Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Feb 13, 2020


Law Firm Marketing – Internet Strategy Crucial to Retail Practices Such as Family Law and Estate Planning

Question: 

I am a family law practitioner in the western suburbs of Chicago. I have been in practice for thirty years. I have two associate attorneys and two staff members. In the past I had other partners but that was many years ago. Over the last few years our business has been declining. Our financial performance last year was terrible and I made less than my associates. If this continues I may have to lay off an associate or two. Recently we have made some improvements to our website but I am not sure we have not done enough. I have noticed that more business seems to be coming from the website and less through referrals. I would appreciate any thoughts your may have.

Response: 

We are finding that law firms that serve retail consumer clients in practice areas such as personal injury, family law, elder law, and estate planning are becoming more and more dependent on the internet for their business. Family law firms especially are becoming more dependent on the internet for business and a sound internet strategy and investment is crucial for success. This is especially true in the larger cities and metropolitan areas. Less business is coming from traditional referral sources and more from the internet. I have family law clients in your area that tell me they are receiving ninety percent or more of their business from the internet.

A few suggestions that you might want to consider:

I hope this helps and good luck!

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

Feb 06, 2020


Law Firm Marketing and Business Development Coordinator or Director

Question:

I am the sole owner of an estate planning firm in San Francisco Bay area. I have four full-time associates, six paralegals, two secretaries, a firm administrator, and four other staff members. We are a high volume operation and we do a lot of marketing. We need help coordinating and handling and coordinating the marketing. Are we ready for marketing coordinator or director?

Response: 

Personally I think the firm is a little small for a full-time marketing position. If you can find a person that is willing to work part-time that could work in a firm your size. Many firms your size and larger that have a firm administrator include marketing responsibilities on the firm administrator’s job description and have marketing and business development coordination handled by the firm administrator. Here is an example of the marketing and business development duties that your administrator could handle.

Advertising

Coordinate the firm’s advertising program established by the owner.

Business Development

Coordinate and implement the business development program established  the owner

  1. Sponsorship’s and Community Programs – oversee, plan, and coordinate the firm’s:
    (1) Client seminars
    (2) Webinars
    (3) Ad hoc events
  2. Database Management and Distribution of E-News Letters

Oversight responsibility by performing or delegating the following:

1  Updating Firm E newsletter database

2 Monthly review of E newsletter Database blocked list report,
contacting contacts for updated email addresses, and updating
e-newsletter and all related databases.

3   Update Other Firm E-newsletter Databases

4   Update case management and time billing databases

5   Distribute Electronic E newsletters.

Client Testimonials

Prompting the owner monthly to solicit one client testimonial from a client and posting or coordinating with the firm’s website provider for them to post the testimonial to the website.

  1. Business Development Committee Meetings – Friday Attorney Meetings

2  Schedule, coordinate, and maintain a file on the firm’s file
server of action items and notes from each meeting.

3  Coordinate and assist in the implementation of action items.

Public Relations

Coordinate the firm’s public relations program.

Electronic Media

1. Website

Oversight responsibility for maintaining the firm’s web site and keep
the website’s content fresh and updated in coordination with website provider.

2. Social Media

Update entries on social media.

Directories

  1. Coordinate external directory listings
  2. Update the firm resume and material for printed and electronic directories.

Client Communication/Satisfaction Program

  1. Oversight and coordination of the end of matter survey/online review
    program and maintain database of responses
  2. Prepare monthly client survey report from survey database.

Firm Announcements

Supervise preparation and distribution of firm announcements

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

Jan 22, 2020


Associate Performance and Coaching

Question: 

I am a partner in a three attorney law firm based in Orlando, Florida. I did a quick Google Search this morning and stumbled upon your excellent blog posting – Associate Attorney Compensation.  John did an excellent job in answering the attorney’s question.  We have an associate who I like very much; however, heading into her 3rd year with the firm, she has gotten a bit comfortable with our laid back style of management.  Our situation is similar in many respects to the situation posted by the Chicago attorney.

I would like to find out more about whether coaching could help us improve our associate’s performance. Her billable hours are 800 per year and net profit after deducting her salary, benefits and assigned support staff from her collected fees is around $15,000 and this does not take in to account other office overhead. Frankly, I am a bit hesitant to spend more money on her practice area as it is not really producing a profit for the partners in the firm. However, I am exploring ways that we can improve the situation for this part of the law firm.  I look forward to chatting with one of you. Again, I enjoyed reading the article.

