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Aug 15, 2018


Six Worries That Keep Law Firm Managing Partners Awake at Night

Question: 

I am a new managing partner in a thirty-five attorney firm in Tucson, Arizona. I replaced the previous managing partner who retired. He was the firm founder and had been in the position since the firm’s inception. I have had this position for six months and I am finding the job overwhelming – trying to serve my clients and managing the firm at the same time is very difficult. What are the major challenges that managing partners are having.

Response: 

I understand and appreciate your situation. Managing partners advise me that the following challenges are what keeps them awake at night:

  1. Managing cash flow. Investments in technology, higher salaries for attorneys and staff, and longer collection cycles are all having a negative impact upon cash flow. Contingency fee firms have additional cash flow challenges. Managing partners must insure that client bills are going out promptly, client payments are deposited promptly, and vendor bills are paid “just in time.” Cash shortfalls will have to be financed with additional partner capital contributions or bank loans.
  2. Satisfying hard to please clients. Institutional clients are demanding more from their law firms in terms of service offerings, geographical coverage, responsiveness, and fee arrangements. Law firms are finding that the market for legal services is a buyers market and that they must continually innovate in order to continue satisfying client demands. Many are conducting client satisfaction interviews with these clients in order to measure client satisfaction and identify needed improvement areas and new opportunities.
  3. Competition from other law firms and non-law firm service providers. The oversupply of lawyers, advertising, and the internet has increased competition between law firms. In addition to the competition between law firms, law firms also also facing competition from other service providers as well. Managing partners are finding they have to allocate more resources to advertising and marketing. Websites, internet search engine optimization, and pay-per-click internet advertising is becoming the norm for many firms.
  4. Getting new clients and keeping existing clients. Today clients are less loyal and more likely to switch law firms than in years past. Managing partners are having to work harder to retain existing clients and acquire new clients. Acquisition of new institutional clients often requires responding to request for proposals, bidding for engagements and projects, preparation of quality proposals, and making presentations to prospective clients.
  5. Succession and retirement of senior partners. Many law firms are experiencing a “bunching” of numerous senior partners approaching retirement at the same time. Succession and transition planning is critical to the continued success of these firms. Getting partners to openly discuss their retirement plans is a major challenge that managing partners are facing.
  6. Getting and retaining top talent. Acquiring and retaining top lawyer and staff talent is becoming more difficult and more costly for law firms. Even though there is an oversupply of lawyers on the market there is still a shortage of experienced lawyer talent in many practice areas. Lawyer search timelines and recruiting cost are on the rise.

 

 

 

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

Aug 07, 2018


Firm Administrator vs Director of Administration or Chief Operating Officer

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen-attorney firm in South Florida. I am the senior member of a three member executive committee. Our firm is in the second generation of partners. The founders retired five years ago. Upon their retirements we changed our governance from a managing partner to an executive committee model supplemented with a office administrator – some refer to the position as the office manager. Our executive committee model has worked relatively well. The administrator that we hired five years ago is still in place but we are not satisfied with his performance. We believe that this is in part due to the fact that our expectations have changed. When we hired him we thought that we needed an office administrator primarily to manage the office staff and the billing and bookkeeping function. So we hired an administrator that had worked, as his first job out of junior college, as an office manager in an eight-attorney firm for two years and had an associates degree in accounting. He has does a good job with managing the staff and the billing and bookkeeping. However, we have now discovered that we want more – we want executive level leadership. We want someone that is respected by all the attorneys and can:

  1. Provide overall leadership
  2. Help lead the executive committee
  3. Develop create solutions to problems
  4. Lead the associates
  5. Serve as marketing director, etc.
  6. Take the lead in strategic planning and implementation of a strategic plan

I welcome your thoughts and opinions.

Response: 

Yes your expectations have indeed changed. Your administrator has not been able to grow in the role expectations that you now have for the position and does not have the education or experience to meet your new demands.

My observations are as follows:

  1. You would like your administrator to act and think like an owner/partner.
  2. You would like your administrator to be a quick learner.
  3. You would like your administrator to provide a higher level of management insight and bring business training and experience to the table.
  4. You would like your administrator to be accepted as a peer professional by all the attorneys in the firm.
  5. You would like your administrator to be innovative and willing to question the status quo.
  6. You would like your administrator to provide recommendations concerning new methods for  improving the firm’s operations and profitability.
  7. You would like your administrator to be able to resolve most administrative issues with minimal guidance from the executive committee.

