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Feb 21, 2017


Law Firm Equity Partnership/Admission Requirements

Question: 

Our firm is a sixteen-attorney business law firm in Cleveland, Ohio – six equity partners and ten associates. We the equity partners have been discussing putting in place an associate attorney career advancement program and outlining equity partner admission requirements. Can you share your thoughts on what we should be considering and how we should get started.

Response: 

You might want to consider developing a competency model. Rather than using a timeline – how long an associate has been with the firm – base career advancement to senior associate, non-equity partner, and equity partner upon achievement of competencies at various levels. These include:

Examples of core competencies might be legal excellence, client orientation, leadership, career commitment, etc.

In addition to competencies typically required to be  a Level Three attorney equity membership has additional requirements and obligations. For example:

  1. Equity owners will be sharing in the risk and reward of ownership and will invest their time and capital in the firm. They will have a firm-first orientation and they will share the vision and core values of other equity owners in the firm.
  2. Equity owners must add value to the firm. They must not just be good worker bees – they must pay for themselves, cover their cost and their share of the firm overhead, and generate enough work to keep other attorneys busy.
  3. Equity owners must be client finder, minders, and grinders.
  4. Equity owners must act like owners of small businesses.
  5. Equity owners must contribute to management and marketing of the firm.
  6. Equity owners must mentor younger attorneys.
  7. Equity owners must follow firm policies, system, and procedures – no lone rangers.
  8. Equity owners should contribute capital and sign for the office lease, firm credit line, and share in other financial obligations of the firm.
  9. Finally, future equity owners must be good marriage partners considering the other equity partners in the firm.

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

 

 

Feb 14, 2017


Law Firms Moving to the Cloud

Question: 

Our firm is a twelve-attorney business litigation firm in Sacramento, California. I am one of three members on our technology committee. Our IT infrastructure consists of an in-house Microsoft file server, a separate Microsoft Exchange e-mail server, document management as well as time billing and accounting software. Our documents are stored locally and managed by the locally installed document management software. Several of our partners have talked with other firms that are operating totally in the cloud. We would appreciate your thoughts on whether moving to the cloud is something that we should consider?

Response: 

It would be interesting to know the size of firms that your partners have been talking with. I am seeing many solo and very small firms operating completely in the cloud using cloud-based time and billing applications such as Clio, Rocket Matter, and QuickBooks online with their e-mail hosted using Microsoft Office 365. Some are using products such as DropBox and Microsoft One Drive to store their documents in the cloud. These billing applications do not provide the functionality and reporting that larger firms require and as a result larger firms are still using systems that firms have been using for years. Some firms that are using these systems are having them hosted in the cloud. These firms have no premises file servers. All of their data is hosted in the cloud – applications, documents, and e-mail. (Note this is different that cloud-based applications).

Firm’s your size are taking a more cautious approach to moving to the cloud. Many firms have large investments in their existing hardware and software and also have concerns about security and confidentiality issues. While it is tempting to look to the cloud as our savior from constant hardware and software upgrades as well as IT providers, moving to the cloud should not be explored without doing your homework.

Personally, I believe that in many cases the cloud may be more secure than the security that exists in many law firms on premises systems. Law firms and law departments are increasingly adopting the cloud. Fifty-six percent of the Am Law 200 firms polled in the Partnership Perspectives Survey use some form of cloud computing and 47 percent of those polled in the 2016 ITLA/InsideLegal Technology Purchasing Survey predicted that over a quarter of their firm’s software and service offerings could be cloud-based in the next one to three years. Sixty-one percent of small firms polled in the ILTA survey said that over half of their firm’s software could be cloud-based in the next one to three years.

Here are my thoughts and suggestions:

  1. Don’t rush off without doing due diligence on the application or hosting vendor. Checkout their security both while your data is in transit and at rest on their computers. Read all their whitepapers and contracts. Check references.
  2. Be careful of implmenting existing billing and accounting cloud-based applications. You may be going backwards until these systems mature and incorporate many of the features and reporting needed by larger firms.
  3. Don’t go with the new kid on the block. Insure that you go with a vendor that has staying power in the market.
  4. Take baby-steps – you might want to start with:
    1. Having your e-mail hosted.
    2. Later – implement a cloud-based document managment system.
    3. Later – have your existing billing and accounting applications hosted with a cloud provider.
  5. See where the time-billing and accounting cloud-based applications are in a few years and whether you should consider moving to such a system.

