Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Feb 12, 2019


Law Firm Communications – Tools that Can be Used to Improve Communications

Question:

Our firm is a sixteen attorney personal injury insurance defense firm located in Dallas, Texas. I am a member on our three-person management committee. We have been experiencing associate attorney and staff turnover. Recently, we had all employees complete confidential surveys concerning their thoughts and feedback concerning the firm. One theme that was central to all was that the firm has poor communications with employees. I would like to hear your thoughts on what we need to do to improve.

Response: 

Obviously, more specifics would be helpful. Communication is a broad topic. Are they talking about mentoring, training, updates of what is going on in the firm, etc? However, here a a few best practices to think about:

  1. Find ways to improve communications with members, associates and staff.
  2. Use the appropriate communications vehicle for the task at hand. (Face-to-face, voice mail, e-mail, memo, etc.)
  3. When a few employees are not following policies, or causing difficulties – resist the temptation to send out a blanket e-mail to all – and have the courage to counsel and discipline the individual offender. The will improve the overall morale and attitude of others in the firm.
  4.  Hiring
    1. Terminate marginal people.
    2. Develop procedures to ensure that the firm is hiring from a pool of qualified
    3. Formulate formal hiring and firing policies.
    4. Insure that hiring’s and firings are documented in accordance with the firm policies.
  5. Updated employee handbook.
  6. Training
    1. More formal training and mentoring programs should be designed for staff and associates alike. In addition to typical legal and office topics, other topics should include skill training in:
      1. English language (staff)
      2. Communications
      3. Law firm economics generally (associates)
      4. Management
      5. Time management
      6. Time Keeping
      7. Marketing
      8. Client service
      9. Speaking and writing
  7. Communications and Policies
    1. Communications can always be improved, and the appropriate channels used for the appropriate situation. (e.g. individual face-to-face, staff meetings, telephone call, memo or email.)
    2. The firm should insure that it is delegating as much as it should. In particular,
      partner time spent on administrivia.
    3. People with growth potential should be placed where they have the greatest potential to grow.
    4. The staff should know what they are trying to accomplish.
  8. Employee handbooks should insure that the following policies are included:
    1. Relations with clients
    2. Objectivity
    3. Confidentiality
    4. Investments and other financial dealings with clients
    5. Outside work
    6. Overtime or bonus
    7. Salary review
    8. Insurance coverage
    9. Sick leave
    10. Continuing education and tuition reimbursements
    11. Time off to attend various training and professional functions
    12. Dues for professional and other organizations
    13. Allowable expenses and reimbursement procedures
    14. Involvement in civic and other community organizations
    15. Speeches, articles and books
  9. Staff members should be made aware of the firm policies and changes in policy.
  10. The firm should develop a procedure for feedback from the associates and staff to use to improve the knowledge and skills of all staff. (Internal survey, suggestion box, and other tools)
  11. The firm should conduct regularly scheduled frequent meetings.
  12. Attorney and staff errors should be handled in a way to improve performance and maintain respect for the firm. Not placing blame.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

Feb 05, 2019


Law Firm Client Level vs Matter Level Client Origination Credit

Question: 

I am the owner of an eight-attorney insurance defense law firm in the greater Chicago area. All of the other attorneys in the firm are associates. They are currently paid a salary plus a bonus for billable hours that exceed certain thresholds. I am in the process of establishing a non-equity partner tier and for this tier I want to setup a different compensation system with the focus on collected revenues rather than billable hours. I will continue to pay non-equity partners a salary with a bonus for collected working attorney and responsible attorney fees for other timekeepers work over target threshold’s. I have given some thought to client origination of business but since we have a small universe of insurance company clients not sure how this would play out. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

I agree that at the non-equity partner level you should consider shifting the focus to collected revenues rather than billable hours. At the non-equity partner level it should be your goal for them to become managers of work (responsible attorneys) rather than just workers (working attorneys). Therefore, I believe that your compensation system should compensate the non-equity partners for their individual work (working attorney collections) as well encourage them to delegate and push work out to associates and paralegals (responsible attorney collections).

Client origination is the other variable that some firms include in their compensation programs. The general idea is that attorneys should be Finders, Minders, and Grinders. In an insurance defense firm it will be difficult for associates and non-equity partners to originate new clients at the client level.

