Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Jul 18, 2017


Law Firm Owners as Businesspersons that Don’t Service Clients

Question: 

I am the owner of a six attorney elder law firm in Dallas. I manage the firm and practice law. I am finding it more and more difficult to do both. I would like to shift my time totally to managing the practice. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

You are not alone. This is a common problem in law and other professional service firms. I have similar problems in my own firm – it is very difficult to serve two masters – serving your clients and managing your firm. Eventually you have to pick one – client service (doing legal work) or managing and running your business – as the area that receives your primary focus. This is not to say that you should not do both – but you select the primary area that you are going to focus on and get help with the other area.

A question that I typically ask my new law firm clients – what do you want to be or do – be a business person or a lawyer. The answer to the question often provides a hint to how you should structure your firm. If you want to be more of a business person – hire legal talent to help with serving clients and performing legal work and spend more time working on your firm rather than in it. If you want to be more of a lawyer and do legal work and serve clients hire a legal administrator or business manager (this is more than an office manager) to manage and run your firm.

I have more and more owners of small law firms that are managing their law businesses and not practicing law. I believe the appropriate direction is what makes you happy and what type of work you enjoy doing. You practice should support and fulfill your personal goals, what you want out of life and what makes you happy. If that is managing – then manage. If that is doing legal work – do legal work.

Two great books on this subject are – The E-Myth Revisited and The E-Myth Attorney – available on Amazon. The theme of both of these books is:

Small business owners often spend too much time being the technician (i.e. lawyering) and not enough time managing and innovating.

Think about where you want place the priority of your focus – working on firm (business) or in it.

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

 

Jul 11, 2017


Small Law Firm Retreat

Question:

Our law firm is a sixteen attorney Intellectual Property firm in Tampa, Florida. We have ten partners and six associates. I am a member of our three member executive committee and I have been given charge of looking into the pros and cons of having a firm retreat with all of our partners and associates. We have not had a retreat before and we would like your thoughts concerning the benefits that a small firm can receive from a retreat.

Response: 

Attorneys in group practice experience numerous issues as they grow and expand their practices. Management problems increase as the firm becomes larger. Senior partners often do not want to be involved in increased firm management responsibilities. If this is one of your firm’s issues, a retreat will provide an opportunity to deal with it before it gets serious and out of hand. Use a retreat to review how administrative responsibilities are being handled throughout the firm’s entire operation. Place on the retreat agenda topics such as strategic planning, succession planning, growth planning, client development, etc.  Consider whether your firm has the need to establish an office administrator position (if you do not have one) or whether the broadening of responsibilities of those on staff will provide the desired remedies. It is particularly important for small to medium-sized firms to clearly recognize at the retreat that the problems of growth are in part administrative and appropriate steps to deal with these problems early will prevent serious disruptions and internal conflicts later.

Many attorneys are reactors – they are trained to solve client problems – not management problems. Most attorneys find firm management distasteful and feel that their time is best spend doing billable work for clients. However, a firm’s success is in part dependent upon how well it is managed. The retreat can be used to educate firm members about the importance of these issues, even if the firm is a small firm. Retreats also benefit attorneys by helping them understand the management roles of other partners and other management positions in the firm as well as open up and improve communications.

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

Jul 04, 2017


Law Firm Merger Agreement

Question: 

Our firm, a fourteen-attorney litigation firm in Sacramento, California, is planning on merging/acquiring a three-attorney firm in the area. We have completed our due diligence and both firms have agreed on the terms of the merger. What type of agreement and legal documents do we need to effect and implement the merger?

Response:

If business law is not your forte you may want to consult with a business attorney to determine the appropriate legal agreements that should be used to effect the merger. The agreement may be as simple as a Letter of Intent signed by the two law firms, a Memorandum of Understanding, or as formal as a merger agreement covering the major details and terms of the merger which have been approved by required vote of the partners of both firms including:

  1. Merged firm name
  2. Effective date of the merger
  3. Method of integration, assets and liabilities contributed by each firm, and whether accounts receivable and work in process will be pooled and contributed
  4. Management and governance structure and names of partners from each firm that will hold key management roles/positions
  5. Compensation system for partners, non-equity partners, associates, and staff
  6. How employee benefits will be handled and integrated
  7. Capital contributions
  8. Employees and their respective roles in the merged firm

Typical exhibits to agreements often include:

  1. Employee Benefits Summary
  2. Asset/Equipment Purchase Agreement
  3. Employee Roster and Wage Rates
  4. Proforma Balance Sheet
  5. Proforma Income Statement
  6. Partner Compensation Plan
  7. Non-Equity Partner Compensation Plan
  8. Associate Attorney Compensation Plan
  9. Staff Compensation Plan
  10. Attorney Career Advancement Plan
  11. Office Lease
  12. Partnership Agreement
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Jun 28, 2017


Law Firm Accounting/Finance Position

Question:

Four of my partners and I have just split off from a large law firm in Phoenix, Arizona and have started a litigation boutique firm with five associates. As we staff our nine attorney firm we are planning on hiring someone to handle our accounting and manage our finances. What type of position should we create and what level of experience should we be looking for?

