by Vicki L. Shemin, J.D., LICSW, ACSW
Breaking the news to divorcing clients that courts are closed indefinitely (except for the most extreme of emergencies) has added yet another layer of stress and strain to the avalanche of burdens clients already bear.
It has not been easy to absorb the news that the trajectory of their divorce has been indefinitely derailed. In the old normal, trying as it was to go through the process, at least the promise of having had an end in sight engendered more than a small measure of hope.
For clients who have successfully negotiated and signed their divorce agreements, until they can have the judge’s blessing that their agreement passes muster and they are officially divorced, they are left with a pervasive sense that finality is outside their grasp. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, for those clients who are well into the heart of the process but still far from settlement, the fact that the courts will be unavailable — and then certainly backlogged — brings on a different host of far-reaching concerns.
Fortunately, those of us who are trained mediators have been able to offer clients an efficient and effective alternative: tele-mediation. In short, tele-mediation is the distribution of mediation services and information through various telecommunication technologies. Most notable of these have been Zoom and Microsoft Teams, modalities that offer document-sharing capabilities and private breakout rooms.
Compassion and Guidance Through the Attorney’s Eyes with Guest, Andrea E. DeLaney, Esq. Andrea specializes in family law and divorce, including child custody, child support, paternity, alimony and asset division. Together with Host, Cece Shatz on Going Solo with Cece Show, they chatted about the asset division process and various legal steps in divorce. WGSN-DB Going Solo Network, Radio, TV & Podcasts (www.goingsolomedia.com)
A SURVIVAL GUIDE FOR LAWYERS
by Vicki L. Shemin, J.D., LICSW, ACSW
For most of us, we have compartmentalized well our work/family life so that when we leave the office, well – we have left the office.
Fast forward to stay-at-home orders.
In order to carry on with our work lives, the boundaries have blurred – literally – as many of us find that our computers and printers are set up on the kitchen/dining room table or in our bedrooms. Harkening back to the days of college dorm living, there is that pervasive sense of guilt and burden: I could be working longer instead of watching Netflix after dinner; I should not go to bed yet because I could probably work for another hour or two.
In order not to extinguish our Mojo flame, here are my top 10 survival tips:
Ask not what has been taken from you, but reflect on what you have to be grateful for as you start each day. Enough said.
2. Routine, Ritual, Repeat
Establish new routines to offset the new normal. For me, I have inverted my usual routine (which was – TMI -showering in the morning to be fresh to start the day); now, once my work for the day is complete, I shower to psychologically and physically demarcate the clear boundary between ending the work day and beginning the evening. Conversely, mark the beginning of your work day by getting out of your pajamas and actually getting dressed in garb you would wear outside. I don’t watch television during the day while I work (well, okay, except for the news during my lunch break).
3. Dress for Success
For Zoom meetings, it’s an occasion to do something different than jeans and a T-shirt! I don earrings, choose an outfit I would wear to the office, and apply some makeup in an attempt to recapture looking professional while sitting at the dining room table.
Read more of the article at https://masslawyersweekly.com/2020/04/23/not-burning-out-while-staying-in-a-survival-guide/
Terms make PPP loan program ‘no brainer’ for firms, experts say
From Lawyers Weekly – Editor’s note: On April 16, the SBA announced that the PPP loan funding originally authorized by Congress had been exhausted and the agency would no longer be accepting PPP applications. A deal had yet to be reached by lawmakers to replenish funding for the program.
Law firms should act quickly to apply for small business loans under a new federal program designed to forestall layoffs by employers struggling to make ends meet during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say.
The $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program was created under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed into law on March 27. Launched on April 3, the new U.S. Small Business Administration program provides small business job-retention loans to pay for eight weeks of payroll expenses and certain overhead to keep workers employed.
Wendell G. Davis, regional administrator for the SBA’s Region I, which encompasses the New England states, says the program is “tailor-made” for professionals such as attorneys.
“As long as the law firm spends the money on paycheck-related items, it essentially turns into a grant,” says Davis, an attorney himself. “It would be crazy not to apply. There’s no downside.”