I believe that you would like an administrator to serve more in the role as a Director of Administrator or Chief Operating Officer and your present administrator simply does not have the education, experience, and maturity to function in this capacity. If you want someone to serve in this capacity you will have to hire someone with degree credentials – such as a MBA or CPA, that will facilitate the candidate’s acceptance by other attorneys in the firm as a peer professional as well as provide the candidate with the academic tools needed to carry out the expectations of the position. In addition, you need to hire someone that has ten years plus as a director of administration or chief operating officer position in a similar size firm or company – preferably a firm that provides professional services such as a law firm, accounting firm, engineering firm, etc. You will have to look beyond the titles that candidates have had and inquire into the specific duties and roles performed. You will need to back up this inquiry with solid reference inquiries.

A director of administrator or chief operating officer position is rare in a fourteen-attorney firm. Many firms your size have administrators or office managers similar to the office administrator that you currently have. The downside to establishing such a position in your firm will be the salary that you will have to pay – more than many of your attorneys and even some partners are being paid – and turnover in the position when an opportunity from a much larger firm comes along.

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

Aug 01, 2018


Law Firm Merger or Of Counsel Arrangement and Due Diligence Information from Larger Firm

Question: 

I am a solo practitioner in upstate New York and I hope to retire three years from now and move to Florida and spend my retirement years there with my family. I have been talking with a larger firm, twenty-attorneys, in Albany that has an interest in me either merger my practice with their firm or joining as Of Counsel. My plan would be to work three more years, gradually phase back, and transition clients and referral sources.

I have had several meetings with the partners in the firm and they are now asking me for detailed due diligence information – tax returns, financial statements, etc. I have no problem providing these documents however I was wondering if I should be asking them for information. What do you think?

Response:

I believe that you are entitled to similar due diligence information from the other firm. You need to see what you are getting into.

Usually the smaller firm gets less – but they should share some information with you as you have with them.

I would ask for the following from them (or discuss with them):

  1. Five years profit and loss statements, balance sheets and tax returns.
  2. Lawyer and staff headcount for each of those five years.
  3. Current hourly billing rates.
  4. Description of practice area mix of clients by dollars collected – practice type and office location.
  5. Description of how the firm bills (hourly, flat rate, contingency)
  6. Copy of all leases (office space, equipment)
  7. Copy of malpractice insurance policy and last application.
  8. Salaries and benefits for equity and non-equity partners.
  9. Any governance plan or agreements.
  10. Copies of all partnership agreements or operating agreements for all business entities.
  11. Any documents pertaining to the retirement of partners including information as to obligations for partners who have already retired and those nearing retirement.
  12. Compensation data for equity and non-equity partners.
  13. Copy of the written compensation plan for equity partners if one exists or if not a discussion of how the compensation system works.
  14. Information on the line of credit and copies of all debt agreements.
  15. Copies of third party vendor agreements (equipment leases, subscriptions)
  16. Copy of the firm’s present malpractice insurance policy and most recent application.
  17. List of benefits provided.

I presume that you all have discussed any potential client conflicts of interest, etc.

You need to zero in whether the arrangement is going to be a merger or Of Counsel arrangement. If the arrangement is to be an Of Counsel arrangement the firm will be less likely to be willing to share all the information on the list and you will have less need as well. However, I believe you should at least have the basic financial and compensation information.

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

 

Jul 24, 2018


Law Firm Succession Planning – Getting Partners to Discuss their Future Plans

Question: 

I am the firm administrator for a twenty-five attorney firm in Baltimore, Maryland. We have fourteen partners and nine are in their sixties. We have no succession or transition plans in place for senior partners. Every time I bring up the topic there is a resistance to even discuss the topic. I would appreciate any help that you can provide.

Response: 

A decade ago, only the more proactive, well-managed law firms had in place programs and provisions for senior partner succession and transition. A majority of firms simply had not addressed or even given serious thought to the eventual retirement and exit of their senior partners. However, in the last five years, I have seen a lot of interest in succession, transition, and exit planning. The avalanche of baby boomers reaching retirement age has fueled this interest. Firms from the largest to the smallest are getting proactive and actively addressing succession and transition of senior partners. Some are putting in place formal programs, while others are at least addressing succession and transition informally using ad hoc approaches.

A recent Altman Weil Transition Survey gives us a glimpse of what other law firms are doing. Here are a few highlights from their survey concerning responding law firms.