Response:

The size and skill of a law firm’s financial function usually varies directly with the size of the firm. Larger firms with a larger volume and more complex transactions require more sophisticated systems, procedures, and controls, and personnel with the knowledge and experience to operate effectively and efficiently in a more complex environment. The title for a law firm’s Chief Financial Officer will usually vary with the skill required for the position. Typical titles include:

In a small firm such as your firm, where financial activities are typically uncomplicated and volume is relatively modest, an Accounting Manager ordinarily oversees the Finance Function. The Accounting Manager is often a Bookkeeper/Billing Collections Clerk who handles the accounting, payroll, billing, and collections.

Some firm’s your size hire an experienced firm administrator to handle the Accounting Manager functions as well as managing other aspects of the firm such as human resources, IT, facilities, marketing, etc.

I suggest that you hire a experienced firm administrator or full-charge bookkeeper.

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

 

Jun 20, 2017


Characteristics of a Successful Liability Defense Law Firm

Question: 

I’m a second generation attorney (about 5 years’ experience) at a small liability defense firm in Southern, California. My father is the managing partner and we have three total attorneys. My father and his partner probably have 5-7 years left practicing. We only do California workers’ compensation defense. I’m planning on taking over the practice but am concerned about trends in the industry that will affect profitability, such as more stringent billing guidelines/bill audits, cuts to travel time, etc. What are the characteristics of a successful liability defense firm that I should strive towards? (i.e., # of attorneys, leverage, overhead ratio, revenue per lawyer, etc.)

Response: 

I appreciate your concerns. Both workers’ compensation defense and civil insurance defense firms have a real challenge with the performance pressures placed on them by their clients, billing guidelines and audits, and low billing rates. I have civil insurance defense firm clients across the country billing at rates averaging from $175 to $225 per hour and workers’ compensation defense firm clients billing at rates averaging from $140 to $175 per hour. Some firms are being required to take on more work on a flat fee basis.

Here are a few thoughts concerning characteristics of successful liability defense firms that you should strive towards:

  1. Number of attorneys will depend upon the amount of business that you can bring into the firm. If you are a sole owner you should have an additional four associates to achieve the level of leverage that you will need to be profitable. This assume that the work is there to keep them all busy.
  2. You should strive for a leverage ratio of four associates to every owner. Resist the temptation to make everyone a partner.
  3. Hold the line on expenses and remember that your largest expenses are salaries and office space. You do not need to hire lawyers from top tier law schools and pay the salaries that such lawyers are able to command. You also do not need to have your office in an A or B+ building. Look for B or C+ office space.
  4. Revenue per working lawyer should be in the $300,000 range.
  5. Profit margin (earnings available to owners) should be in the 35% to 45% range.
  6. Annual billable hours should be 2000 or greater for each attorney.
  7. Ensure that you tie lawyer compensation to performance. Pay your associates a salary but also have a variable performance bonus based upon billable hours collected or dollars collected. Keep the salary low enough that they are still hungry.
  8. Diversify the practice. Actively market to more companies and organizations that you can represent directly rather than representing strictly insurance companies. Consider big box companies as target clients. Get on their panels and bid lists. Consider expanding into civil liability defense work rather than doing just workers’ compensation. Many law firms in the Midwest do both.
  9. Some of our clients have found that a federal workers’ compensation practice is beneficial.