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

 

 

 

Feb 07, 2017


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Collaborative Team Practice

Question: 

Our firm is a 25 attorney firm based in San Antonio, Texas. We have 15 equity partners. We are equal partners and have equal ownership interests. Our partners are paid based upon ownership shares. Thus, each are paid the same. The system has worked well for us for many years and has supported our team-based collaborative culture. However, we are having issues with non-productive partners and some of the productive partners feel that the compensation system is no longer fair.  Some of the partners have suggested that we more to a formulaic system. Other partners in the firm feel that such as system would destroy the collaborative culture that we have built. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

I agree that the compensation system must shift to a system that rewards performance and overall contribution to the firm and yet preserve the culture that you have built over the years. I think that a pure formulaic system would shift your culture to a “lone ranger” culture with everyone out for themselves. I believe that for your firm a subjective or a hybrid system incorporating quantitative and qualitative performance factors would be the best approach.

In order to implement such a system you will need to set up a compensation committee that will made partner compensation decisions. I suggest a three member committee elected by the partners on three-year staggered terms. The committee will determine and publish performance factors that will be considered, conduct annual face-to-face performance evaluations, approve each partner’s annual personal goal plan for the following year, and make their partner compensation recommendation to the partnership regarding the upcoming year salary and bonus for the year ending year.

The partnership agreement or other compensation policy document should specify the procedure and what happens when the partnership does not approve the recommendation of the compensation committee or when a partner requests reconsideration.

A system such as this requires more time and work but usually yields better results, especially in a team-based collaborative practice. More and more larger firms are using subjective or hybrid systems.

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

Jan 31, 2017


Law Firm Administrator Competencies – Searching for a First-Time Legal Administrator

Question:

Our firm is a twelve attorney business litigation firm in Springfield, Illinois. I am a member of our three member management committee and I have been charged with helping the firm find and hire our first legal administrator. This will be our first experience. While we have a bookkeeper that handles our billing and accounting the rest of the firm’s management matters are handled by the management committee. We believe that we have reached a size where we need help with managing the day-to-day operations of the firm. What sort of skill set and type of person should we be looking for?

Response:

The starting point is to have some heart to heart discussions internally to make sure all the partners are on the same page regarding the role the firm is looking for an administrator to play? Is the firm willing to delegate authority with responsibility and let the administrator really manage the business side of the practice (a true administrator) or is the firm looking for more of a lower level office manager? This will dictate the skill set and type of person that you should be looking for. I suggest that you develop a job description for the position listing not only the duties but the authority levels as well and have every partner in the firm sign off on it.

An excellent resource in the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) which is the professional trade association for legal administrators. They have published a document listing 56 competencies in the following five categories:

Click here to download the above document.

ALA also has some helpful areas on their website for a law firm looking for an administrator including articles on evaluating your firm’s needs, the candidate search process, and defining the role of the administrator.

Many firms burn through their first administrator quickly and end up having to try again with another person or two. First time failure if often the result of not determining up front and having the partners agree regarding the role, expectations, and authority level of the administrator.

Do your homework and you will increase the change of success with your first administrator.

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

Jan 24, 2017


Law Firm Practice Sale – Selling a Personal Injury Plaintiff Practice

Question:

I am the owner of a personal injury plaintiff practice in downtown Chicago. I am the only attorney in the firm. I have two legal assistants. I am sixty-six years old and am starting to think about retirement and how to exit my practice. I would like to sell the practice to another law firm or practitioner. Does my practice have any value and can it even be sold?

Response:

After you pull out all the cash and pay down any liabilities the general the value of your practice will be the value of your fixed assets, goodwill (if any), and the value of your contingency fee cases in process. The largest asset of value is your cases in process and often that value cannot be determined until the cases are concluded. If you are an advertising type firm and have   built a sustainable brand beyond your individual reputation there could be a goodwill value. However, since you are a solo I doubt that there is a goodwill value beyond the value of your cases – it all depends whether you end up farming out your cases to another firm or whether you can find someone to come in and take over your practice.