Calling PPP a “good program” that’s “keeping paychecks flowing,” Providence business lawyer Michael F. Sweeney is advising his clients to apply for the loans.
“I don’t see law firms any differently than other eligible small businesses,” Sweeney adds. “So I’d advise other law firms, other accounting firms, and other service firms to go ahead and seek PPP funding if they are eligible.”
Boston banking attorney Charles H. DeBevoise has one piece of advice for law firms considering applying for a PPP loan.
“Don’t ‘self-select’ yourself out of the opportunity,” DeBevoise says. “Let the banker or the SBA tell you you’re not eligible.”
Not too late
Wellesley lawyer Sheryl J. Dennis filed for a PPP loan on the first day of the program. She says her loan application was approved within six to seven days and she’s awaiting disbursement of the proceeds. While her six-attorney family law firm, Fields & Dennis, is busy now, Dennis sees the loan as providing a much-needed backstop in the event that business takes a downturn in the coming months.
“Don’t ‘self-select’ yourself out of the opportunity. Let the banker or the SBA tell you you’re not eligible.”
— Charles H. DeBevoise, Boston
“If we can use this money properly — 75 percent of what you get is to cover salaries over the next two months — that amount is forgiven,” Dennis says. “That means you can use other money that you have saved or coming in for paying your other bills. If 75 percent of the loan is forgiven, why wouldn’t you do it?”
Likewise, Andrew J. Garcia has applied for a PPP loan for his two-attorney general practice, Phillips Garcia. The firm has six employees total, and the Dartmouth lawyer says he’s determined to keep his team together.
“Attorneys need to jump on this as quickly as possible,” says Garcia, who teaches small firm management at Suffolk University Law School.
According to the SBA’s Davis, as of April 14 just over $245 billion of the $349 billion Congress authorized for the program had been committed to loans. In addition, more than 1 million PPP loan applications had been filed through the more than 4,500 lenders participating in the program.
Congress is currently considering a bill that would provide an additional $250 billion for PPP loans. That should be enough to satisfy the demand, according to William A. Farrell, legal counsel for the Rhode Island Bankers Association.
The loans are administered at the local level by banks, credit unions and other lenders. Farrell says that, to his knowledge, all the banks in Rhode Island are participating in the SBA loan program, although there have been challenges.
“Many of the banks are overwhelmed,” Farrell says. “The number of loan applications that are being filed is something the industry has never seen.”
Garcia says he’s experienced logjams first-hand. His firm filed a PPP loan application the morning of Monday, April 6, only to learn later that his bank had suspended consideration of loan applications on April 5 at 2 p.m.
“Everybody else who submitted applications has been put in queue for [future] consideration,” Garcia says.
Finding the right lender
Davis says the level of participation in PPP can vary between lenders.
“Each lender has their own appetite in terms of how many applications they want to accept and how much volume they can handle,” he says. “If someone’s particular bank is no longer accepting applications, they should definitely look to other lenders.”
“As long as the law firm spends the money on paycheck-related items, [the loan] essentially turns into a grant. It would be crazy not to apply. There’s no downside.”
— Wendell G. Davis, SBA regional administrator
The best way for a law firm to start the application process typically is to contact the local bank the firm ordinarily does business with, DeBevoise advises.
“It’s a whole lot easier to go to a bank with whom you’ve already established a banking relationship,” he says.
In terms of documents, Farrell says applicants should have on hand payroll records for 2019 as well as 2020 payroll records up until March 30. Tax returns for 2018 and 2019, if filed, should also be readily available.
“You should have a breakdown of utilities, rent and any mortgage interest the entity is responsible for,” he adds. “You should also have a summary of [employment] benefits that will come into play in calculating the loan request.”
Loans are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis. For that reason, Davis says it is important for law firms and other small businesses to act immediately.
“Applications and approvals have been getting in very quickly, so just get in line, [and] get your application on file,” Davis says.
Dennis says her firm obtained loan approval through a local bank that doesn’t typically administer SBA loans after the “large regional bank” it usually does business with was slow to help.
“We didn’t hear back from [the large bank] with information on how to apply until after we were approved at the other bank,” Dennis says. The Wellesley attorney adds that, with the benefit of the SBA’s simplified application form, the PPP loan process went smoothly — once she found the right lender.
