Law firms are struggling—along with the rest of the world—to deal with the consequences from the novel coronavirus pandemic and to plan for what comes next. With many Americans experiencing work insecurity due to shelter-at-home orders, unemployment claims rising, and business shutdowns or slowdowns, some predict a short-term decrease in demand for lawyers. But the pandemic and its fallout have also created or increased a host of legal problems in almost every practice area.
How can your law firm position itself to fill upcoming needs? Aligning your practice with those needs is imperative.
Crisis-Time Needs Shift Business and Consumer Demand for Lawyers
Lawyers and law firms provide much needed services to all sectors of society—consumers, government, industry, philanthropic organizations, and business. While many are “pinching pennies,” every one of these demographics continues to need legal services, either for “normal” kinds of legal problems or new ones created by the pandemic or its side effects. These people, businesses, and organizations need your help. Identifying the areas of need and tailoring your practice areas to meet them lets you serve others and sustain your legal practice.
The current crisis has created problems across all business and personal sectors. Some are not new—consumer credit problems, landlord-tenant disputes, bankruptcy, divorce—and some arise out of the novel coronavirus or the government’s attempts to “flatten the curve.” Below we list some areas expected to see a demand for lawyers:
- Business and commercial;
- Products liability;
- Claims based on events and services;
- COVID-19 medical malpractice and torts;
- Legal malpractice;
- Family law;
- Wills and estate planning;
- Foreclosure and eviction; and
- Bankruptcy and restructuring strategies.
Identifying where you can help, then making your availability and skills known, will allow you to help others get to the other side successfully.
Demand for Lawyers after COVID-19 Shutdowns
The lives of many people and businesses are on hold as a result of efforts to quell the spread of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean that their legal needs have decreased. If anything, those needs persist but were also put on hold to await a time when commerce and access to law firm offices and courts resumes. Identifying those legal needs and their demographics can help you position your firm to serve.
Law firms often organize themselves by practice area. To that end, we identify here by practice area the fields in which the demand for lawyers is likely to exist (if not increase) as a result of current problems.
Employment Law Demand
One of the first practice areas likely to see an increase in demand for lawyers is employment law. Many business sectors such as hospitality, on-location entertainment, travel, and food have suffered during the pandemic, and forecasts are for a “new normal” to emerge instead of a return to pre-pandemic ways. How can businesses weather these changes, and how can you help them do so?
In attempts to preserve the business and avoid liability, many employers may seek legal counsel as they develop their plans to reopen and resume full-scale operations. Among other things, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has advised businesses to devise an infectious disease preparedness and response plan. Developing and implementing that plan could require input from knowledgeable legal counsel on how implementation could be impacted by labor and employment laws.
Many businesses have been forced into temporary closure or reductions in staffing or hours, resulting in layoffs and reduced demand for goods and services. These businesses are likely to seek counsel in several areas:
- WARN Act notice requirements;
- The effect of layoffs, temporary closures, and other cost-saving measures on employee benefits like sick and vacation leave;
- Compliance with federal, state, and local minimum wage laws when instituting cost-saving reductions in force;
- Harmonizing cost-saving measures that affect staffing with organized labor contracts;
- Workers’ compensation claims arising from workplace exposure; and
- Rehiring methods when businesses resume or attempt to ramp back up.
Other types of business appear to be thriving—grocers, prepared meal services, delivery services, game makers and sellers, and telemedicine to name a few. But working through the pandemic may mean the employees of these businesses cannot reasonably follow social distancing best practices, potentially placing them at risk for exposure. In these businesses, employers are likely to need legal advice on matters like these:
- The nature of necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), employee training, and social distancing measures.
- The application of OSHA and state safety standards to employers navigating the “new normal;”and
- The application of employment laws, such as reasonable accommodation, FMLA, and the CARES Act, to employees.
Attorneys on both sides of the proverbial “v” will help their clients navigate administrative claims and other litigation:
- Failure to protect claims based on alleged workplace exposure to the virus;
- Claims of adverse employment action allegedly taken on protected class basis;
- Workers’ compensation claims based on alleged workplace transmission of the virus; and
- Wage claims based on inconsistent or reduced hours and timekeeping difficulties.