Many other law firms are finding it a major challenge to get senior attorneys to talk and share their plans concerning retirement. In many cases the families of senior attorneys are having the same challenges. Coming to terms with aging is a difficult topic. In the case of law firms, often senior attorneys simply don’t know their future plans themselves, need the income, fear that others shareholders/partners will steal their clients, or the firm simply does not have a mechanism in place that mandates transition planning. Some firms are implementing mandatory retirement and others are putting in place financial incentives to motivate early transition of clients. Client loss is the most significant concern.

Keep at it and don’t give up but it may take a series of baby steps. Educate your partners on the risks of “doing nothing”. Provide them with articles and other resources and keep the topic on the agenda.

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

Jul 19, 2018


Law Firm Structure and Elevating Associates to Partnership

Question: 

I started my firm as a solo nine years ago in New Orleans. My practice focuses on maritime defense litigation. Over the years I have added associates and currently I have six associates working for me. I am overwhelmed with work – from the legal work that I am doing in addition to the business development and firm administration. My thought is that I should consider restructuring the firm by making some of my associates partners so I can offload and share some of the administrative responsibilities. I would like your thoughts. What are other firms in my situation doing.

Response: 

Years ago when I started in this business there were solo practitioners and there were multi-attorney firms that were partnerships. There were not many multi-attorney firms that were what I call sole owner firms – firms will many attorneys and just one owner. This has changed. More and more attorneys don’t want to be in partnerships with other attorneys. Sometimes this is a result of bad experiences in other partnerships. In other cases they simply want to go it alone. Also, more and more associates don’t want to take on the stress and financial obligations of partnership – they simply want a job that provides them with a decent income with work life balance. I have law firm clients with sole owners, fifteen to twenty attorneys, and fifty to seventy staff employees. These firm owners have hired firm administrators, marketing managers, and other such talent to offload the administration. While these firm owners have been enjoying the fruits of sole ownership eventually they will have to reevaluate their situation when they begin planning their succession and exit strategies.

I think you have to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is adding partners the best way to offload your administrative responsibilities? Should you hire a firm administrator?
  2. Are  you ready for partners?
  3. Do you have associates that meet your requirements for partner admission? Have you thought about these requirements?
  4. Do the associates that you would consider for partnership have an interest in being partners?

Give this some more thought – don’t just make partners to have partners or to have someone to handle administration.

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

 

Jul 11, 2018


Law Firm Goodwill and Valuation

Question: 

I am the owner of a six-attorney litigation firm in San Francisco Bay area. I am sixty and starting to give though to gradually transferring my interest to associates in the firm. I have heard other attorneys mention that I should get some goodwill out of my practice. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Many law firm owners prefer to leave a legacy and keep the firm “within the family” and transition the firm to non-equity partners or associates in the firm at a discounted value and buy-in as an incentive to stay on with the firm and a reward for their years of dedication to the firm.

Some law firms – typically second generation or later firms – allow non-equity partners or associates to become equity owners with no buy-in whatsoever. The thought being that the real assets of the firm are its talent – its people and the firm’s priority is to retain and keep the best talent that it can. These firms also do not have hefty buy-outs for partners or shareholders leaving the firm other than possibly the initial founders of the firm. Over the years, such firms fund retirement through 401ks, profit sharing plans, and other mechanisms. When partners or shareholders leave the firm, they get their cash-based capital account, or share of retained earnings and their share of current year earnings.

A “founders benefit” is sometimes put in place for firm founders in which they may be paid a share of the accrual-based capital or retained earnings – WIP and A/R. They may also be paid a goodwill value as well either in the form of a multiple of earnings or a specific sum based upon a multiple of gross revenue.

The problem in many firms is that associates are still paying off student loan debts and they don’t have cash available to purchase the owners interests. As a result, if you don’t start early, the cash often has to come from future cash flows that are available after the owner leaves the firm from the compensation that the owner is no longer receiving.

You need to start early, get people committed and start selling affordable minority shares years before you retire so you can get at least half of your ownership interest paid for before you leave the firm and the other half paid out over a five-year time period.

Wait too long and your associates may feel they can just wait you out and inherit your clients without having to pay you anything.

