Hurricane Irma’s impact is still being felt by small and midsize law firms in Florida, as those that lost significant revenue are now being forced to reach out to financial professionals for help in bridging a cash crunch.
Apollo Bank CEO Eddy Arriola—whose bank serves solo practitioner firms as well as firms with as many as 15 lawyers—said law firms are reporting that they have fallen behind in billing and expect delayed collections in coming months because of the storm, which made landfall in Florida on Sept. 10 as a Category 3 hurricane.
“My experience working with a lot of small-to-midsize law firms is they may be great law firms, but their financial controls are weak or near nonexistent,” Arriola said. “You have great lawyers who are great at lawyering and servicing clients, but not necessarily at managing a business, especially the finance accounting aspect of it.”
Financial professionals said it is often after emergencies like hurricanes that small law firms reassess their emergency plans and how much money they should have in reserves. It’s also a time when stressed business owners may look for short-term cash options, especially if reserves were low.
Having too little money in reserve is among the most common problem law firms face, financial professionals said. How much a firm needs in reserve varies from firm to firm and is based on such factors as number of employees, recurring expenses and the kind of legal work the firm performs. But regardless of these variables, firms need to have reserves in place before a storm strikes—both for peace of mind as well as survival, they said.
“The storm may be a hurricane, but the storm may be a partner getting sick. There could be a variety of different storms, both literally or figuratively,” Arriola said.
Singer Xenos Wealth Management senior advisor Lonny Greenberg recommends that law firms maintain enough cash reserves to cover all business overhead for three to six months, and that they maintain a commercial credit line for emergencies. Each lawyer should also have a separate reserve to cover personal overhead for three to six months, ideally maintaining a small personal credit line for emergency use only, he said.
Firms that suffered office damage in the storm can also look to past years of income tax payments, said Steven Klein, a corporate accounting partner at accounting firm Gerson Preston. The costs of commercial property damage that aren’t covered by insurance, including amounts within an insurance deductible, can be reclaimed from past years’ income tax payments by filing an amended tax return. Businesses that are within declared disaster areas can amend returns up to three years prior, and the money is often available within weeks, Klein said.