Response: 

Whether coaching can help depends upon the specific situation and the cause or causes of the problem. It sounds like you might want to kick the can down the road and have someone deal with the oversight responsibility that you and your partner should be handling. Typical causes of poor associate performance include:

An outside coach could possibly be helpful if the problem is poor time management or poor timekeeping habits. You would want her on board with using an outside coach and might want even to consider having her pay half of the coaching fee. However, if the problem is one or a combination of the other three areas, an outside coach might be a waste of money. Maybe you and your partner need coaching on the top three areas. It is also possible that you simply have an associate that wants to work nine to five and may not be wrong person on the bus. Successful professional service providers whether they be attorneys, accountants, or management consultants don’t work forty hour or less weeks – they work fifty hour plus weeks.

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

Jan 08, 2020


Law Firm Partner Compensation and Performance Reviews

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen partner firm in the northern suburbs of Chicago with ten partners and four associates. We are a general practice firm with different partners focusing on specific practice areas. Our partner’s compensation is determined by a three member compensation committee.  The compensation committee uses a combination of quantitative data based upon working attorney fee collections and client fee originations and makes a subjective determination regarding other contributions that a partner has made to the firm. The problem that we have is the compensation committee does not have a way to effectively measure the other contributions that are being considered subjectively. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Your problem is a common problem. While it is easy to measure working attorney, responsible attorney, and originating attorney fee collections, billable hours, realization rates, and other hard measures of short-term financial performance, (it is hard to capture the subtler aspects of partners’ contributions such as mentoring new lawyers, firm management, idea development) and its virtually impossible to measure the long-term present value of each partner’s work and contribution.

The key is to make the subjective considerations more measurable. Many firms are supplementing the easily measured economic contributions per partner with additional measurements to determine the actual value per partner and incorporating into their compensation systems. Some firms:

Partner performance reviews are often avoided like the plague by many firms. They are time consuming and it is hard to give candid feedback to colleagues. However, without partner performance reviews neither the partners nor the firm will reach full potential. When partner performance reviews are used not only to review performance but to set measurable goals this data can be incorporated into the compensation system and provide additional hard data for providing a true measure of partner contribution and value.

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

Dec 31, 2019


Law Firm Management – What Will Be Keeping Owners and Managing Partner Awake at Night in 2020

Question: 

I am the owner of a twelve attorney business litigation law firm in Northern, California. I started the firm fourteen years ago after practicing ten years in a large law firm. While the practice has been fulfilling both professionally and financially, the management side is often a challenge. As I sit here on December 31, 2019 thinking about management challenges that I may face next year I was wondering what you envision the challenges will be in 2020.

Response: 

The following were the common challenges that owners and managing partners advised us that they faced in 2019:

  1. Talent Management – Attorneys and Staff
    1. Hiring
    2. Training
    3. Motivating
    4. Compensating
    5. Keeping (retaining)
  2. Firm Succession and Transition
  3. Getting and Keeping Clients and Additional Sources of Business
  4. Managing Cash Flow
  5. Satisfying Hard to Please Clients
  6. Balancing Time Between Servicing Clients and Managing the Firm
  7. Getting Paid
  8. Competition from Other Law Firms and Non-Law Firm Service Providers
  9. Proving High Quality Legal Services at an Affordable Price and Avoiding Malpractice Claims
  10. Finding Time for Personal Life and Family

In 2019 the number one challenge was talent management and I believe this will continue to be the case in 2020. The other challenges that I have listed will continue to be the major concerns of owners and managing partners in 2020.

Here are some links to a few of our resources that you might find helpful:

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

 

 

 

Dec 11, 2019


Law Firm Financial Management – Financial Red Flags

Question: 

Our firm is a twelve lawyer firm in Chicago and our practice is a business litigation firm. We have eight partners in the firm and we are managed by a three-member management committee that was just formed this year. I am a member of the committee and I am responsible for the general financial oversight of the firm. I am trying to get a handle on law firm financial metrics and especially what are the financial warning signs that I should be aware. If you have an outline or list that you would be willing to share we would appreciate it.

Response: 

Here is a short list of what I call financial red flags that you might find helpful:

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

Nov 27, 2019


Law Firm Contingency/Practice Continuation Succession Plan for a Solo Attorney

Question: 

I am an attorney in solo practice in the Southwest Missouri. I am forty five years old and I have two paralegals working for me in the firm. The practice is a general practice firm that I started ten years ago. I have been advise that I should have a succession plan. What exactly do I need to be putting in place? Any thoughts that you have would be appreciated.