Business and Commercial Advice and Litigation
Most businesses are likely experiencing significant impact to their normal operations. Shelter-in-place orders have resulted in supply chain disruptions, order processing delays, and missed deadlines, and decreased business is making meeting financial obligations difficult if not impossible for many. Your current and future business clients are likely to need counsel in areas like these:
- Assistance understanding and maintaining compliance with relief legislation passed as a result of the pandemic, such as Paycheck Protection Program forgiveness and tax credits;
- Breach of contract claims involving vendors, suppliers, and customers;
- Shareholder litigation arising from failure to protect the public;
- Failure to protect claims from employees;
- Mergers and acquisitions work postponed or cancelled;
- Cancelled business contracts; and
- Premises liability claims, especially for those operating residential facilities such as group homes or nursing homes.
Business clients will need guidance on how to proceed to avoid liability as well as how to mitigate liability from business decisions made as a result of the economic shutdown.
Demand for Lawyers in Insurance Practice Areas
Law firms with a strong insurance client base are likely to see a steep uptick in activity, both for insurers as business operations and as insurers. Insurers as businesses themselves may experience loss of revenue due to exposure and payouts. And, in what could be a claim-rich period, litigating claims is likely to require an increased legal force to protect reserves.
Insurers providing business and operational coverage are likely to seek guidance on claims arising from business disruption due to shelter-in-place business closures. Indeed, complaints about rejected business interruption insurance claims are on the rise.
Health insurance providers are likely to experience a serious pinch. Relief litigation requiring insurance to cover coronavirus testing, an attempt to quickly ramp up testing for COVID-19, is likely to further decrease reserves.
Anticipating increased claims and to protect reserves, insurers may be less amenable to settling claims, making litigation more likely. Attorneys on both the plaintiff and defense side of insurance legal disputes are likely to be in high demand.
Products Liability Attorneys
With the recent, high demand for and low supply of PPE, businesses have sprung up to fill the void, sometimes producing or selling defective or inadequate products. Products liability attorneys are likely to see cases regarding the efficacy of PPE and cleaning supplies such as hand sanitizer, masks, wipes, and sanitizing cleaners. Similarly, with so many clamoring to provide the COVID vaccine or cure, courts are likely to see products liability cases in those areas as well.
Claims Based on Events and Services
Businesses that provide event planning, entertainment, and services may see an influx of claims based on cancellations whether or not refunds were made. Events involving concerts, weddings, school tours, major league sports, and vacations were likely postponed or cancelled in 2020. This affected not just the consumers but also event planners, venues, hosting organizations, travel, and hospitality. We are very likely to see a significant number of cases in which consumers seek refunds or damages or organizations attempt to defend their positions despite the likelihood of significantly decreased earnings this year.
Coronavirus Medical Malpractice and Related Torts
Medical care providers on the frontlines have faced war-like triage situations, often forced to cope with insufficient and inadequate equipment on top of no clearly effective treatment plan for those suffering from the novel coronavirus. At the same time, everyday citizens have struggled to obtain necessary medical testing and treatment. Medical malpractice practitioners are needed to help as bereaved family members of COVID patients who died may file claims against medical facilities and care providers alike.
There may also be a rise in tort claims related to coronavirus treatment and patients. Funeral homes in hard-hit areas have been inundated with more bodies than they can handle, communication mistakes have falsely informed loved ones about a COVID patient’s progress. When mistakes are made, some families will seek to hold someone responsible, and funeral homes and medical staff will need someone defending actions taken in crisis conditions.
Legal Malpractice Based on Pandemic Practices
The legal field may also have to come to its own rescue. Lawyers in many areas transitioned unexpectedly to telecommuting. Some clients may claim that the lack of preparedness for the change in operations negatively impacted their cases. Law firms may need to defend such claims alleging lack of succession planning and lack of proper case handling while telecommuting.
Family Law Attorneys
No one would be surprised to see a surge in divorce cases or post-divorce disputes in the coming months. Shelter-in-place orders may have pushed some couples to the breaking point or prevented parent-child time in separations or post-divorce families. Dealing with these cases amid the existing backlog created by court closures will require a patient and diligent family law bar.
