The present period of lockdown is testing both individuals and law firms in new and unexpected ways. Many parents are having to juggle supporting their children with home-schooling while simultaneously working from home; no mean feat. Likewise, legal businesses are having to find a balance between keeping enough money flowing in, looking after their staff and clients, and adhering to the government guidance designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some businesses within our profession have made the deliberate decision to help others and engage in charitable acts for the benefit of the community. Others may have been left wanting when it comes to being ethical and altruistic. But what is to be gained by giving and thinking of others at this time? And why should ethical law firm practice count now more than ever?
To furlough, or not to furlough, that is the question
The decision whether to furlough staff has, for many, become an ethical one. Outside of the legal world, Victoria Beckham has become one of the most vilified on this topic, after it transpired that her company (Victoria Beckham Limited) furloughed 25 staff.
Many UK law firms have now decided to furlough staff , and while it is not appropriate to cast judgement on their reasons for doing so, top-100 law firm, Keystone Law, has announced in the Law Gazette, that it will not utilise the Government’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS). While he acknowledges his firm will be hit by a reduction in client instructions due to COVID-19, James Knight, chief executive and founder of Keystone, believes the decision is an ethical one; “…I do not believe it is ethically responsible to take government money designed for genuinely cash strapped businesses, in order to maximise our own profits”. As Keystone’s normal working model is based on remote working, it may be that their costs are lower, and hence they are more able to weather the current storm in contrast to other firms paying high rental and office-related costs.
Clearly, not all law firms have the financial reserves or ongoing revenue to justify not using the JRS. Some have also (or instead) made the decision to forgo partner bonuses, reduce senior staff pay, defer pay, and offer sabbaticals on reduced pay, in a bid to control costs.
Law firms reaching out to those in need
Another way in which law firms across the UK are acting in ethical and caring ways is to provide free legal advice. Irwin Mitchell is providing free advice in the form of a 20-minute consultation to victims of domestic abuse following a 700% increase in calls to the domestic abuse charity, Refuge. The law firm points out that any individuals who contact them will be signposted to available services or other legal aid firms, and will not be under any obligation to engage their services.
Many law firms across the country are offering similar help. Aaron & Partners is providing a free online seminar to help businesses affected by COVID-19, Edinburgh law firm Gilson Gray is offering free legal advice to Scottish businesses which have obtained offers of loans under the Government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) programme, and RHW Law are providing a free COVID-19 helpline to advise on family law issues, amongst many others.
Providing legal advice and services for free at this time serves a number of purposes. In addition to showing that your organisation genuinely cares, it can be a significant morale boost for staff to feel that they are helping those in need and are struggling as a result of the ongoing pandemic lockdown. It is important that law firms providing free advice balance the ethics of their approach and, hence, should be focused on the act of giving help to those in need.
How law firms treat their staff, clients, prospective clients, community, and the wider public matters. Giving purely for the sake of helping those in need can have profound benefits to your business. Your staff will be motivated and inspired, and they will see your business as one they aspire to remain with in the long term. Furthermore, clients will be naturally drawn to firms that act in a truly caring manner. Ultimately, your objective at this time is to be the helping hand that people need right now.
“To do more for the world than the world does for you – that is success.” Henry Ford
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