The firm’s existing clients were probably all originated by you and there are probably a limited number of new client opportunities. While I believe your focus for non-equity partners should be on working attorney and responsible attorney collections, I think that it is important that you at least track business or client origination so that you measure your non-equity partners business development efforts and results. A better origination measure to track in your situation might be new matter origination rather than client origination. I suggest that you track, and not directly compensate, origination at the non-equity partner level. Track and reward via a salary increase or discretionary bonus instead.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

 

 

Jan 29, 2019


Law Firm Structure and Growth

Question: 

I am the administrator with a firm in Buffalo, New York. We have fourteen attorneys – seven partners and seven associates. We are an eat-what-you kill law firm. All the partners have to weight in and agree on any and all management decisions. Our management team consists of “all partners”. While I have been hired as the administrator to management the firm, I have very little authority to do anything. The partners all have the freedom to do as they please and there is very little accountability to each other. Recently we have been discussing the pros and cons of why we might want to change our governance and overall structure. I would be interested in your thoughts.

Response: 

I believe that law firms that are “firm first” team based firms and organized along these lines have (or will have) a competitive advantage with respect to clients, legal talent, and merger partners. As law firms grow the “lone ranger” confederation approach no longer works. Decision-making is too time consuming, partner time is wasted, and opportunities are missed. Synergy (where one plus one equals three or four) is not achieved and the firm achieves little more than any one of the attorneys could achieve in solo practice.

Recently I was working with a similar size firm in Chicago that was looking for a merger partner. When the other firm learned that my client was a “lone ranger” firm they discontinued discussions. Larger firms that are “team-based” are not interested in merging with “long ranger” firms – they tend to cherry pick key talent from these firms rather than pursuing mergers or combinations.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Jan 23, 2019


Law Practice Exit Strategy – Internal or External

Question: 

I am the owner of a criminal defense practice in Bloomington, Illinois. I have been practicing for forty years and I have just turned sixty-five. I have one associate that has been with me for two years and two staff members. I would like to retire by the end of this year and I would like to receive some value from my practice. Would I be better off to sell my practice to my associate or another firm?

Response: 

One year is a very short timeline for putting together an effective exit strategy. Criminal defense practices are often based on the reputation of the owner-practitioner and more difficult to sell to other firms than other practices. I believe the best option for most firms is an internal exit strategy via sale of the practice to other attorneys working in the firm (non-equity partners or associates). However, this assumes that the firm has attorneys that have the skills and competencies to carry on the practice and have an interest in owning a law firm. Often this is not the case. The other problem is that most associates don’t have any money so any sale usually has to be paid out of future revenues after the owner retires. Other options include selling the practice to another law firm, merger with another firm, or winding down the firm and joining another firm as an Of Counsel for a few years and then retiring from that firm with a payout in the form of a percent of revenue from your clients for a few years.

Your associate has only been with the firm for two years. If he or she is straight out of law school you will have to assess whether he or she has the skills, competencies, and desire to take over your firm? If he or she does, this might be your best option. If not, you will need to explore an external exit option – sale, merger, or Of Counsel arrangement. I have had clients that have had successful exits from their practices with each of these arrangements.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Jan 16, 2019


Improving Productivity and Profitability in a Sole Owner Six Attorney Insurance Defense Law Firm

Question:

I am the owner of a six attorney insurance defense firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started the practice twelve years ago with myself and a paralegal and have grown the firm to where is is today – six attorneys, two paralegals, and two other staff members. While I have done well, and am taking home around $350,000 a year, I am not sure if we are attaining the numbers that we should be. I have a fifteen hundred billable hour expectation with a per hour bonus payable for each billable hour exceeding fifteen hundred. I do not have any attorneys that have reached this expectation. Our billing rates average around $150 per hour. I am wanting to put in place a partnership track and am not sure where to start. You thoughts would be appreciated.

Response

Let me first illustrate the profitability levers for law and other professional service firms:

R – Rate – billing rate (effective rate, realization rate, etc.).
U – Utilization – the number of billable hours.
L – Leverage – the number of associates/paralegal, etc. to owners or equity partners.
E – Expenses – office overhead
S – Speed – time it takes from the time work is done to when cash comes in the door.