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

Jul 04, 2018


Lawyer Performance and Setting Expectations

Question:

I am the owner of a real estate practice in Rockford, Illinois. I have two offices – one in Rockford and the other in Chicago. I started my practice twenty years ago and have had my associate for the past five years. He works in the Chicago office and I work in the Rockford office. Prior to this associate I had two other associates that did not work out. My present associate has fourteen years’ experience and worked in three other law firms prior to joining my firm.  While he has been with me for five years I am not happy with his performance. The legal assistant that works with him has advised me that he often does not come in the office until ten and often leaves in the middle of the day. Clients have complained that he does not return phone calls or emails. His production is low – his annual billable hours have never been above 1200 hours. I am paying him a salary of $98,000. I have had numerous conversations with him about these issues to no avail. Frankly, I am sick of it – I don’t trust him and things need to change. What should be my next step?

Response: 

I find that often owners of law firms and partners in multi-partner firms when dealing with associates often fail to really lay their cards on the table when counselling associates. They beat around the bush and fail to lay out expectations and consequences for non-compliance.

As owner of your firm you can’t beat around the bush and be sheepish concerning your expectations concerning desired performance and behavior in the office. Confront the performance or behavioral problem immediately. Manage such problems in real time. Don’t wait for the annual performance review and don’t treat serious problem as a “self-improvement” effort. Tell him how you feel about the performance or behavioral issue, the consequences for failure to resolve the issue, your timeline for resolving the issue, and the follow-up schedule that you will be using to follow-up and monitor the issue. If he must resolve the performance or behavioral issue in order to keep his job tell him so. He may need this level of confrontation in order to give him the strength to be able to deal with his issues.

Being a wimp does not help you or him. Tell him like it is and conduct a heart-to-heart discussion. You will be glad you did.

I would set a timeline for his performance improvement – say 60 or 90 days with weekly coaching follow-up meetings. Document these meetings. If he does not meet your expectations by the timeline you should terminate his employment and look for a replacement.

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

Jun 27, 2018


Elder Law Firm Expanding into Personal Injury and Other Areas

Question: 

I am a partner in a four attorney law firm in a small town south of Waco, Texas. We have two partners and two associates. Our practice is limited to elder law, estate planning, and estate administration. The practice was formed thirty years ago by the  two partners. The firm has built a strong brand in elder law and estate planning/administration and does a significant amount of business in several other counties. The firm is doing well financially. Our main problem is that we are overwhelmed with work and we need to hire an additional attorney. We have interviewed an attorney that is a partner in another two attorney law firm in the area that has some limited experience in small business corporate work and estate planning. However, most of his experience is in personal injury plaintiff, criminal, and family law.  If he joins our firm he wants to continue to develop these practice areas as well as bring his personal injury, criminal, and family law cases with him. Bringing him on board could solve our lawyer staffing issue as well as increase our business. Should we bring him on board?

Response: 

It sounds like the attorney you are considering is a trial lawyer and has limited experience in your practice areas and he wants to expand his personal injury, criminal, and family law practice. You need help in your core practice areas.

This would cause your firm to become more of a general practice firm rather than the specialty firm that you are presently. While there are general practice firms that handle elder law and estate planning/administration, more of the successful firms your size are specializing in these practice areas. Bringing these practice areas into your firm would totally change the firm’s brand, image, culture, and strategy. Marketing will be more complex. The firm will have to fund client advances for the personal injury cases. You need to revisit your strategy and ask whether you want to go this direction. Personally, I think you should pass. If you want to expand into other practice areas you might consider real estate and corporate. I have several elder law/estate planning firms that handle real estate and corporate work.

I would cast a wider net and look for additional candidates. I would start by looking for an experienced elder law/estate planning attorney. However, these attorneys are hard to find. You might have to hire and train a recent law school graduate.

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

Jun 20, 2018


Associate Attorney Compensation and Motivation

Question: 

Our firm is based in Springfield, Illinois. We have four partners and four associates. We are a general practice firm. All of our associates have been with the firm over ten years and each of them are receiving $100,000 base salaries plus discretionary bonuses. Our associates are excellent attorneys however none of them bring in any business  and their production numbers are low. Annual billable hours are below 1200 and working attorney fee collections are below $300,000. We have not given raises or bonuses for the last several years. We are losing money on some of our associates and not even covering our overhead alone making any profit from our associates. We are at a loss as what to do. Please share any thoughts or ideas that you might have.

Response: 

It would be interesting to know whether you set production goals such as billable hours or working attorney fee collection goals for your associates and if and how they are enforced. Billable hours should be in the range of 1600-1750 per year and fee collections should be $300,000+ for associates being paid $100,000 per year. It sounds like production goals either don’t exist or are not enforced.

