Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

« Earlier

Apr 17, 2018


Subjective Law Firm Partner Compensation Systems

Question: 

I am a partner in a twelve attorney commercial litigation law firm in Palm Beach, Florida. There are five partners in the firm. We are contemplating merging with another firm in the area of similar size. We have done our due diligence and have come across a possible non-starter – the compensation system. Our compensation system is totally objective – formula-based very close to an eat-what-you-kill system. The other firm has operated under a subjective system and they are pushing for the firm to operate under this type of system. We would appreciate your thoughts and enlightenment concerning subjective-based systems.

Response:

Subjective-based systems are the most commonly used approach to setting partner compensation, especially in larger firms. More and more firms your size and larger are moving to subjective systems as a result of the failure of other systems to account for the full range of contributions that partners make to the law firm. Subjective systems can take on a variety of forms but the central theme of such systems is that they rely on a subjective assessment of partner performance, without reference to specific weighting of factors or a set formula. This is not to say that subjective systems lack structure or predictability, or that they don’t consider objective financial data. Successful subjective compensation systems include these elements and more.

Subjective compensation systems vary widely. Here are some of the most common elements found in subjective systems:

In additional to subjective compensation systems some firms used hybrid systems that employs objective (formula) and subjective components.

Subjective systems are not for all firms. They will fail with out strong, trusted, leadership. In very small firms it is difficult to structure a compensation decision making body.

It sounds like your firm and the firm you are thinking of merging with may come from two very different cultures. Subjective systems work well for firms that are “firm first” firms but not for lone ranger firms that often operate under eat-what-you-kill systems. If you firm is not a long ranger firm and your are in fact a “firm first” firm or aspire to be such you may be able to adapt to a subjective system. However, you may need a post-merger phase-in period. Another comprise approach might be a hybrid system.

Click here for our blog on compensation

Click here for our blog on mergers

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

 

Apr 11, 2018


Law Firm Practice Groups

Question: 

I am a partner and a member of our three-member executive committee. Our firm is a twenty-five attorney litigation defense firm in Kansas City, Missouri. We handle matters such as personal injury, medical malpractice, professional malpractice, products liability, and health care law. Each attorney handles and manages his or her own cases and operates in isolation of the other partners in the firm. Other than attending a quarterly partnership meeting there is little interaction among the partners. We have been discussing whether we should form practice groups. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Practice groups can be excellent vehicles for enhancing communications, attorney and staff skill development and training, practice management, and marketing. Practice groups should share the mission and vision of the firm as well as goals of enhancing services to clients by developing the skills of the members of the group in a particular legal specialty or industry niche and developing business for that particular group. Practice groups should not operate as isolated islands but should be structured and integrated with the firm. Specifically, functional practice groups should:

Practice groups can be structured around legal specialties such as personal injury, product liability, and professional malpractice. Other practice groups can be structured around industry niches such as energy, health care, etc. In cases where a firm has a very large client a practice group can established for that specific client.

While practice groups can have their advantages, I have found that in many firms they are dysfunctional. They do not meet on a consistent basis, have no goals, or direction, poor leadership, and seem to accomplish little. To be effective  practice groups must:

  1. Be setup by the executive committee with specific goals and have a written charter developed by the executive committee.
  2. Effective leaders should be appointed by the executive committee to serve as chair of the practice group assigned. Specific roles should be identified as well as expectations.
  3. Practice group chair leadership effectiveness should be a factor in the compensation system.
  4. Practice groups should have written strategic plans that integrate with the firm’s strategic plan.
  5. Practice groups should meet monthly.

I believe a practice group would be a logical direction for your firm. You might want to start slow and try a “pilot” test group where there appears to be significant interest and see how it develops.

Click here for our blog on governance 

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

 

Apr 04, 2018


Associate Attorney Motivation

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen attorney firm in Chicago. There are nine partners and five associate attorneys in the firm. Our practice is limited to insurance defense. I am one of the founders and senior partners in the firm and have been practicing for 35 years. We are having problems getting our associates to produce at the levels that we need for the firm to be profitable. We have a 1800 annual billable hour requirement and several of our associates aren’t even close. We have a bonus system that pays associates a bonus based upon billable hours exceeding 1800 billable hours. What are we doing wrong?