Here are links to two articles on defense firms that you might find interesting.

https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/resource-center/trapped-in-a-insurance-defense-practice/

https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/resource-center/insurance-defense-law-firms-strategies-and-best-practices/

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

 

Jun 06, 2017


Law Firm Collections/Retainer Management – Using a Retainer Follow-up Report

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a nine attorney general practice firm in the Chicago suburbs. We practice in the areas of estate planning/administration and family law. While our estate planning and uncontested family law work is done on a flat fee basis our estate administration and contested family law work is time billed. We collect initial retainers for these matters but we fail to insure that the retainers are replenished. We are having accounts receivable collection problems as a result. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

This is a common problem that I see in firms doing estate administration and especially family law. The best way of managing your accounts receivable is to have less in outstanding accounts receivable in the first place. You do this by staying on top of your retainer balances compared to your work in process and ask the client for additional retainer before the work in process exceeds the retainer balance. In order to stay on top of retainer replenishment you need to develop what I call a retainer replenishment report and have someone assigned to reviewing the report daily and advising responsible attorneys to contact the client when work in process has hit a certain threshold (percentage of retainer used). Some firm’s present the report at a weekly attorney meeting and determinations are made regarding additional retainers to request. Other firms assign the responsibility to the firm administrator to automatically bill for the additional retainer. It is also important to insure that ongoing work is managed in a way that an excessive amount of work is not committed to a matter until the additional retainer replenishment is received.

A retainer replenishment report is not a standard report in many billing systems. You may have to create a custom report in your billing system using a report writer or in a worst case drop a accounts receivable report to an Excel file and add in some columns for the other information.

Here are the suggested data fields/columns for such a report:

Responsible attorney
Client/Matter name
Retainer Balance (typically this would be the balance in the trust account)
Unbilled WIP Fees
Unbilled Cost
Total Unbilled WIP
75% Retainer Threshold
Amount Over/Under Retainer
Additional Retainer Requested
Total Amount Retainer to Bill (Amount WIP over retainer plus additional retainer requested)

Many family law firms have advised me that after learning the hard way they are now doing a good job at this and advising me that they have minimal accounts receivable issues.

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

 

 

 

 

May 31, 2017


Law Firm Governance – Partner Participation in Management

Question: 

I am the founder, majority partner (80%), and managing partner of a twenty two attorney firm in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm practice is focused in the area of health care. There are twelve equity partners, five non-equity partners, and five associates. I manage the firm as a benevolent dictator. I am becoming overwhelmed trying to manage the firm and practice law and I believe the firm is now at a size where others must become involved in managing the firm. I have been considering forming a committee of all the equity partners to manage the firm. Your thoughts are welcomed.

Response: 

While I believe that you are of a size that warrants broader participation in the governance and management of the firm you can go too far. Broad participation in decision making and consensus building slows things down. It can also make it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion. Getting all the partners to agree takes time. Broad participation can also diffuse responsibility. If everyone is in charge no one is in charge. In law firms whose partners are overly deferential to their partners’ views, the decision-making process often seizes up. Unless firm partners who, when necessary, will assert themselves and use their influence to press for action, the only decisions it’s likely to make are decisions not to decide.

I believe that you should stop short of broad participation by all the equity partners. Consider a three member executive committee elected by the equity partners on three-year staggered terms. This committee would have responsibility for the general management of the firm not delegated to your firm administrator if you have such a position in your firm. Committee responsibilities would include financial management, human resource management/oversight, client development, IT systems oversight, procedures and policies, etc. Establish proper structure for the committee with a chair, identified roles and duties for each member, defined meeting schedule, and agenda and meeting minutes. Define in your partnership agreement those powers that are restricted to a vote by the full partnership and the rules for voting – one partner one vote or vote by percentage interest. Other than those powers restricted to the full partnership partners should let the executive committee manage the firm and not second guess.

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

May 23, 2017


Solo Practitioners Best Friend – Law Practice Continuation Plan

Question: 

I am a sole practitioner in Peoria, Illinois. My firm is a general practice firm that services clients throughout Central, Illinois. I have four staff members. I am fifty eight. While I have enjoyed having my own practice for the past twenty years I am concerned – what if something were to happen to me today or tomorrow – what is my backup plan in the event of short-term illness, disability, death, and even vacations. How would the firm keep operating? Who would take care of the client’s needs? How would my staff be taken care of?

Response: 

Sound practice continuation arrangements can solve this dilemma and preserve practice value and can help prevent a lawyer’s spouse or immediate heirs from facing a hasty sale or disposition of the practice in an emergency. A practice continuation arrangement can also give lawyer practitioners, their staff, and their family’s peace of mind.

A practice continuation arrangement is an arrangement – typically in the form of an agreement or contract made between an individual lawyer or a small law firm and another lawyer or law firm. The arrangement describes a course of action to transfer a lawyer’s practice and sets payment for its value. In the event of vacation, temporary or permanent disability, or death, a practice continuation arrangement protects the practice, the business interests of the lawyer or law firm’s clients and the financial interest of the lawyer and his or her family.

