Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Jun 05, 2019


Law Firm Partnership Tiers – Different Qualifications For Equity and Non-Equity Partners

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a six lawyer firm in Nashville, Tennessee. There are two partners in the firm, myself and another partner, and we have four associate attorneys. Two of our associates have been with firm for over ten years. We are trying to put in place a career progression policy for them and we are thinking about having a non-equity and equity tier which would serve as a prerequisite to equity partnership. What are the differences between the expectations and requirements for non-equity and equity partner?

Response: 

The main difference between an equity partner and non-equity or income partner is that the equity partners assumes a higher degree of capability in a lot of areas, not just good lawyering. Equity partners are expected to develop business, to manage large client relationships, and to have a level of commitment that allows them to do all of that and maintain a very full practice load at the same time. Non-equity or income partners are generally lawyers that are excellent lawyers in his or her field but doesn’t satisfy the other requirements required of equity partners. In addition, equity partners usually invest capital in the firm and assume the risks of the office lease, credit line, and other liabilities. Non-equity partners usually have guaranteed salaries and equity partners do not.

Here are a few of the typical hurdles that are required to move up to equity partner:

The primary difference is non-equity partners focus is on lawyering and the focus of equity partners is on lawyering and being a businessperson as well – practicing law and managing a business.

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

 

May 29, 2019


Associate Attorney Productivity When Client Work is Slow

Question: 

Our firm is a sixteen attorney municipal law firm in Detroit with six partners and ten associates. Like most firms that do municipal work we must deal with lower billing rates than other firms charge. The volume of our work can also fluctuate at times. All of our work is billed by the hour and billable hours is our most important key performance indicator. Our associates have a billable hour expectation of 1800 annual billable hours and only two of our associates are even close to reaching 1800 hours. Some are not even reaching 1200 hours. Some of the associates have the excuse that they don’t have enough work. We do not believe that this is the case. I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Response: 

This seems to be a common issue. Failure to attain billable hour goals can be caused by any one or a combination of the following:

  1. Work ethic and simply not working enough “worked hours”
  2. Lack of work
  3. Poor time management habits
  4. Poor time keeping/recording habits

I would start by observing the number of worked hours they are putting in. Are the putting in the hours? Observe as well as review their time reports – billable and non-billable time. If you don’t track non-billable time start doing so. Then review and discuss with them their time management and time keeping/recording habits. Questions to ask include:

Review and discuss workload levels of each associate and determine if lack of work is an issue.

I have found that often the cause of the problem is a combination of some or all four of the above listed causes. Lack of work is often one of the causes. My question is then:

The firm should have an established protocol for assignment of work to associates and to whom the associate advises that he or she needs more work. When billable work is slow and not available the associate should be assigned non-billable firm or business development projects  such as developing document templates, writing articles, etc.

If the problem is work ethic appropriate consequences and disciplinary measures may be required.

If the problem is time management and time keeping training and habit building will be required.

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

 

 

 

May 22, 2019


Conflict Between Law Firm Partners and Non Productive Partners

Question: 

I am a partner in an fourteen attorney firm in Dallas, Texas. There are seven partners in the firm. We started the firm together twenty years ago. Over the years the firm has been very successful and each of the seven partners have had a great relationship. However, over the last five years some of the partners are no longer contributing like they were and relationships have become strained. We are equal partners and our compensation is based upon our ownership interest – so we are paid equally. I am concerned that if we don’t resolve this problem the firm may split apart in the future. You advise and thoughts will be appreciated.

Response: 

There are many reasons that difficulties may arise between partners in a law firm. One of the major factors is that working together effectively is a very difficult skill to acquire. Most individuals join a firm without realizing all that is involved. Professionals, especially, frequently do not understand that being an associate, colleague, and partner require a different set of skills than just being talented in one’s field. Many partners often only have a general idea of what the firm expects of them and only limited interest in how the firm itself operates, as distinguished from what they are professionally prepared to do. Most lawyers are highly motivated to use their expertise on client work, not on spending time in organizing or running a firm or partnership, even though doing so would help the firm operate more successfully and efficiently.

The first step would be, if you have not already, to sit down as a group and discuss the problem, establish agreed to performance expectations for the partners, document in writing, and have each partner sign the document. See if this makes a difference. If no improvement is made then the under performing partners should be confronted and some form of action taken. You may have to redesign your compensation system and possibly ask problem partners to leave.