Response:

It often takes more than setting up a bonus system and then leaving it on autopilot. I am finding that the intrinsic reward of doing a good job and meeting the expectations of the firm’s partners are as important as the bonus system. In client law firms that have had similar problems we have found that by supplementing the bonus system with monthly reviews and coaching sessions with associates not meeting their targets has made the difference. Here is an outline of the process:

  1. Review you monthly billing/hours reports for all associates each month.
  2. Identify those are below targets and expectations.
  3. Meet with those associates that are below targets and expectations.
  4. Discuss why there are having problems meeting expectations. Lack of work, not working enough hours, poor time management habits, or poor timekeeping habits.
  5. Identify solutions to the above problems.
  6. Monitor and follow-up.
  7. Continue to meet every month until such time as the associate is meeting targets and expectations.

The bonus rewards those that want to push beyond the 1800 billable hours but does nothing to solve the problem of those not meeting the 1800 billable hour expectation.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for our blog on human resources

Click here for our blog on compensation

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

Mar 28, 2018


Law Firm Growth Planning

Question:

I am a partner in a six lawyer firm in Jackson Mississippi. There are three partners and three associates in the firm. The firm is a insurance defense litigation firm. Our firm has been at its present size for many years, revenues have been flat, and profits have been shrinking. The partners have been discussing the pros and cons of growth and we would like to significantly grow the practice. A couple of our insurance company clients have asked us to open offices in other states and we are giving this consideration. Initially, we would open two other offices and we anticipate that this would require us to hire six additional attorneys. We appreciate any thoughts that you have.

Response: 

This is a huge step and I suggest that you give it careful thought. Here are a few of the issues you should consider:

  1. Firm Size – opening two branch offices and hiring six additional attorneys all at once is a major undertaking. This would double your firm size. A twelve attorney firm is quite different that a six attorney firm and requires a different approach to management, structure, etc. This would tough enough if the expansion were not in remote offices but in remote offices I believe the growth is too aggressive. I would start with one branch office and phase in the work and attorneys. Hopefully, you have a commitment from more than one client to send you work for a given location.
  2. Branch Office Staffing – staffing the office, especially with attorneys, will be a major issue. Unless you have attorneys in your office now that are licensed in these states you are going to have to hire local talent. How will you integrate the cultures of the two firms, prevent the remote offices from operating as separate silos, and keep the new offices from splitting off in a few years and starting a competing firm. Quality attorney talent will be hard to find and those that you do find will be reluctant to want to work for a small firm with no footprint in the local area. It is always preferable to staff a branch office, at least initially, with attorneys from the home office.
  3. Structure and Management – a larger firm will require a more sophisticated structure and approach to management. Will the attorneys hired for the remote offices be partners or associates? Will you need to create a non-equity tier? Who will manage the remote offices? Will you need to hire a firm administrator?
  4. Cash Flow – Growth will put a strain on the firm’s cash flow and will require additional working capital. Your partners will have to invest additional capital or the firm will have to take on debt.
  5. Systems – Growth will require you to examine your IT systems and software that you are currently using. They may not be sufficient. Consider how you will connect the computer system of the main office to the remote offices. How will phone systems be connected?
  6. Policies and Procedures – policies, procedures, and protocols will need to be developed and documented.
  7. Compensation – You present attorney compensation system may no longer be adequate. Consider whether a new approach will be required to attract new attorney talent.
  8. Financial Management – Your approach to financial management may need to be more formal that it is now. Budgeting will be a necessity.
  9. Facilities – Office space will have to be located and leases signed unless you start out with an executive suite type of arrangement, such as a Regus office. There are pros and cons to starting this way. One the one hand it provides a low risk way to enter a new market but on the other hand it signals that you are not committed to the market and you have just one toe in the water.

These are just a few of the issues that you will need to consider. Do your homework and due diligence on this before you jump feet first.