“It was very easy,” she says. “You can complete the application online.”
The SBA is in the process of formulating rules and guidance for the new loan program. Just the day before the program launched on April 2, the SBA issued its PPP final interim rule for public comment. On April 8, the agency issued important guidance in the form of answers to frequently asked questions by lenders and borrowers.
While the details of the program are being hammered out, the basic outline is in place. Section 1102 of the CARES Act temporarily permits the SBA to guarantee 100 percent of loans under the program. Section 1106 of the act provides for forgiveness of up to the full principal amount of those loans.
The program, retroactive to Feb. 15 to enable employers to rehire laid-off employees, continues through June 30.
Generally, small businesses with less than 500 employees are eligible for PPP loans. Qualifying nonprofits, sole proprietorships, self-employed individuals and independent contractors can apply for loans.
The maximum loan amount is $10 million with a fixed 1 percent interest rate and maturity of two years. The loans do not require collateral or personal guarantees, and the first payment is deferred for six months during which no interest accrues.
Under the interim rule, the loan amount is generally calculated by multiplying the applicant’s average monthly payroll for 2019 by 2.5. The average monthly payroll calculation excludes an employee’s annual salary in excess of $100,000 and includes commissions, tips and benefits such as sick leave and health insurance.
Under the program, the SBA forgives that portion of a loan used for payroll costs and other designated operating expenses for up to eight weeks from the date the loan is disbursed — but only if at least 75 percent of loan proceeds are used for payroll costs. Other expenses eligible for forgiveness include mortgage interest, rent payments and utilities, but payment of those non-payroll costs may constitute no more than 25 percent of the eligible loan forgiveness amount.
“If you spend the loan on the eligible purposes, it’s not a loan, it’s forgiven,” Sweeney says. “It becomes a non-taxable grant.”
Dennis says her firm plans to open a separate account for PPP loan proceeds. That will make it easier to track “every penny” of the loan in order to document its use for payroll and other covered expenses for the purpose of maximizing the firm’s eligibility for loan forgiveness, she says.
Keeping PPP loan proceeds in a separate account is a wise move, particularly if the money isn’t bearing any monthly service charges, according to Christopher J. Ryan, who teaches business law at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island.
Ryan adds that it should be fairly easy for law firms to satisfy the so-called “75/25 Rule” for loan forgiveness. However, given that the rules governing the program are still being developed, he suggests that a law firm play it safe by using 80 to 85 percent of loan proceeds for payroll purposes to ensure staying above the 75 percent threshold.
Despite such caveats, Ryan sees the loan program as a “tremendous boon” for smaller employers, including law firms.
“Why you wouldn’t want to pursue this is beyond me,” Ryan says. “It’s a wonderful program to help smaller firms bridge the gap between now and whenever the courts open back up and folks can return to business as usual.”
Though the Boston market has been rocked by reports of BigLaw firms cutting pay and staff in response to the coronavirus emergency, pink slips seem to be few and far between for some smaller firms with niche practices.
The public health emergency has kept Sheryl J. Dennis and five other attorneys at the Wellesley Hills firm of Fields & Dennis plenty busy handling family law and estate planning matters. According to Dennis, her firm had one of its most profitable months in March — despite the coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re busy. We’re getting calls,” she reports.
The intellectual property firm Lando & Anastasi moved its offices from Cambridge to the heart of Boston’s Financial District on March 1 — just as the American public was beginning to grasp the scope of the coronavirus threat.
Founding partner Peter C. Lando says the pandemic hasn’t altered the firm’s plans to hire more attorneys. In fact, Lando anticipates his firm will be the beneficiary of BigLaw rashly letting go of IP talent.
“We’re not thinking of any cuts,” Lando says. “Things look strong, given the circumstances. We’re open to hiring. We’re in discussions with folks at the moment.”
Meanwhile, news of belt-tightening at BigLaw firms with Boston offices is coming at an accelerated pace.
Above the Law reported on April 7 that Brown Rudnick was furloughing a number of associates, cutting associate pay for several months by “7.5 percent on an annualized basis,” and deferring payment of 2019 associate bonuses. The firm reportedly was also cutting equity draws by partners.