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

May 15, 2019


Challenges in Law Firms that are Family Businesses

Question: 

I am a partner in a husband/wife owned law firm in Seattle, Washington. We have four other associate lawyers in the firm. One of these lawyers is our son and the other is the daughter of my wife’s (who is my partner) brother. We have four staff members of which one is also a family member. We are a general practice firm and we have been in operation for ten years. While the firm has done well over the years we have had our challenges. Office problems seen to follow us home and both staff employees and non-family attorneys are alienated. We have been experiencing turnover of both staff and attorneys. What should we being doing different?

Response: 

I have seen family practices go both ways – successful and not so successful due to the conflict and drama that can exit in family practices if they are not setup and managed properly.  A few of the challenges and issues that can arise in family owned law firms include:

Family practices must first start by recognizing that there are three social systems at play – the family, the law firm business, and overlap of the two. Unless boundaries and rules are established there will be conflict and tension. Family roles and roles in the law firm should be be developed. Here are a few guidelines that family practices should consider adopting:

  1. Develop family and law firm charters – sort of like job descriptions – that outlines roles and responsibilities in the family and the law firm.
  2. Establish criteria for who in the family can join the firm.
  3. Determine education and experience requirements for joining the firm.
  4. Determine how titles of family members in the law firm will be determined.
  5. Determine how job performance will be evaluated.
  6. Determine consequences for inadequate performance.
  7. Determine how compensation will be determined.
  8. Leave law firm business at the law firm – don’t bring it home.

Here is a link to an earlier blog in re children of partners who are attorneys working in law firms.

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

 

May 07, 2019


Law Firm Succession Planning in a Fourteen Attorney Firm – Internal vs External Strategy

Question:

I am the managing partner in a fourteen attorney firm in Austin, Texas. Our firm represents hospitals in their defense against malpractice claims. We have four equity partners, six non-equity partners, and four associates. The four equity partners started the firm thirty years ago and we are all in our late fifties and early sixties. We plan on working another eight years and then plan on retiring approximately at the same time. We may remain on as Of Counsel. Of our six non-equity partners, five are in their early and late sixties. We are considering making one an equity partner in the near future. Our associates are all recent law graduates that we hired right out of law school and all have been with the firm less than five years. What is our best succession strategy – merger or growing our own future partners?

Response: 

Most firms, and I agree with this, prefer an internal strategy and would like to grow their own and leave a legacy of the firm. Mergers can be fraught with problems and are often not successful. Depending on the size of the other firm, many firms are not willing to provide any compensation for practice goodwill beyond the compensation and benefit package. It sounds like you have had your independence for thirty years and you may not be comfortable giving that up and working in a merged firm environment for eight years.

However, a merger is often easier. You have a challenge on your hands since you have to replace four partners and only have one possible future equity-partner candidate on deck. In part it will depend upon the age and the experience of the one non-equity partner. Is he even willing to step-up to equity, invest in the firm, and buyout your interests? My experience these days is that a lot of non-equity partners are saying “no” to equity. With your type of clients you probably need at least three or four seasoned partners in order to convey to the clients that you have adequate “bench strength”. When the four of you retire unless you can build up the bench strength the firm will be also lacking leadership and firm management experience.

You have five years in which to build up your talent pool. You will have to first see if you can recruit and bring in some lateral talent – attorneys in their forties with fifteen to twenty years experience. Look for attorneys that want to be more than just worker-bees – that want to have future equity interest in a firm. If this strategy works out, begin bringing them into equity as soon as possible to ensure that the commitment is there by having them buy shares upon admission. Begin client and management transition no later than three years prior to your retirements.

If you are not able to bulk-up your talent pool or you have no one interested in equity ownership, then you will have to consider a merger strategy. I would begin a merger search three years prior to your retirements.

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

May 01, 2019


Law Firm Associate Bonuses – Problems Measuring Flat Fee Work Working Attorney Fee Allocations

Question: 

Our firm is a four-attorney estate planning firm in Rochester, New York. We are a general practice firm and we handle a lot of estate planning work and estate administration as well. While some of our work is handled on a time bill basis a lot of our work is handled on a flat fee basis. Recently we switched our time billing system from a desktop-based system to a cloud-based system and we having trouble getting the reporting that we need out of the system. We do keep time on flat fee cases. Our bonus system is based on working attorney fee collections and the new system does not allocate fees correctly for flat fee cases when multiple attorneys and or paralegals work on a matter. Any suggestions?