Click here for our blog on strategy

Click here for our blog on profit improvement

Click here for our blog on offices and facilities

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

 

 

Mar 21, 2018


Law Practice Acquisition Proposal

Question:

I am a partner in a three partner six attorney in Chicago. We have been having discussions with another law firm in the city regarding us acquiring their practice. The owner is seventy years old and wanting to retire and exit his practice. My partners and I have looked over the numbers and believe this would be an excellent opportunity for us to expand our client base. The practice handles the same type of work that we do. We are unsure what our next step should be? Do you have any suggestions?

Response: 

I would start by asking for all the due diligence information that your can get your hands on. For example:

  1. Profit and loss statements and balance sheets for the past five years
  2. Income tax returns for the past five years
  3. Copy of office lease
  4. Copy of all equipment leases
  5. Copy of most recent malpractice application
  6. Equipment and furniture inventory list
  7. Personnel list with current compensation and benefits paid, length of time with the firm, current job duties, etc.
  8. Information pertaining to benefits offered employees.
  9. Copies of marketing and business plans.
  10. Reports showing billable hours, fees collections by timekeeper, etc. for past five years.
  11. Reports showing fees collections by clients and practice areas for past five years.
  12. Current work in process and accounts receivable report.

Insure that you have done a thorough conflict of interest check and insure that you review the Illinois rules of professional conduct concerning sale of law practice. Give consideration to the value of the firm and what you are willing to pay for it and how? What assets do want to purchase – just the goodwill or will fixed assets be included? What about work in process and accounts receivable? Is there a building involved and if so do you want to purchase the building and real estate? Do you want to take on any of the employees? Do the numbers work for you? What terms would be acceptable to you?

The next step is to prepare and present a proposal. Some of the following elements would be included in a proposal:

Once you have prepared the proposal present it to the owner of the firm and go from there.

Click here for our blog on succession

Click here for out articles on various management topics

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mar 14, 2018


Attorney Career Progression – Competency Model

Question: 

I am a member of a three member executive committee with our twelve-attorney firm in San Antonio, Texas. One of our responsibilities is oversight of our career development program for associates and non-equity partners. We  have been discussing our policy of admitting associates to non-equity partner and non-equity partners to equity partner. Presently, we do not have anything in writing regarding timeline for consideration or what qualifies one to move to the next level. Associates and non-equity partners are unhappy with the present process. They want more clarity concerning their career advancement within the firm. You advise would be helpful to us.

Response: 

Several of my clients are developing career advancement programs that incorporate a competency-based approach that  outlines specifically what is takes to be successful and advance from associate to non-equity partner and from non-equity partner to equity partner. Rather than leaving the formula for success in the minds of the equity partners, a competency model gives each attorney in the firm an understanding of how he or she will need to perform in order to be perceived as progressing, an ultimately, as successful. Competency models offer transparency and clarity. The model outlines specific behavioral observations as the primary source of performance information. Benefits are as follows:

Associates are presented with clear information on expectations for their level of experience and a road map of what is expected as they progress. Specific expectations are laid out for progression to non-equity partner as opposed to a specific timeline.

Non-equity partners are presented with clear information on expectations for their level of experience and a road map of what is expected as they progress. Specific expectations are laid out for progression to equity-partner as opposed to a specific timeline.

Equity partners and senior lawyers benefit from a consistent description of performance standards that allow them to access performance, assign work effectively, and offer more meaningful career guidance.

The firm has a consistent methodology for making and compensation decisions.

In order to work, a competency model should be integrated with attorney recruiting, performance evaluations, training, and compensation systems. Associates and partners must invest time in attorney development.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for our blog on human resources

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

Mar 07, 2018


Law Firm Marketing – Using Articles to Demonstrate Expertise

Question: 

I am new non-equity partner in a sixteen attorney firm in Phoenix, Arizona. My equity partners are telling me that I now have to do more than generate billable hours and perform quality work for clients. They now expect me to begin bringing in clients. I am not sure where to start.

Response: 

I often advise attorneys that while what you know is important what you want to be known for is more important. Just having your name known is pretty useless unless it is known for something. An outstanding personal injury plaintiff lawyer – not just a good lawyer. In law firms it is the reputation for expertise that matters, not just the reputation. Therefore, a successful marketing program must project and demonstrate expertise. This can be accomplished in the following ways:

  1. Byline Articles
  2. Authored Books
  3. Presentations
  4. Client Testimonials on the firm’s website.

While biographies on the website are important, prospective clients and referral sources are looking for proof of expertise. Articles, authored books, presentations, and client testimonials provide such proof.