With the low billing rates that are prevalent in insurance defense firms the primary profitability levers that can be managed in an insurance defense practice are utilization, leverage, and expenses. Insurance defense firms need 1800 – 2000 annual billable hours from their associates, a high leverage ratio of three or four associates for every equity partner, and low expenses  – i.e. no frills office space.

You are doing fine now with regard to compensation but this would not be the case if you had partners – the profits would not be there to pay higher salaries. Less than 1800 annual billable hours is not acceptable and it sounds like there are no consequences for non-attainment of the 1500 hours. You need to look into the reasons as to why your associates are not attaining the 1500 hours. Possibilities could include:

If there is enough work you need to focus on the other factors and let everyone know what the consequences are for not attaining the billable hour expectation. Start with the 1500 hour expectation as an initial baby step but then increase the expectation to 1800 hours as soon as your can.

As you think about a partner track keep in mind the issue of leverage and don’t be temped to make too many partners.

Keep an eye on your expenses.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

 

 

Jan 09, 2019


Law Firm Management – Held Hostage by Office Manager or Bookkeeper

Question

I am a partner is a small family law firm in Tucson, Arizona. There are two partners in the firm and two associates. We have an office manager/bookkeeper, a receptionist, and two legal assistants. The office manager was hired one year ago. The other partner is retiring next year and I am purchasing the practice from him. I became a partner last year. I am new to the management side of the practice and have been relying on the office manager who also serves as our bookkeeper. I am at my wits ends with our office manager and I believe that she is not suited for the position. She has no organizational skills, she misses deadlines, vendor bills are not paid on time, and client bills are not sent out accurately and timely. I have counselled her on numerous occasions to no avail. I believe we need to replace her but I am reluctant since no one else here knows what she does or how she does it. A new billing and accounting system was implemented last year and she was the only one trained on the system. What do we do if we terminate her or she quits? We are hostages. I would appreciate any ideas of thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

I understand and appreciate your situation. It sounds like you have not documented your procedures in the form of a firm procedures manual and everything is in the office manager’s head. This makes it difficult for someone to take over her responsibilities if she leaves the firm for whatever reason but not impossible. It will probably be difficult to get her to develop one now as it may signal to her that her time with the firm is short and she may start looking for another position. You may have to just bit the bullet, terminate her, restaff the position, and go from there.  It won’t be fun but you will make it though. You might consider the following:

  1. The office manager probably has handwritten notes, etc. that she has used to roughly document how she does things. Collect these and review these.
  2. Contact your billing and accounting software provider and have them help you will any training needs you have as well as procedural issues. Back in my old life when I did software work with law firms I often was called and assisted firms with such situations.

After you get the position staffed and past the crisis develop a detailed written manual of procedures for the office. Not just the office management side but the client service side – attorneys and paralegals as well.

I believe that it is imperative that owners and partners in a law firm have access to financial information on a timely basis, understand the information, and use the information in a proactive way to manage the practice. I suggest:

  1. The owner, or an appointed partner(s) in larger firms, obtain a basic level of understanding in basic accounting/bookkeeping and law firm financial management.
  2. The owner, or an appointed partner(s) in larger firms, obtain detailed training on the accounting software system(s) along-side the bookkeeper when the system is implemented. In addition to general operation of the software, special training should also be obtained on interpretation and use of the management reports.
  3. Insure that you have accounting controls in place and appropriate segregation of accounting duties.
  4. Outline your expectations and requirements of the office manager/bookkeeper, meet with her/him, and communicate appropriately.

Click here for a bookkeeper listing of duties.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

Jan 03, 2019


Law Firm Non-Equity Partner Subjective Compensation Factors

Question:

Our firm is a seventeen-attorney commercial litigation firm in Atlanta, Georgia. I am a member of our firm’s management committee that decides raises and bonuses for non-equity partners and associates. Currently our non-equity partners are paid a salary and a discretionary bonus. We would like to stay with this approach however we have had complaints that our system is totally arbitrary. We would like to be able to provide more transparency – a general list of the items that we consider when making our decisions on salary and bonuses. You thoughts would be appreciated.