Response: 

I have heard this complaint from many firms using both desktop and cloud-based billing systems. However, it does seem that cloud-based systems are lacking in the level of reporting that desktop-based systems have. Here is what some firms have or are doing:

  1. Working with the software vendor to determine what the issue is – is it your procedures or is it the software. In some situations, fee allocations are effected by the manner in which payments are entered when partial fee payments are made, whether such payments are first deposited in the trust account and then later applied after all time has been billed and adjusted, etc.
  2. If the issue is lack of software reporting capability try to get the software company to add this function to the software.
  3. Manually making the allocations in a spreadsheet for flat fees cases when all else fails.
  4. Changing the bonus system and basing bonuses on responsible attorney collections rather than working attorney collections. Many personal injury plaintiff firms that don’t keep time-sheets take use this approach. This approach works best if the attorneys primarily work on their own matters. One advantage of this approach is that it encourages delegation and discourages hoarding of work.

When evaluating these newer cloud-based billing systems don’t just look at the bells and whistles – determine your reporting needs and insure that the software meets these needs.

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

Apr 24, 2019


Law Firm Training Tools – Documentation of Processes and Procedures in Firm Procedural Manuals

Question: 

I am the sole owner of a six attorney personal injury firm in San Francisco with five support staff. My father started the firm twenty-five years ago and has since retired from practice. I took over the practice five years ago. At the time I took over the practice we had just my dad, myself, a couple legal assistants, and no technology. Since then I have done a lot to grow the practice including adding attorneys and staff as well as implementing technology. My biggest problem is training new attorneys and staff. We have no written documentation as to how we do things so training has to be done orally by myself or others every time a new attorney or staff member joins the firm. Can you offer any suggestions?

Response: 

Sounds like you don’t have a written employee handbook or procedures manuals. These are essential tools that every law firm regardless of size should have. These tools dramatically reduce time that has to be spent by others to on-board new employees and can facilitate bringing on lower cost employees with less experience such as recent law graduates or paralegal graduates.

The employee handbook outlines the firm’s employment policies and contains sections such as:

An operation or procedures manual is the firm’s how-to-do-it guide. It defines the purpose of work, specifies the steps that need to be taken while doing the work, and summarizes the standards associates with both the process and the result. Your operation or procedures manual specifies this is how we do it here. Every process in the firm should be documented in your manual – from marketing – to accounting –  to IT – to legal case work. Sections in your manual might include:

Procedures manuals are often a list of steps in outline form. The American Bar Association has a book – The Law Office Policy and Procedures Manual that may help you get started. 

In my earlier life I spent nine years in the United States Air Force Judge Advocate Generals (JAG) office and there I learned the importance of policy and procedures manuals and I carried this into both law firms where I worked prior to starting my consulting practice thirty-four years ago.

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

 

 

 

 

Apr 17, 2019


Law Firm Merger/Acquisition – Should We Merge or Acquire

Question: 

I am the managing partner of an eight attorney firm in Dayton Ohio. We have two equity partners (both in our early fifties), two non-equity partners, and four associates. Our practice is a very niche specific practice and there are only three or four other practices in the state that do the work that we do. There is another firm in Cleveland, Ohio that has approached us regarding possible merger or acquisition. The firm does similar work that our firm does but this firm also handles some areas that we don’t handle but would like to get into that falls within our niche area. There are two founding partners in the firm – one in his late sixties and the other in her early seventies, one associate attorney, and four staff members. The two partners are planning on moving towards retirement and are looking for a succession strategy. They have not shared with us their timeline or any financial information. We have had one face-to-face meeting and several phone calls. We would appreciate your take on this, next steps, and whether we should pursue further.

Response: 

You have not indicated whether your firm has a strategic plan? If you do my next question is whether this practice area and having another office three and one half hours away supports the vision of your firm?  Often, but not always, a merger will emerge as a way to achieve some aspect of the firm’s vision. For example, a merger might help the firm:

The above would be right reasons to consider a merger or acquisition.

You should take pause if the reasons you are considering merging or acquiring the other firm include:

If your firm does not have a strategic plan you may want to at least engage in some form of internal self-analysis to insure that you are looking through a clear lens, are building a sound business case for the merger or acquisition, and are identifying the characteristics of the ideal merger/acquisition candidate.

In your situation you are looking at actually acquiring a practice three and a half hours away with two senior partners that will be retiring. Obviously, there are risks but the devil will be in the details that will come out of a thorough due diligence examination which I believe is your next step. Here is a link to a prior post concerning information that you should ask the other firm to provide. 