One of the best and reliable ways of providing such proof is the article. In a byline article, you don’t have to say that your are an expert – the fact that you wrote the article, discussing a particular legal topic, says it for you. Its your expertise on display whether the article be in a print publication or posted on your website, blog, or other location.

An article is one tool that you can use where you have control – you can say what you want to say and say it in your way. In most cases, if an article is acceptable to a publication, an editor won’t change the thrust of it.

For most legal and business trade journal publications that accept articles you do not have to be a well known writer to write an article that will be accepted by these publications. You simply have to know what you are talking about. Editors will help with the formatting, style, and syntax.

If you retain the copyright to your article you can re-purpose your article and use it on the firm’s website, reprints, firm brochures, and as a future chapter in your first book.

Click here for our blog on book writing

Click here for our blog on marketing

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

 

 

Feb 28, 2018


Selling My Law Practice to My Associate

Question: 

I am the owner of a general practice firm in Chicago’s west suburbs. I have three associate attorneys in the firm and three staff members. I am sixty-four and contemplating my retirement and exit from the practice. I would like to start phasing back over the next three years and be out of the practice by December 31, 2021. There is one associate in the firm to whom I would like to sell the practice and he has expressed an interest as well. What are your thoughts as to how I approach this?

Response: 

Client, referral source, and management transition will be major concerns and will impact the value you can receive for your firm. You will need to use the next couple of years to effect a successful client, referral source, and management transition to your associate. Clients and referral sources will need to have a relationship with your associate and perceive him as a partner.

I have seen law firm owners approach this in the following ways:

  1. The associate is elevated and given the title of partner (non-equity) with the execution of practice sale agreement for the sale of the practice to occur in the future with a non-refundable deposit. The practice sale agreement outlines the sale price (which includes a goodwill value) and specific terms for the sale of the practice. Upon purchase of the practice  the associate would setup a new practice entity. This approach is often taken by firm’s that don’t want to “play partner.”
  2. A value is determine for the practice and price per share. Often this includes a goodwill value. The associate buys in and initially becomes a minority partner – say twenty to twenty-five percent. Over the next several years the minority partner buys additional shares based upon the valuation formula and the price per share determined at that future time. When the owner retires his or her remaining shares are acquired with the payment for these shares often paid over a period of three to five years.
  3. An associate becomes a minority partner and makes a capital contribution (usually based on cash-based-capital) that has no relationship to the value that the owner is seeking to receive from the practice. The partnership agreement has a “founder benefit” provision that provides that the founder receives a multiple (1.5 to 2) of the average of his or her last three year’s earnings upon retirement. For example, if the founders average annual earnings for the past three years was $350,000 – $525,000 (multiple 1.5) would be his founder benefit. Typically this would be paid out over three to five years. This would be in addition to a return of the founder’s capital account.

In each of the above scenarios it will be critical that you put in place an action plan with dates, timelines, and activities to ensure that activities that have to occur for a successful client, referral source, and management transition get accomplished. Your biggest challenge will be client and referral source transition. Both of you will need to ensure that clients and referral sources stay with the firm as that will effect the value of the arrangement for both of you.

Click here for our blog on succession

Click here for out articles on various management topics

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

 

Feb 21, 2018


Law Firm Staff Work Distribution Analysis

Question: 

I am a new firm administrator with a thirty-five attorney litigation firm in Los Angeles, California. In my accounting department I have seven staff members handling a variety of tasks. My partners are concerning that we are inefficient and over staffed. I am having a hard time finding where to start so to get a handle on  this issue. Please provide any information that you are willing to share.

Response: 

There are questions that you must ask yourself in order to analyze the work distribution of your accounting department. Such questions as the following will help you in knowing what to look for:

  1. What activities take the most time?
  2. Is there any misdirected effort?
  3. Are skills being used properly?
  4. Are you staff doing too many unrelated tasks?
  5. Are tasks spread too thinly?
  6. Is work distributed evenly?
  7. Are the right people on the bus?

