What Firms Can Do to Help Staff With School-Aged Children

There is compelling anecdotal evidence that workers with school-aged children are having an especially hard time dealing with the present situation. When the pandemic began, it was the virus itself that drew most of the attention. Now, an increasing percentage of the lawyers we advise are reporting that, while they and their families are safe, they are struggling to cope with the added burdens of running schools out of their homes.

Even the most capable multitaskers are finding it difficult to keep up with their job responsibilities while simultaneously facilitating sometimes multiple school curriculums. Lawyers are affected in particular because their income and performance are so dependent on billable hours. And we have been told by more than one attorney that school-related responsibilities are cutting two to three hours a day into their lawyering time.

This situation isn’t likely to improve as some school districts implement hybrid plans where children attend school on some days of the week and stay home on others. Schools rarely coordinate these plans with one another, so parents with children in multiple schools are faced with an increasing array of requirements to which they have to adhere. We are aware of one household where the parents of three children have to schedule up to 17 different Zoom calls for their children on a single day. This is coming at a time when law firms are counting on lawyers and paralegals to continue to generate revenues.

The most important thing law firms can do right now to support lawyers and staff with school-aged children is initiate an honest conversation about the impact that schooling and other burdens are having on them. Employees might be understandably hesitant to open up about their particular circumstances, so don’t wait for a worker to tell you an emergency has taken place or things have generally fallen apart. Let your team know now that it’s ok to say if they’re not fully ok and that the firm will respond in a flexible and intelligent way.

There are also concrete steps that a firm can take to help employees cope and continue to perform their duties. For example, consider having prepared food delivered to lighten the load on parents who have an enormous amount of caretaking to do at the moment. For larger firms who have more employees, it could make sense to subsidize or underwrite online tutoring services so that burden doesn’t fall only on the shoulders of their workers.

Some of these new benefits might seem novel or strange. So did many benefits that are now more commonplace, like providing free breakfast on Fridays. Workers without children may have a legitimate concern that their needs aren’t being as fully recognized as those of their colleagues with children. Their views and needs should be heard too. It’s possible to initiate a conversation with all of your people about what they might need while recognizing that those with school-aged children are likely to be carrying additional child-rearing responsibilities.

These times call for creative solutions, and the proper response starts with opening the door to your lawyers and staff so they can feel comfortable expressing what’s especially difficult right now and how the firm can help. The cost of not taking these extra steps can be great, in the form of workers’ compensation stress claims, lost clients due to poor work product, and malpractice actions against lawyers who weren’t able to keep up. Don’t wait to check in and offer support to those juggling the most.

Increase Your Firm’s Cash Reserves

As we reach the mid-point of the calendar year, law firms should be evaluating key financial metrics. It’s a great time to begin tax planning for the full year and to preview next year’s tax returns. Starting now gives owners time to adjust if too much or too little has been withheld. It also allows leaders to take stock of projected cash flow and expenses.

There’s one element to which firms should pay particular attention this year: cash reserves. Many are in the habit of distributing all profits to partners or shareholders at year’s end, but this means they have no cash on hand when January 1st rolls around. The legal press has finally gotten around to questioning the wisdom of draining cash reserves every year. This is a dubious strategy generally (as we wrote about back in 2015), but it could be ruinous in 2020.

Right now, the risk of a financial shock is significantly higher than usual. Employees could get sick, clients could be unable to pay their invoices, and hackers could take advantage of the vulnerabilities of a work-from-home system. The government is rapidly changing rules and requirements, which makes it difficult to plan, and a firm’s other sources of revenue, like subletting office space, are much less reliable.

Beyond the safety net that cash reserves provide, law firms can use cash to expand through acquisitions of distressed firms. There will be more disgruntled but talented lawyers on the market over the next 6-9 months. And with interest rates as low as they are, now could be the perfect time to grow your firm’s market share. These are all better potential uses of firm profits than dividing them among the owners.

Because of the dip in revenues that generally accompanies the holidays in the last quarter, firms should work with their accountants now to plan toward ending the year with cash reserves to cover, at minimum, two months’ worth of expenses.