If you have to sell your practice to another firm they will probably not have a need for your fixed assets. You will have to sell or otherwise dispose of them. More than likely you will not be able to come to an agreement with the other firm on a specific sale price for the cases in process. Therefore, you will have to agree on a fee split formula where you are paid as the cases are concluded. This formula will need to consider a percentage of completion factor based on how much work was done while a case was in your possession and while in the possession of the new firm.

Your best bet would be to find an attorney that would come in and take over your practice. He or she would have a need for the fixed assets, your employees, and if you transition properly could benefit from the goodwill that you have generated. In this situation you could receive payment for fixed assets, goodwill, and cases in process. This would also provide continued employment for your employees.

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

Jan 17, 2017


Law Firm Structure – Sole Owner vs Having Partners

Question:

I am the owner of an eight attorney insurance defense firm in San Antonio, Texas. I have been practicing fifteen years. I am forty-five years old. Many of my peers in firms my size are in partnerships. Is my situation unusual? Should I consider having partners?

Response:

Years ago I would have said that a firm such as yours would be a partnership or other organizational form with multiple equity owners. This has changed. I am working with more firms your size and larger with sole owners and no other equity owners. One such firm has twenty-five lawyers and seventy-five support staff.

I am assuming that this has worked well for you. You have the benefit of financial leverage and not having to share the pie with other equity owners. You call the shots and don’t have to share decision making with others. You probably are earning a nice income.

At your present age there is nothing wrong with continuing this for awhile. However, eventually you will have to consider your succession strategy, how you will exit the practice, and to whom you will pass the baton. The other issue is a career advancement strategy for your existing associates. Some may expect to eventually have an ownership stake in the firm. Your associates need to progress in their careers – not just as technicians – but also as business men and women and managers.

Don’t wait to long to begin this process. However, resist the temptation to make everyone an equity owner. In a insurance defense firm with eight attorneys I would try to maintain a ratio of four associates to each equity owner – thus no more than two – maybe three equity owners.

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

 

Dec 27, 2016


Law Practice Management – Goals for 2017

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for a Personal and Professional 2017

As 2016 comes to an end we begin with a clean slate for 2017. As with anything new – the uncertain future can be scary and exciting at the same time. Year-end provides an opportune time for reflection on the past year and setting goals for the next year – both personal and professional. Goal setting can improve your personal life and your practice.

Here are a few ideas for 2017:

  1. Whether you are in a small firm or a large firm have a sit-down with your team and discuss the past year business results, (successes and failures), what went right and what went wrong, what can be done this year to improve over the past year, and aspirations for the upcoming year.
  2. If billable hour/revenue goals are not set for attorneys and paralegals set expectations for each individual, measure accomplishment, and provide feedback monthly on how they are tracking toward expectations/goal.
  3. Writing and speaking are excellent ways for attorneys to develop their referral networks and enhance the firm’s brand as well as their individual brands via their bios on the firm’s website. Published articles – on the firm’s website and elsewhere – lead to speaking opportunities as well as interviews by reporters and writers as sources for articles that they are writing for other publications. Multipurpose your articles in more than one publication and venue. Turn an article into a webinar, webcast, or live presentation. Commit to writing one article a quarter in 2017 (4 during the year). If you have been writing four articles a year consider writing a book in your field of expertise.
  4. Consider adding a new skill set this year. It may a new legal skill set such as a LLM in tax, litigation, etc. or it may be a non-legal skill set such as in management, counseling, medication, etc.
  5. For attorneys in their late fifties or early sixties give some though this year to your retirement/succession/transition goals.

Best of luck for a prosperous 2017!

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

 

Dec 27, 2016


Law Firm Staff Compensation – Bonuses for Staff

Question:

I am the sole owner of a four attorney firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Our firm has four staff members – 2 legal assistants, a receptionist, and a office manager/bookkeeper. It is that time of year again where I anguish over year end bonuses for staff which end up being Santa Claus bonuses with no relationship to actual performance. I would like to move away from this approach and tie their bonuses to performance. How do I measure performance for bonuses?

