything else that you’re doing to modify your approach to acquiring new clients? And then kind of a sub question on that, how are you dealing with clients who are struggling to pay their own bills on top of their legal fees?
Chris Connelly: 13:50 I think that could be answered in the same answer in both of those questions. And that’s pretty much, we have to focus on relationships, not revenue. Everybody’s hurting now. There are a lot of people who are literally not working. They were living paycheck to paycheck and that paycheck just evaporated. And that 1200 bucks you’re going to get from the government, that’s not going to last very long. So we have to focus on the relationships, not necessarily the revenues.
Chris Connelly: 14:14 So we can’t push too hard about, well, you get a fee balance on the case. Take what you can, because you don’t want this person getting ticked off at you and then they go elsewhere and they find another lawyer, or they just get frustrated at themselves. They get embarrassed and they get ashamed about the position that they’re in and they just say, “I’m not taking this guy’s phone call anymore. I’ll go find somebody else come August or September.” So focus on relationships, not revenue.
Chris Connelly: 14:41 But on the flip side, I know lawyers who are saying that, “Well, I’ve got no money coming in now, so that case that just came in, I’m going to do it for a third of what I would have done later.” Don’t go for those quick fixes. Those quick fixes will come back to bite you in the butt as the months go on. That little less fee that you get in on a deep discount right now, that client is going to be the most high maintenance person in the world. And they’re going to sense your desperation. Probably will not intentionally necessarily, but they will probably take advantage of it a bit.
Robert Ingalls: 15:13 Yeah.
Chris Connelly: 15:13 They’re going to sense how desperate you are and you’ll be working that case for that discounted fee for many months to come. And you’re going to be kicking yourself in the butt the whole way, and you’re going to be hating life and it’s not going to be a good relationship. The client’s not going to appreciate it. You’re going to get tired of them. And you’re going to kick yourself in the butt for taking that fee. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve taken fees at a discount when times are lean. And I always kick myself in the butt about it six months down the road, when I’m still trying to deal with that client.
Robert Ingalls: 15:43 Yeah. I was just thinking about sitting in trial and six months from now going, “What have I done?”
Chris Connelly: 15:50 What did I get myself stuck with?
Robert Ingalls: 15:54 So some of the major concerns that lawyers are having, we talked about staff, but some are really starting to worry about losing their office space, not being able to afford contracts for key hardware and software. What is your advice there?
Chris Connelly: 16:08 I would say that now is the time to re-negotiate contracts. If your landlord is in much as the same dire strait that you’re in, they’re worried about how they’re going to fill this space. You can probably go to them, especially if you’ve got a relationship with them, especially if you’ve been a good renter or a long standing renter. Times are tight. My practice just evaporated overnight. We went from having a gangbuster couple of months to nothing happening for an indefinite period of months. Can you help me out? I can’t speak for them. I don’t know what kind of position they’re going to be in, but I think if you’ve been good all along and they’re somewhat reasonable, they’re going to say, “Well, okay, what kind of grace can I give you?”
Chris Connelly: 16:52 Same thing with any other provider you’ve got, whether it’s an internet provider or a marketing firm, whatever. They’re not going to try to get rid of somebody who’s been a good customer all along because this happened. Nobody saw this coming. And I think there’s going to be a lot of renegotiation of contracts that happen in this time period. And I also think we’re going to have to realize that our clients will be doing the same thing to us. They’re going to say, “Well, look, I had a great job in the bank, or I had a great job at this restaurant and I just got laid off. I can’t afford your fee anymore. What could we do?” So we’re going to have to make some tough decisions about how we’re going to work with this person. We may want to say, “Okay, well, I know things are tight now, but pay a little bit of something,” just so they got some skin in the game. And, “We’ll work something out as courts get open.” It all kind of circles back to the relationships, not revenue.
Robert Ingalls: 17:42 Right. And I mean, just from a purely business perspective, I have to feel like there is going to be a lot of people in the same position because frequently when one sector kind of goes soft, another one can kind of pick up and grab those leases and will be ready to move in that direction. And I just don’t think that’s going to be the case, when at the end of this, I think everyone’s going to kind of be equally hurting and there’s not going to be a sector that’s able to step in and just take over those spaces. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.
Chris Connelly: 18:14 Yeah. It’s kind of like the stock market a lot. Pretty much all companies are down except for the ones that are doing delivery. I think it’s going to be the same thing in the people business, which is what we’re in. Everybody’s going to be hurting and it’s going to be some lean times going forward, or we don’t know what this recovery is going to look like. We don’t know who’s going to be out of business, who’s going to be able to start a business, who’s going to be able to survive. So there’s going to be a lot of negotiating room.
Robert Ingalls: 18:41 Now there’s a lot of firms out there that have been technology averse for many years, doing it really the old school way. And I think that they have been a bit exposed at this moment when a lot of people aren’t willing to drive into the city and don’t want to meet face to face anymore. And a lot are having to move to technology. What technology are you using, has your firm been using to stay in front of this?
Chris Connelly: 19:08 I’m an old dinosaur when it comes to technology and I have gotten schooled in it pretty much the school of hard knocks over the last couple of months. I have learned to do Zoom. I’ve learned to do podcasts. I’ve learned to do virtual consultations by phone, by FaceTime. That is the wave of the future. People are not going to want to come to your office for the most routine things. They’re going to want to learn how to speak to you remotely. They want to pay you remotely. One system I’ve been using for the last few months called Law Pay. That’s a way of taking credit cards over the phone. You can do it over your iPhone, over an iPhone app, and you can also send them a link. So I’ve been using that quite a bit.