Your due diligence examination should focus on:

Right up front you should ask the partners in the other firm their specific timeline for retirement and how long they will be available for client and management transition. A key issue will be whether clients will remain with the firm when they retire? Are there others in the firm, non-equity partners or associates, that the clients have confidence in to the extent they would remain with the firm or will this all be on your shoulders as owners of the acquired firm? The other question you should should ask up front is what the partners of the other firm are looking for in the form of purchase price or compensation for the firm.

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

 

Apr 03, 2019


Valuing a Personal Injury Law Practice

Question:

I am the owner of a three attorney personal injury practice in Columbia, South Carolina and I am contemplating retiring in seven years. I have an associate on board that I would like to sell my practice over the seven years. How do I go about valuing my practice and determining how much I should ask for?

Response: 

A few of the various methods used solely or in combination with other methods for valuing a law firm include:

  1. Asset Based – ignores the importance of a firm’s earnings and cash flow (Goodwill Value)
    1. Book value – adjusted to accrual-based financials
    2. Replacement cost
    3. Appraised value
    4. Market value
  2. Comparable firm transactions
  3. Discounted cash flow – based on projected future financial performance of the firm.
  4. Rule of thumb using multiples
    1. Multiple of gross revenue
    2. Multiple of net profit or earnings
    3. Multiple of EBITDA (Earnings before interest, income tax, depreciation, and amortization. (EBITDA is a measure of a firm’s operating performance)
    4. Multiple of SDE – seller discretionary earnings after owner compensation adjustments (expensing appropriate salary)
  5. Rule of thumb variables
    1. How much repeat business is expected
    2. Number and type of clients
    3. The transfer-ability of client and referral source relationships
    4. Dependence on only a few large clients
    5. Whether the firm has been institutionalized or is a personal practice and uniquely the firm owner
    6. Other attorneys and staff
    7. Firm infrastructure and systems
    8. Historical reputation of the firm
    9. Contingency fee practices

Personal injury firms are difficult to value due to the variability in cash flows that are often the case with many firms.  Some personal injury firms have relatively predictable cash flows and others have very large swings. When this is the case the typical solution is cash-based book value plus a percentage of case fees as they are concluded with a percentage of completion factor applied.

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

Mar 26, 2019


Hiring Lawyers that are Children of Law Firm Partners

Question: 

I am an associate attorney in a nine-attorney firm in Orlando, Florida. There are five partners and four associates in the firm. I have been with the firm four years and I am the senior associate. I am concerned about my future. Recently one of the partners announced that he was bring his son, who recently graduated from law school, into the firm as an associate. Other partners have children in law school. I am concerned about my future. I have hopes of becoming a partner in the firm in the next few years. I am afraid that with partner children in the firm this may not happen. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Response: 

Many firms have brought children and other family members into the firm and have had excellent results. Others have not. In general, I believe that law firms do a better job at this than do other business firms.  I believe that if the firm lays the proper foundation and goes about it correctly children of partners and existing associates can coexist. Here are suggestions that I suggest for law firms:

  1. Recognize that for the family members there will be a family system, law firm, and an overlapping of these systems. This can be fertile ground for conflict if clear boundaries between the family role and the firm (business) role are not clear. Establish clear boundaries. Family dynamics and business dynamics seldom mix. A firm’s objective should be to draw the clearest possible distinction between the two and make sure that everyone understands that the firm (business) is the firm and the family is the family.
  2. Children should not be brought into the firm unless they want to be involved and satisfy the firm’s  standard hiring criteria for lawyers. I believe that before partners children join the law firm it is a good idea for them to work for another firm or organization. When they do join the firm, they can bring with them that experience, a supply of new ideas, a network of contacts, and a number of other benefits acquired.
  3. The firm must make it clear to partner’s children that they must “earn their stripes” and come up through the ranks in the same fashion as other associates in the firm. No special privileges. Make it clear that they must earn the respect of other attorneys and staff in the firm.
  4. The firm should put the associates and staff at ease. Make it clear that children of partners are expected to “earn their stripes” and they will not be promoted to partner over other associates on family status alone.
  5. The firm should clearly define the role of all parties.
  6. The partners should monitor their own behavior. They should not take sides – either between their children if they join the firm or between other partner’s children and other employees in the firm.
  7. The firm should be careful with compensation and other rewards. Compensation should be based on performance and results and consistent and competitive with other law firms of similar size and type.
  8. Communicate, communicate, communicate – your intentions, roles, etc. before and after partner’s children join the firm.

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

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