Response:

I like to tie salary increases to performance reviews tied to skills, competencies, value of the position in the market, cost of living, etc. Bonuses on the other hand should be tied to accomplishment of specific measurable results. Since staff results usually cannot be measured in terms of billable hours or collected dollars another measure must be used. I prefer to tie bonuses to accomplishment of specific agreed to goals or objectives.

Here is a system that some of my clients are using:

  1. Four goals are set at the beginning of each year.
  2. Two of the goals are firm goals. One goal might be for the firm to hit a certain revenue target. Another goals might be for the firm to hit a certain profit margin target.
  3. Two goals are personal/individual staff member goals that are discussed and approved by you.
  4. Goals should be SMART goals
    1.     S – Specific
    2.     M – Measurable
    3.     A - Attainable
    4.     R – Realistic
    5.     T – On a specific timeline
  5. Each goal (firm and personal) is worth 2.5% (maximum 10%). The percentage is taken times annual base salary of the staff member to determine bonus.
  6. At the end of the year determine which goals were met and calculate bonus.

The goals should be tough.

Example of individual goals that meet the SMART test:

  1. Write and publish an Employee Handbook by December 31, 2017.
  2. Write and publish an Office Procedures Manual by December 31, 2017.
  3. Successfully complete six hours in accounting at a local college by December 31, 2017 with a grade of B or better.

Other approaches can be taken – the key is to tie variable bonus to actual results.

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

 

Dec 20, 2016


Law Firm Succession Planning – Selling My Stock to Several Associates

Question:

I am the sole owner of a five attorney personal injury plaintiff firm in the Dallas suburbs. Over the years I have built a sustainable brand through advertising. I have helped my associates develop their reputations, handle substantial cases, and be involved in various areas of firm management. I am planning on retiring in five years and I would like to begin the transition early next year by selling some stock (minority interests) to deserving associates with the remainder of my shares to be purchased upon my retirement. Originally, I had through about selling shares to two associates that have been with the firm for over fifteen years – now I am thinking about selling shares to all four associates. I think it would be easier for the four to come up with the required money. I welcome your thoughts.

Response:

If you are asking for a goodwill value plus cash-based book value as well as a percentage of completion estimated value of your contingency fee cases in process, the amount you are asking for your stock could be considerable. This would indeed be difficult for one or two people to raise and on its face it would make sense to sell your shares to all the associates. If this is not the case if may be possible to the two senior associates to raise the required funds.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. You know your people best but give consideration to the future partner dynamics. You are going from a sole owner structure to a five attorney ownership structure if you bring them in all at the same time. This will require some major adjustments in governance, compensation, etc.
  2. Are the two newer associates deserving of ownership? Have they developed their skills and earned the respect of the other associates in the firm and others outside of the firm?
  3. What do the two senior associates think? Do they want to be future partners with each other? Are they able to come up with the money? Do they initially, after your retirement, want other partners? Do they want the other associates to be their partners – initially or down the road?
  4. Interview your two senior associates and get their thoughts on the above questions. They may want to enjoy the benefits of leverage from having less partners as you have over the years. 
  5. My guess is that your senior associates would prefer to go it alone if they can swing it.

Don't try to force future partners on your two senior associates. I will rather see you initially admit the two senior associates as partners and let them admit other partners after your retirement when they are ready.

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

 

Dec 13, 2016


Law Firm Marketing – Marketing a Litigation Defense Practice

Question:

Our firm is a fourteen attorney general practice firm located in Dayton, Ohio. Two of our attorneys focus their practice on personal injury defense and the other attorneys are transactional attorneys. While the practice is doing well overall, our litigation work is dropping off. I would appreciate any ideas that you have pertaining to marketing a litigation defense practice.

Response:

Insurance carriers are a leading purchaser of insurance defense services – but so are self-insureds – big box retainers, national restaurants and food chains, sports arenas, shopping centers, and municipalities. Typical decision-makers:

The law firm needs to know who they want to target and often have to make application to get on the panel/list of approved counsel, respond to RFP’s, submit proposals, etc. to get the business.  In other words, the law firm needs to first get on the list. Then the law firm needs to cultivate relationships with the typical decision-makers.  This is getting harder as many companies have policies against such other than education formats such as seminars, presentations, etc.

Some marketing tools needed to market a defense litigation practice:

I would start by developing a target client list, an action plan, and go from there.

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

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