Chris Connelly: 19:49 Whatever keeps you out of that office, whether it’s Zoom or Law Pay or virtual meeting or a phone remote meeting, that’s where we’re going in the future. And I think clients are going to like that. I think also lawyers are going to like it too, because it’s a lot easier to talk to a client when you’re sitting in your pajamas than it is to get dressed up and go down to the office.
Robert Ingalls: 20:11 Absolutely.
Chris Connelly: 20:12 So technology will be key.
Robert Ingalls: 20:14 Now we’ve talked a lot about how Coronavirus in this crisis has changed how we’re operating now. I’m going to ask you to kind of look into the future in your crystal ball here. What do you think the other side of this crisis is going to look like? And what is the practice of law going to look like on the other side?
Chris Connelly: 20:32 I think that technology is going to be paramount. I think that we’re going to be a lot leaner. We’re going to realize that all that staff that we had and a lot of the overhead we had, we don’t need. We may not need to have an office anymore. We may get away with having a home office where we can meet with people remotely. Now in doing so, you have to make sure that you’ve got the right kind of setting. I’ve heard all kinds of crazy stories, horror stories, or some are even funny stories about what happens when people have Zoom meetings at home and the kids are running around naked in the back. Or there was that Spanish Telecaster who did a live broadcast from his living room and his girlfriend was walking around in the background and she had no clothes on, much to the surprise of his other girlfriend. You got to make sure your background is appropriate and also make sure that you’re dressed appropriately.
Chris Connelly: 21:24 And I think not only dressed appropriately is good for the client experience, but it’s also good for your experience. If you’re trying to do a conference call in your pajamas, you’re going to have a different mindset than if you dress professionally and at least get a golf shirt on and a pair of khakis. There’s a different mindset when you dress differently. So I would say, even though we’re doing things remotely, honor the space, honor the relationship, make sure you’re sitting in a place that’s dedicated and appropriate for a consultation. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately. You’re going to feel differently. You’re going to look differently. There’s going to be a different vibe on that phone call when you have the space and dressed appropriately and put it in an appropriate setting.
Robert Ingalls: 22:05 Now we’ve been talking predominantly about how you manage the business through the crisis. Do you have any tips that you’re employing to manage all the competing problems of life that have also taken on additional layers of complexity?
Chris Connelly: 22:19 Well, everything has gotten more complicated. And I think as lawyers, we are competitive and we’re perfectionists. Now is not the time to be either. You got to take care of yourself. We’re going to come out of this. We’re going to be on the other side of this. This too shall pass. And how are we taking care of ourselves? When you think about when you go into a grocery store and there’s a dented can or a bruised head of lettuce on the shelf, you’re not going to buy that. Same thing for us. If we have been beating ourselves up for the last couple of months and not taking care of ourselves and not keeping our head on, we’re not going to look so good in a few months from now when clients are looking to hire a lawyer. We don’t want to be the dented can or bruised head of lettuce on that shelf full of lawyers because we’re not going to get bought. Nobody’s going to be coming to us because we’re going to look like we’ve been through the ringer.
Chris Connelly: 23:12 So I would say that one of the best things you could do is to take good care of yourself because we are the product that we’re selling. So don’t beat up on that product because no one’s going to buy it. Take good care of yourself. Do yoga, do meditation, do scripture readings, whatever works for you will keep you fresh for when that market returns.
Chris Connelly: 23:38 I have been reading about what some of the things that came out of other plagues and did a little bit of quick research. When the plague of 1606, the Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Macbeth. When Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years, he formulated the way he was going to bring South Africa back. St. Patrick, he was also in slavery for a number of years and he came back and that restored his faith. Martin Luther King wrote a letter from the Birmingham jail when he was in there for 11 days.
Chris Connelly: 24:07 So these times of crisis are actually times when we can build a better world and make ourselves better. So take care of yourself, do yoga, do Tai Chi, do meditation, do prayer, do all the above. Take good care of yourself. Don’t beat yourself up. Because when this thing comes back, we have to be in our best shape ever. It’s going to be a tough environment. It’s to be a challenging environment. You’ve got to have your head on straight so you could spot the new opportunities. And you’re not going to do that if you’ve been spending the last couple of months beating yourself up.
Robert Ingalls: 24:41 Well, that is fantastic advice, Chris. I appreciate it. And we’re going to keep this podcast rolling into the new normal to see what that looks like and try to stay here and help lawyers on the other side of that. And I look forward to catching up with you again and getting your input when all that begins. But thanks again for taking some time out for us today. And before I let you go, if a lawyer wants to connect with you, where can they find you?
Chris Connelly: 25:05 They can call me on my cell phone. It’s (980) 263-8366. Again, (980) 263-8366. I am coaching with lawyers either individually or in groups to do consultant work about how to manage through this crisis, as well as how to come out on the other side of it. So I’m available, I’ve got some slots available. I’d love to work with some people. And I definitely enjoyed the podcast. It’s another new skill I’ve been picking up is how to do a podcast. And it’s a work in progress.
Robert Ingalls: 25:37 I’m all about the lawyers doing podcasts. It’s fun for me, too.
Chris Connelly: 25:39 I bet. Yeah. Yeah. It’s a great idea.
Robert Ingalls: 25:42 Well, I appreciate that Chris, and have a good one. Thanks so much.
Chris Connelly: 25:45 You, too. Thank you.
Outro: 25:48 Thanks for joining us. For resources from the episode, go to the show notes in your podcast player or visit LawPods.com/podcast. Do you know someone who’s staying on top that should be a guest on the show? Submit their name to Letspodcast@lawpods.com. Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay profitable.