Approaches

There are different kinds of practice continuation arrangements. Typically, a lawyer enters into a one-on-one agreement with another sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, or professional corporation in the community. Agreements can range from simple “dual coverage for each other” for vacation or other temporary absences to sale of the practice in the event of long-term disability or death.

A practice continuation agreement’s provisions for the sale of a practice must contain a reasonable valuation and a realistic payment structure. What lawyers really want is to leave to their surviving spouses or heirs is something from all the hard years of work it took to build the practice. To accomplish this end, selling the practice at a buyer friendly price may be necessary. Law practices can lose value very quickly, so timing is vital.

Lawyers must invest time and effort to find suitable successors for their firms and to create useful, equitable, practice continuation agreements. The key is to finding the right person or firm. The investment of time is a good investment, however, because a good practice continuation arrangement will ensure that if a lawyer is unable to continue managing the practice, the value he or she has built over the years will not be lost. An orderly transfer of a practice to another lawyer or law firm is a substantial financial benefit to the lawyer’s family. At the same time, through the handpicked successor, the lawyer fulfills his professional responsibility to his clients. Lawyers who do not have these agreements should learn more about preserving the value they have created.

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

May 16, 2017


Setting up a Branch Office in Another State – Ask Your Clients

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a sixteen attorney insurance defense firm in Kansas City. Several of our insurance company clients have advised us that they are willing to send us cases in Texas. We have decided that we would like to establish an office in Texas. Our plan is to hire three lateral attorneys with seven to twelve years experience with Texas based insurance defense firms. We are not certain as to the best city to establish this office. We are thinking it should be a central location. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Unlike many states that have one or two major cities Texas has several including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Ft. Worth, El Paso, Corpus Christi, and others. Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston are all desirable locations for branch offices. Austin is more centrally located if your goal is to service the entire state.

I think it would be risky to simply try to guess as to the appropriate location. Your clients may have law firms they are using in certain areas of the state and may be looking for you to serve a need in a particular area of the state. They may not be willing to pay your travel expense if you are on the other side of the state. If this is the case this is the area that you need to be. I suggest that you have a discussion with each of these clients and ask them where their cases are concentrated and where they would like to see you have an office. This should dictate the office location. Hopefully, each of these clients are on the same page. If each of these client’s cases are concentrated in different geographical areas ask your clients whether they are willing to pay for travel related expenses from a central location. This should guide your location decision.

I would also make sure that these commitments are solid from each of these clients. I would get commitments from each client as to the types and number of cases they envision sending to you so you can properly assess the profitability of establishing a branch office. Do some research on the availability of experienced lawyer talent in the area. I would also give some thought as how you plan to integrate these Texans into your firm and culture. See my prior blog on branch offices.

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

 

May 10, 2017


Law Firm Billing Software – Cloud-Based vs. Desktop

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a twelve attorney firm in Toledo, Ohio. Our firm is evaluating new billing software and we are looking into some of the cloud-based solutions. We are currently using a desktop program that we have been using for fifteen years. The program handles our billing as well as our accounting. We have kept up with the updates to the program and the software has worked well for us. Several of our younger attorneys have used a couple of cloud-based billing programs in other firms and are trying to convince the firm to change over to one of these programs. They believe it is easier to enter their time sheets and they believe the software is easier to work with. What are your thoughts?

Response: 

I agree that the subscription cloud-based billing programs are easier to learn and use. In part this is due to limited function and capabilities. However, user simplicity is only part of the equation. The bigger question is whether the software will meet your needs. Many of the cloud-based programs were designed for solo practitioners or very small firms with limited reporting requirements. While these programs are getting better and inheriting more features they are still not up to par with the older desktop programs. Limitations include:

By the time you add in the cost of additional accounting software that you have to buy and maintain and factor in the number of users – subscription cloud-based solutions can get expensive for a firm such as yours that may have twenty users. The cloud-based billing software alone may cost between fifty to one hundred dollars per user per month – in your case one thousand to two thousand dollars per month. This cost will be offset by savings on hardware, IT support, user training, managing software updates, etc.

Cloud-based subscription billing software is getting better every year, is the wave of the future, and is a good solution for solo attorneys and very small practices. However, it may not have the functions and features that you need in your twelve attorney firm. Analyze the reports you are using now and what you need out of your system and then compare your requirements against the capabilities of each cloud-based system that you are considering.

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

 

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