“Brown Rudnick has taken expense management steps during these uncertain times,” Chairman and CEO William R. Baldiga said in an emailed statement to Lawyers Weekly. “The firm is dedicated to its lawyers and staff and has implemented a proactive plan to maintain the strong financial standing of the firm that does not involve layoffs.”
On March 30, the ATL website reported that Womble, Bond, Dickinson had implemented a number of cost-cutting measures, including laying off associates and furloughing staff. The steps reportedly included 10 percent pay cuts for anyone making over $100,000, with smaller reductions for employees in lower salary ranges.
In an emailed statement to Lawyers Weekly, the firm confirmed that it had made the “hard decision” to furlough some employees and “let go” others.
“In addition, we are temporarily instituting a 10 percent or less pay reduction (with lower levels of compensation reduced by smaller percentages) for our remaining staff and attorneys, in addition to a more substantial partner compensation reduction,” the Womble statement said. “Decisions like these are never easy, but we believe taking these steps now will curb the negative economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and keep our firm strong and well-positioned to continue serving our clients at the highest level.”
On April 1, the ATL website reported that the March equity partner distributions at Arent Fox had been reduced by 60 percent. Meanwhile, the firm reportedly had reduced by 30 percent the salaries of nonequity partners and counsel, and cut by 25 percent the pay of associates and staff.
In a statement, the firm confirmed it had made “temporary adjustments” to its business operations in responding to the “economic disruption” caused by COVID-19.
“Firm leadership is closely following these significant events and recognizes that the biggest financial risk to a law firm is underreacting,” the Arent Fox statement said. “In response to the economic slowdown, the firm is instituting a temporary pay cut for all attorneys, professionals, and staff.”
Nixon Peabody made the headlines on April 3, reportedly furloughing 25 percent of staff effective April 6. Nixon Peabody did not respond to a request for comment.
Lando attributes his own firm’s strong position to having a diversified practice.
“We have a good, diversified portfolio in our client mix,” Lando says. “That helps in these times.”
Lando says he sometimes finds large firms to be “over-reactive” in responding to the market on issues such as associate pay and raising rates. He questions whether the recent wave of layoffs and pay cuts may also represent an over-reaction in a time of crisis.
“I was surprised by the quick and drastic action that many have taken,” Lando says, noting that BigLaw firms tend to take their cue from what others in the market are doing.
“They follow one another,” Lando says. “It’s as if one firm takes the lead and they all chase. They’re deferring partner pay, cutting expenses, and cutting head count across the board. These are pretty drastic measures.”
What’s often “missing in the picture,” he adds, is the fact the decisions impact individuals with families.
“I trust that they’re not making these decisions cavalierly, but I do get concerned about the wild swings I see,” Lando says.
Dennis admits she has concerns for her practice should the public health emergency last for more than three months. But assuming the coronavirus crisis is of relatively short duration, Dennis is confident that her firm will “weather the storm.”
“And on the other side of it, I think we’re going to be busier than ever,” she says.
As most of you know, the probate and family law courts in Massachusetts are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How can you resolve your matter during this crisis.
1. If its an emergency, your matter may be able to be heard telephonically. But those are rare, as I understand it. What you and I think is an emergency may not be one for the court. Domestic Violence Restraining orders may qualify as an emergency. A financial issue, including a modification of support based on a loss of job, may not.
2. You should consider mediation. The mediators here at Fields and Dennis can help you resolve your dispute using remote videoconferencing.
3. Since mediation isn’t binding, you may want to consider submitting a matter to arbitration which is binding. With arbitration, the parties can select an arbitrator, present the case to him/her by submitting papers and remote videoconferencing. I have acted as arbitrator and am certified by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
4. With both mediation and arbitration, the parties decide what the issues are: maybe it’s the whole case, or maybe its just parenting time during the current pandemic. You might just need mediation or arbitration as a stopgap to get you through til the courts are fully operational again.
5. Whatever your needs, please feel free to give us a call at Fields and Dennis. Our number is 781.489.6776.