Response: 

Due to the number of baby boomers approaching retirement much of my writing has been on succession and exit planning for this group. Based upon your age I think you are talking about contingency or practice continuation planning which is succession planning for the short-term. Since you are a solo you have no backup within the firm if something were to happen to you today. So you should form a relationship with another attorney or law firm to provide coverage if and when needed.

Generally a contingency plan or practice continuation plan is an arrangement with another law firm or attorney to step in if you become sick, disabled, or die. A basic contingency or practice continuation plan involves having written instructions designating another competent lawyer to temporarily assume the responsibilities of your practice and notify clients in the event that you become disabled or die. To prevent neglect of client matters in such situations, the ethical duty of diligence  requires in many status that each sole practitioner prepare a plan, in conformity with applicable rules, that designates another competent lawyer to review client files, notify each client of the lawyer’s death or disability, determine whether there is a need for immediate protective action, have a receiver appointed in some cases. Many states are making such plans mandatory.

A contingency or practice continuation agreement with another attorney or law firm should include:

Here is an article on practice continuation plans.

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

Nov 12, 2019


Partner Compensation in Law Firms – Objective vs Subjective Approaches

Question: 

Our firm is at a crossroads concerning partner compensation. We are a twelve lawyer firm in Richmond, Virginia with nine partners and three associates. We are in our second generation of partners as the original founders have retired over the years. We do not have a managing partner or management committee – management decisions are made by all the partners. Our compensation is based upon compensation participating percentages set at the beginning of each year based upon the recommendation of a rotating member compensation committee recommendation which must be approved by the full partnership. These percentages are then used to allocate each partner’s share of firm profit. Monthly draws are taken against projected allocations and the calculations are trued up each quarter and at the end of the year. There is nothing in writing and it is unclear what is taken into consideration by the compensation committee. However, in general the primary metric is individual working attorney production collections. Supposedly, other metrics and subjective factors are taken into consideration but no one knows what they are. The majority of the partners have been relatively happy with the system but a few are not due to the vagueness of the system. I am wondering whether we should move more to a formulaic approach. What are your thoughts?

Response:

The trend in compensation, particularly in larger firms, is toward subjective or hybrid approaches and a movement away from strictly formulaic – eat-what-you-kill – objective systems. These systems are fine in “lone ranger” firms but often are unsuccessful in firms that are or want to be “firm first” or “team based” firms. The unhappiest partners that I see are in some of the firms with eat-what-you-kill objective systems. It sounds like your system has worked fairly well and a majority of the partners have been satisfied with the system. However, it may not be reinforcing the behaviors that you would like to instill in your partners if the only metric used, or is perceived as the only metric being used, is working attorney collections. Your firm is very partner top heavy and I would not be surprised if your utilization of paralegals as effective billable revenue producers is minimal. You are encouraging personal production period. What about delegation, new business origination, leadership, contribution to firm management, mentoring and training of associates, etc? Subjective or hybrid approaches often do a better job of dealing with overall contribution to the firm if they are setup properly.

I would suggest you fine tune your existing system. Consider the following:

  1. Put your system in writing. Outline the performance factors that are considered and the general importance or weights of each. This includes objective or directly measurable factors and the more subjective or harder to measure factors.
  2. Make more of the intangible or subjective factors measurable by requiring that a personal plan be submitted by each partner and reviewed with and approved by the compensation committee. This plan should contain specific measurable goals and objectives that are specific, measurable, attainable, rewarded in the compensation system, and on a specific completion timeline.
  3. Require that the compensation committee conduct personal partner interviews each and every year prior to their deliberations on compensation. This interviews should be mandatory. Self evaluations with related narrative should be provided by the partner being interviewed prior to the interview and the approved plans should form the basis for the discussion and reviews.
  4. The full partnership should either approve – up or down the compensation committee recommendation – not be allowed to pick apart or modify. If the partnership does not approve the committee’s recommendation the committee starts over and submits another recommendation. There should be a provision for what happens if a decision cannot be make – for example used last year’s percentages, etc.
  5. There should be an appeal process if a partner has a complaint with regard to the decision concerning his or her compensation.
  6. Consider extraordinary bonus pool for exceptional performance rewards.

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

Oct 31, 2019


Law Firm Financial Management – Creating a Budget the First Time

Question:

I am the firm administrator for an eight attorney firm in Nashville, Tennessee. I started this position approximately six weeks ago. While I have worked in the legal field for many years as a paralegal, this is my first position as a legal administrator. I have done bookkeeping for several firms over the years. The firm has never had a budget and has asked me to prepare one for the upcoming year. I am not sure where or how to start. Any help or ideas that you may have would be appreciated.