Pandemic Estate Planning
Estate planning should be a priority for everyone, but suffering a hardship or loss—let alone a global pandemic—seems to spur individuals to ensure their estate plans are in order and businesses to review and revise their succession plans. As a result, firms are likely to see a demand for lawyers in estate planning. With that motivation in mind, now is the perfect time to reinforce with would-be clients that estate planning is a way to protect assets during life, ensure they are available when needed, and instruct on how they are to be distributed upon a client’s death.
Under normal circumstances, wills and other estate planning tools have required in-person meetings to provide witnesses to the execution and purpose of the documents. Government discouragement or prohibition on transacting business in person during the coronavirus pandemic has many turning to the Internet to create or revise wills online, but few understand the perils of DIY wills. Even legally adequate online forms can be the basis for a will contest when the testator failed to complete the form correctly or provided inconsistent instructions.
Estate planning lawyers who make their availability know can serve those wishing to update or create estate plans. In some jurisdictions, in-person meetings might not be required. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, some states had passed legislation allowing electronic notarization, and some jurisdictions had passed legislation allowing the creation of valid electronic wills or the recognition of e-wills created in other states.
Foreclosure and Eviction
With few exceptions, the closure of businesses and loss of jobs did not stop the obligation to pay housing and commercial mortgages and leases, but many individuals and businesses struggle to keep up with those obligations without an income stream. While executive orders or legislation in some jurisdictions have prohibited foreclosure or eviction actions temporarily, the mortgage and lease obligations still exist. When the moratorium on foreclosure and eviction actions is lifted, many individuals and businesses will feel the brunt.
As mortgagees and landlords are allowed to pursue steps to protect their interests, law firms will be called upon to represent parties on both sides of the transaction to negotiate new payment terms or to litigate collection of missed mortgage or lease payments or eviction actions.
Bankruptcy and Restructuring Debt
The economic shutdown has significantly impacted individuals and businesses, and relief legislation cannot completely make up for the loss of employment and business felt across every sector of the economy. The negative impact on income and revenue will force many to seek relief under federal bankruptcy laws, creating or at least sustaining a demand for lawyers in that practice area.
Anticipating a rise in bankruptcy filings necessitated by the consequences of the temporary but widespread business closures, Congress included in the CARES Act provisions that make obtaining bankruptcy relief easier for individuals and small businesses. Law firms need to be ready to serve the rising tide of individuals and businesses seeking discharge of their debts or a restructuring of debts to create a repayment plan the debtor can manage.
Managing Client Expectations
Courts around the country have been forced to limit or continue most of the cases on their dockets while shelter-in-place orders have been in effect. The resulting backlogs will push many cases much further out and, in some areas, create a caseload courts are ill-equipped to pare down in the short term. In this setting, managing client expectations could be key to keeping the client. Practitioners should advise clients that courts are moving especially slowly as they, like businesses around the country, attempt to resume full operations in a safe way.
Law Firm Hiring and Staffing to Meet Changing Legal Services Needs
The COVID-19 crises will affect law firms across the country differently depending on the firm’s size, practice areas, clientele, and location. We hope you are in an area that will benefit from the anticipated higher demand for lawyers. Understandably, staffing needs will depend on demand for services in your area, but identifying how you can position your firm to serve emerging or growing legal services needs can help put your firm on solid ground.
Reach Out to Those in Need/Get the Word Out
While marketing is often one of the first budget line items cut in lean times, getting the word out that you are available to help with the legal ramifications of pandemic and post-pandemic America is key to finding clients who need your valuable services. After identifying areas in which your firm can meet client needs, reach out to those clients. Ways to do that yourself include these:
- Write informative blogs on legal claims with which you can help, posting regularly;
- Write an article for online or print media explaining legal claims in your area;
- Volunteer with pro bono legal services; and
- Volunteer in non-legal areas where you would find the types of clients you can help.
The expected impact of COVID-19 on lawyers is significant and only beginning to be felt. Leveraging your skills and creativity, you can target areas experiencing a growth in demand for lawyers to help others solve problems arising from the crisis.
Marketing for lawyers and law firms is just as important now, during the upheaval of a pandemic, as it is without a global crisis. If you have questions about how to position your firm in the current climate, TOPDOG Legal Marketing’s lawyer-driven team is ready to fetch results for you. For a consultation, call us at (480) 744-7331 or complete our online contact form.