I suggest that you look in to the cause or causes of your associates low production. Here are a few questions you should ask yourselves concerning the cause of your associates low production:

  1. Does the firm have enough work for the associates?
  2. Are the associates working enough hours? What is their work/billable hours ratio? Goal 70%.
  3. Are the associates clear as to their goals – billable hours/fee collections.
  4. Do associates have time management issues?
  5. Do associates have time keeping issues?
  6. Are there consequences for poor production?

I suggest that you meet with each of your associates, address the above questions, and determine what is going on. It could be one or all of the above. If the firm does not have enough work for the associates you need to determine if partners are delegating sufficient work, whether business is down at the firm (short-term vs long-term), and whether the firm may have too many associates for the work that is available. If there is simply not enough work, has not been enough work for some time, and it is projected that the firm’s workload will be the same for the foreseeable future the firm will need to consider eliminating an associate’s position or reducing the work hours, and compensation, of one or more associates. If the work is there and associates are just not working and putting in the hours you need to insure that goals and consequences for non-performance are in place – you might want to consider changes your compensation system. If associates are having problems with time management or timekeeping conduct some training sessions and coaching.

Some firms have changed their systems whereby associates are paid a base salary plus a bonus for billable hours or collected fees over a predetermined threshold. However, incentive bonus work better when salaries are kept low. Often when salaries reach $100,000 or more additional bonuses may not motivate attorneys that are not hungry for more, are comfortable, and their priority is work-life balance.

While you must get associate compensation right in order to acquire and retain top associate talent as well as reward performance and reinforce desired behaviors, the starting point is hiring and retaining the right people to begin with.

Research from a classic business study that was highlighted in the popular business book “Good to Great” (Collins, 2001) authored by Jim Collins found that the method of compensation was largely irrelevant as a causal variable for high and sustained levels of performance. Other research also bears out that performance and motivational alignment are impacted by intrinsic and other factors other than just extrinsic factors such as compensation or methods of compensation. Over the years I have seen too many partners leave lucrative situations in law firms to join other firms for less compensation or to start their own firms to suggest that it is only about the money or compensation package.

Your compensation system should not be designed to get the right behaviors from the wrong people, but to get the right people on the bus in the first place, and to keep them there. Your compensation system should support that effort.

James Cotterman, Altman & Weil, Inc., (Cotterman, 2004) contents that there are two groups of employees for whom compensation is not an effective management tool. The intrinsically motivated (6% to 16% of partners perhaps) do not need compensation as an incentive. The struggling performers (another 6% to 16%) will not react favorably to a compensation system that rewards positive behavior.

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

Jun 12, 2018


Law Firm Strategic Planning – Culture as an Essential Ingredient

Question: 

Our firm is a twelve attorney firm – eight partners and four associates in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm was founded by the present partners twenty years ago. We are an eat-what-you- kill firm – partners are allocated their fees, overhead is allocated, and their compensation is their individual profit. While we have a firm administrator that handles the day-to-day management of our operations, we have done a poor job of long-term management and planning. One of our partners has suggested that we develop a strategic plan. However, I believe this would be difficult for us given that we never meet, have different ideas of our future, have never been able to agree on any major decisions, and unwilling to be accountable to each other and have a general attitude of mistrust. I don not believe we even have a firm culture – in essence we are eight separate practices operating under the guise of a partnership. Your comments are most welcomed.

Response: 

It is very hard for partners in an eat-what-you-kill firm to come together and implement a strategic plan when the partners have no common values, goals, or objectives. Eat-what-you-kill firms more often than not have no culture at all. Three components that are linked, reinforce each other, and must be balanced are strategy, compensation, and culture.

Culture is the outcome of how people are related to each other in a law firm, thrives on cooperation and friendship, and defines the firm’s sense of community. Culture is the glue that holds a firm together and is built on shared interest and mutual obligation. A firm’s culture boosts a firm’s identity as one organization and prevents disintegration and decentralization. Without a common culture a firm lacks values, direction, and purpose.

You firm is a fragmented or confederation culture and as such will find it difficult to even get started on a strategic planning process unless you are willing to change. You might want to spend some time addressing the question of whether you want to continue operating as lone rangers or whether you want to become a firm-first law firm. This will require that the partners give up some independence and be accountable to each other.

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

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