Response: 

You will want to consider two budgets. The first will be an operating budget which is a revenue and expense budget that will contain the income and expense accounts that are listed in a profit and loss or income statement. The second will be a capital budget which will be a budget for capital expenditures that are typically listed as assets on a balance sheet such as furniture and equipment.

Here is a process that you might want to use.

Operating Budget 

  1. Print out a general ledger chart of accounts list and profit and loss statement
  2. Using the chart of accounts list (income and expense accounts only) setup an Excel spreadsheet with the following columns.
    1. Account Number
    2. Account Name
    3. Prior year actual year to date
    4. Proposed upcoming year budget
    5. Final upcoming year budget
    6. Planning notes
  3. Account number and account name columns. List all of the accounts from the profit and loss statement in the account number and account name columns.
  4. Prior year actual year to date column. Enter figures for the prior year in the prior year actual year to date column for revenue/income and expenses.
  5. Proposed upcoming year budget. Start with revenue. However, in the budget worksheet have a revenue account for each revenue producer (attorney and paralegal) – not necessarily in the general ledger but on your budget worksheet and project their billable hours/collections expected. If you are a contingency fee practice this will require an analysis of the cases in process and estimated case outcomes and timing. This is a good place to get commitment and establish realistic revenue goals for the year. You may want to have a discussion concerning this in a firm meeting. I believe that the revenue goals are the most important part of the budget and where most firms need to focus.
  6. Proposed upcoming year budget. Enter proposed expenses. You can start by examining last year’s actual figures. Give consideration to any growth (typically lawyer and staff headcount) for the upcoming year and any anticipated changes in expenses. Develop a payroll spreadsheet listing each attorney and staff members receiving W-2 pages, their compensation last year, a anticipated salary and bonus for the upcoming year, with columns for calculation of appropriate payroll taxes. Anticipate new hires during the year. Then enter in to the proposed upcoming year account columns.
  7. Planning notes. As you develop the budget note your assumptions, etc. in the planning notes section.
  8. Submit for discussion and approval. Submit the budget worksheet to your managing partner, executive committee, partnership, etc. for discussion and approval.
  9. Enter approved budget in the Final Upcoming Year Budget Column. 
  10. Enter approved budget in to the General Ledger System, QuickBooks, etc. You can now enter the approved budget into your accounting system and simply include budget on your profit or loss statement for systems that provide this function or in QuickBooks print a Budget v Actual Report with your monthly reports. When you enter the approved budget into your system you can take the quick and dirty way and enter the annual amount for each account and have the system allocate the budget equally to each month or you can allocate to each month when you anticipate the expense – for example an insurance premium for the entire year might be allocated to the specific month when the policy will come up for renewal rather than equally to each month.

Capital Budget

This is often just a simple list in a spreadsheet and manually tracked. Many of the general ledger systems only allow budgets for income and expense accounts.

Good luck with your project.

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

 

 

Oct 23, 2019


Associate Attorney Compensation – Incentives Beyond Billable Hours and Working Attorney Collections

Question: 

I am the owner of a five attorney firm, myself and four associates, in Bakersfield, California. While we are a general practice firm, much of our practice is focused on commercial real estate, estate planning/probate, and corporate/business law. All of the associates have been with the firm over five years. The associates are paid a salary plus a bonus based upon their individual working attorney collections that exceed a quarterly threshold. While there have not been any complaints with this system I am not sure that it is the best system and that I am providing the right set of incentives. I would appreciate your thoughts and any ideas that you may have.

Response: 

Many firms use a system such as your system. However, other firms add more factors into the equation. A system that focuses on billable hours or individual working attorney fee collections often creates a firm of lone ranger attorneys that:

You might want to consider additing a component that recognizes delegation to paralegals and other attorneys (responsible attorney collections) and client origination (originating attorney collections). Some firms rather than rewarding client origination directly pay a bonus for handling new client intakes and successfully closing new business in the form of a flat dollar bonus after designated thresholds. You could also pay flat dollar bonuses for contribution to firm and business development – not time or activity – but for specific results such a having articles published, implementing a document assembly system, or writing a procedures manual. If you wish to avoid a formula approach simply use a discretionary bonus to reward firm these other factors and firm contributions. However, be clear about the factors that are be rewarded and the importance/weight of each.

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

 

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