By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Major Bahamian law firms yesterday revealed the COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to temporarily lay-off staff, with one saying: "We haven't received a single fee in four weeks."
Branville McCartney disclosed to Tribune Business that his Halsbury Chambers law firm had last week been forced to furlough 20 "non-essential" staff in a move he branded "heart wrenching".
With clients in "survival mode" due to both global and local lockdowns associated with the pandemic, the former Democratic National Alliance (DNA) leader said his firm had been left with little choice but to cut costs as income and business had totally dried up.
Pointing out that law firms, too, are a business, Mr McCartney voiced fears that "some may not survive" COVID-19's economic fall-out which has "turned everything upside down in a blink of an eye".
And his Halsbury Chambers law firm is far from alone in the actions it has taken. Multiple sources familiar with the situation confirmed to Tribune Business confirmed that Graham Thompson & Company, one of The Bahamas' largest and oldest commercial law offices, has also temporarily laid-off junior legal, administrative and other staff members.
Judith Whitehead, Graham, Thompson & Company's managing partner, told Tribune Business: "I have no comment I'm afraid" when contacted by this newspaper. Contacts suggested up to 40-50 employees may have been affected by the move, although this could not be confirmed.
However, this newspaper understands that such figures may not be unrealistic given that major Bahamian commercial law firms of Graham Thompson & Company's size typically operate with workforces 100-plus strong. "They're very big. It could be that much, I agree," one source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
"I did hear that Graham Thompson had laid off more than most. The numbers may be up in the 40s or 50s," another prominent commercial attorney, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. They disclosed that their own law firm is planning to temporarily lay-off between 15-20 persons, but requested that Tribune Business not publish the names because impacted staff have yet to be informed.
"There are a lot of lay-offs going on," the top attorney added of the legal profession. "I think you're going to see layoffs from most of the large firms. I wouldn't be surprised. What are you going to do?
"If firms have not done anything yet, I expect they'll be doing so very soon unfortunately. We're looking at it at the moment, and are probably going to be taking some steps. I think our numbers will probably be around 20 or less, maybe 15. I think you'll see most of the firms in the country doing it, large and small."
The large-scale legal industry lay-offs further reinforce how the COVID-19 pandemic's economic fall-out is sparing no sector of the Bahamian economy. The profession has long been considered one of the wealthiest, deep-pocketed industries and thought to largely be immune to downturns and recessions - until now.
The growing toll imposed on companies, jobs and incomes by COVID-19 also exposes the size of the task facing The Bahamas to successfully rebound and restart its economy following what is likely to be arguably the greatest contraction since the 1930s Great Depression.
Meanwhile Mr McCartney, confirming the action his law firm has been forced to take, revealed that it was the last thing Halsbury Chambers had planned for a year in which it will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its founding.
"What we've done is keep on an essential worker category, our attorneys and management are still engaged, and - I guess for want of a better word - non-essential workers have been temporarily asked to see assistance from the National Insurance Board," Mr McCartney told Tribune Business.
"It's something they've paid for, and hopefully they can assist with some type of unemployment benefit for the period of time through this lockdown. The reality is that we have all attorneys working at home, but we haven't received one set of fees [from clients] for the last four weeks.
"We've sent out bills, but unless it's a matter of your personal liberty..... Clients are looking at survival mode. They're looking at the necessities; food, water and shelter. We've sent bills out, and we have attorneys working at home, but whether we'll be paid is another matter. Not one set of fees in four weeks. That's not easy.
"The legal business is a stagnant business today. It's not a priority on people's minds to buy a home, conclude mortgage contracts. That sort of thing."
The Government's emergency COVID-19 lockdown has forced all law firms and attorneys to work from home as they are not deemed to be an "essential service" that should stay fully or partially open. As a result, the profession is operating remotely using video conferencing and other digital tools to stay in touch with colleagues and clients.
Confirming that "close to 20" staff at Halsbury Chambers have been temporarily laid-off, Mr McCartney said the law firm had been able to carry on paying their salaries for the month to April 8 just before the Easter holiday weekend.
"Prior to the closing, when this first happened, we met with the staff and we were able to pay them for almost one month," he added. "It was just last week Thursday when we issued the letters to staff regarding those temporary lay-offs. We couldn't do anything further.
"Let me tell you: It was terrible. This is not something that is in anyone's control. It didn't happen because we made a bad decision. It happened because of the pandemic and no business coming, but to tell the staff members they were being temporarily laid-off was heart-wrenching.
"My firm, Halsbury Chambers, celebrates this year it's 20th anniversary since it was opened, and we had planned to do some good things during this year. Certainly, asking staff to be temporarily laid-off is not one of them," Mr McCartney continued.
"It was hurtful, really hurtful. For many of the team members I work with, they're not only staff but have become part of our family. It is very, very hard. Knowing some of the personal concerns they have, and having to do that as an employer, is really, really hard."
Mr McCartney predicted that restarting the economy will be just as difficult once the pandemic has passed, and argued that the legal profession and other industries had yet to fully recover from the effects of the 2008-2009 financial crisis more than a decade ago.
Other attorneys yesterday also expressed concern that financial services-related business, including private client work as well as company formations, incorporations and registered agent-type activity, will also fall-off following the economy's re-opening - much as it did in 2008-2009.
The former DNA leader yesterday argued that COVID-19's impact is likely to be greater, and said: 'It's going to be like starting all over from day one... It's going to be a slow process. Your client is the public, and they have to get back on their feet before they do any business with you. That's not going to happen overnight.
"It's going to take some time. It's not going to go back where we were. We weren't in a good place prior to this pandemic, and will be in a worse place afterwards. It's daunting, very daunting. The IMF says it's going to be worse than the Great Depression.
"That's not a good thing at all, but that's the card we've been dealt and we have to assess how to manage it," Mr McCartney continued. "Law firms are a business, and just like other businesses, I would venture to say some may not survive juts like others.
"It's going to be difficult to bounce back. The law firm being a business, given the fall-out and the damage there will be some that probably won't make it. It's almost like, in a blink of an eye, everything's been turned upside down."