Before you can analyze your accounting department you must be able to see clearly, in one place, all the activities of your accounting department and the contribution of each employee on each activity. A work distribution chart is the easiest and best way to arrange these facts in simple form. A properly made work distribution chart will help you determine if the largest time of your staff is devoted to the major function of your department. (Operations list down the left rows and staff names listed across the columns) It may indicate that more time is being devoted to other functions than is necessary. A function or task may require a more detailed study, as might be indicated where total hours seem unreasonable. You may discover that your accounting department is spending too much time on relatively unimportant or unnecessary work. Misdirected effort appears on the work distribution chart when staff are involved in tasks not contribution directly to the mission of the accounting department.

Here is an overview of the process:

  1. Have each staff member prepare a task list.
    1. List specific and clear activities for a specific time period with time listed for each activity.
    2. Task lists should cover a complete cycle of work. (Weekly, Monthly, etc.)
  2. Determine operations performed
    1. Prepare an operations list grouping related or same kind of tasks (operations).
    2. Check operations list against breakdown of department mission.
  3. Complete the work distribution chart
    1. Complete heading.
    2. List operations.
    3. Enter staff names in a column of the chart.
    4. Enter tasks, time, and work count for each operation.
    5. Total the columns and rows.
  4. Examine the present work distribution
    1. What operations take the most time?
    2. Are they essential?
    3. Is there misdirected effort?
    4. Are skills used properly?
    5. Are you staff doing too many unrelated tasks?
    6. Are tasks spread too thinly?
    7. Is work distributed equitably?
    8. Is the department overstaffed?
    9. Are the right people on the bus?
  5. Improve work distribution
    1. Consider eliminations, additions, and rearrangement of tasks and operations.
    2. Prepare a proposed work distribution chart.
    3. Discuss proposed changes with your partners.
    4. Put proposed changes into effect.

Click here for our blog on human resources

Click here for our blog on profit improvement

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

 

Feb 14, 2018


Compensation Ideas for Law Firm Staff – Goal Bonuses

Question: 

I am the firm administrator with a ten attorney firm in Long Beach, California. I really enjoyed reading your blog – Law Firm Compensation – Bonuses for Staff, dated December 27, 2016.  

I really like your approach of tying bonuses to measurable outcomes. Have you used other approaches other than percentage of salary? Can you give additional examples of specific goals that would be appropriate for a bookkeeper, office manager, or firm administrator?

Response: 

Research and experience tells us that employment expect the following five things from management:

  1. Mutual agreement as to what is expected.
  2. The opportunity to exercise his or her ability.
  3. Feedback on his or her performance.
  4. Direction when needed.
  5. Reward – compensation in equal measure to his or her contribution to the firm.

The problem with staff employee is quantifying and measuring performance so that bonuses are not “Santa Clause” bonuses. A bonus system tied to measurable goals/objectives can, as outlined in my earlier blog, eliminate the problem of bonuses being considered by employees as an entitlement.

Other approaches that some of my law firm clients have used is to develop a limited laundry list of goals with a specific dollar amount tied to each goal for specific positions such a bookkeeper, firm administrator, etc. Typically, there is a cap on how much can be earned per year – 5% – 10% of salary. At the beginning of each year the employee selects the goals that they plan on working on for the upcoming year, obtains approval from his or her supervisor, and both parties sign off on a goal plan for the year. The goals must be SMART goals. Bonuses are paid as goals are completed.

Here are some additional examples:

Bookkeeper 

  1. Reduce accounts receivable over 90 days by 25%
  2. Write and implement an accounting manual by December 31 of this year.

Firm Administrator 

  1. Manage the firm within the approved expense budget for the year.
  2. Reduce staff turnover during the year by 25% below an average of the past three years turnover history.
  3. Reduce headhunting fees for staff by 40% below an average of the past three years.
  4. Write and implement an Employee Handbook by December 31 of this year.
  5. Implement a new time and billing system by December 31 of this year within time and cost budget.

The key to the goals is that they are important to the firm and are measurable.

Click here for our blog on compensation

Click here for articles on other topics

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

    Subscribe to our Blog