Response: 

Here is a suggested list of factors with weights that you might want to consider:

  1. Fee Production – Client Origination Collections – 25% weight
  2. Fee Production – Working Attorney Collections – 25% weight (billable hours in some firms)
  3. Profitability of Work – 10% weight – (effective rate per hour, realization, etc.)
  4. Delegation of Work  – 10 weight (delegation to paralegals and associates)
  5. Client and Case Management – 5% weight
  6. Technical and Professional Competence – 5% weight
  7. Professional Conduct – 5% weight
  8. Firm Management and Leadership – 15% weight

You can adjust this list for your particular situation and what is important for your firm.

Here is a sample list of subjective compensation factors with detailed consideration factors with weights and points.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

Dec 19, 2018


Strategic Planning Retreat – Need for Specific Action Plans

Question: 

Our firm is an eight-attorney firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. We have been together for fourteen years. There are four partners and four associates in the firm. Over the years we have traditionally had a year-end attorney planning retreat with limited success. This year we have decided that we want to dedicate the entire time to developing a strategic plan for the firm. What can we do to ensure that our strategic plan leads to actual implementation?

Response: 

Implementation should be planned in the retreat and the strategic plan itself. One of the biggest problems that firms have with strategic planning retreats and strategic plans is they end up on the shelf and there is no accountability for implementation.

Be sure you come away from the retreat with a strategic plan that includes an action plan section with  a specific plan for follow-up on every strategy/action plan item. Specific strategic plan action items should be broken down into specific tasks. It is critical that individual task assignments and target dates for reporting and completion be made explicit. These assignments should be documented in the strategic plan action plan section and in the retreat minutes or notes. In addition, a system of post retreat follow-up meetings to access progress is suggested to maintain the momentum achieved at the strategic planning retreat.

Many firms benefit by incorporating specific strategic planning action items on a firm master calendar as well as individual calendars and review progress quarterly.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Dec 13, 2018


Law Firm Marketing – Using an Outside Public Relations Firm

Question: 

I am a partner in a three partner five attorney estate planning firm in Seattle. While we have a very active marketing program we would like to do more. We try to do two presentations at seminars/workshops a month. We have a first class website and a proactive SEO program as well as an aggressive social media campaign. The firm is listed in all of the key directories. Our attorneys are active in the legal and local community and are or have been chairpersons on bar association committees and have written extensively and been published. While many of our clients come to the firm via referral from referral sources and past clients, we are noticing that we are receiving much more business from the internet. Recently we have been discussing whether we should consider using a public relations firm. We would be grateful for any thoughts you may have.

Response: 

A public relations firm (or person) can be very helpful especially if your firm does not have a point person for marketing – a marketing coordinator, marketing director, etc. You have to decide how  you will use such a person and what role you would like them to play. I suggest that you avoid the larger firms and stick with a smaller firm – a three or four person firm – or better yet might be a solo practitioner or freelancer. You might use public relations professional in the following ways:

Several years ago I retained a public relations firm for two years on a ten hour a month retainer. A few of their accomplishments included:

Our firm found such services very helpful and from what we learned from them we now are able to handle many of these tasks ourselves.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Dec 06, 2018


Hiring an Associate Attorney as a Solo’s Exit Strategy

Question: 

I am a solo practitioner in Central Illinois. I have been in practice for 30+ years and I just turned sixty. I have two staff members and no other attorneys in the firm other than myself. I plan on working another five years and then I would like to gradually exit from my practice and then retire. I want to have a home for my clients and employees and I would prefer to be able to sell my interest to an associate attorney working for the firm. I think we have the work to justify hiring an associate and this is the route I would like to go. I have never had an associate so I am not sure what I should look for. Your thoughts would be most appreciated.

Response: 

I believe that an internal succession/exit strategy is your best option if you can find the right associate. Unlike years ago, there are many associates today that just want a job and work/life balance is more important than taking on an ownership role in a firm. They simply are not interested in the work, stress, and risk that it takes to own and manage a law firm. So it is important when searching for an associate that you really vet out this interest to insure that you are hiring someone that will be willing to buy out your interest when you retire and take over your practice.

I have worked with a lot of firms that think they have an exit plan via an associate only to be told no when approached with a proposal to acquire their practice.  When you interview candidates look into their history and their family history to see if you can find a hint of entrepreneurship. You may want to hire a more seasoned attorney that has a small practice that could expand his or her practice by becoming part of your practice. Hire someone that has an interest in the business of law as well as practicing law.

Click here for our blog on succession
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

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