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Dec 13, 2017


Law Firm Owners Use of a Leadership Team

Question: 

I am the owner of a fourteen-attorney law firm in South Bend, Indiana. The firm is a health care firm that represents various medical facilities in the area. All of the other attorneys in the firm are associates. Currently I function as the managing attorney and make all of the management decisions. I also bring in the bulk of the clients into the firm. I am wanting to retire in the next five years and I would like to sell my interests to three associates in the firm. However, I am not sure that they would be good partners with each other, whether they have the management skills and client development skills to lead the firm, or whether they would even want to be partners. My other option would be to merge with another firm. However, I would prefer to sell my interests to the three associates rather than merge if at all possible. What are your thoughts?

Response: 

I appreciate your situation. I think you need to sort of “pilot test” the three associates. If you had other equity partners I would suggest that you form a three member management committee to begin transferring some of your management responsibilities and client relationships. Since you don’t have any equity partners I would not create or label a management committee which is usually a decision-making body with each member having a vote. You might consider forming a committee that you call the Leadership Team with the three associates and yourself serving as members on the team. This would be an advisory group with you retaining control. You would try to run the group by consensus but you would still be the ultimate decision-maker. I would start by starting the team with limited areas of management, responsibility, and authority. Teach them how to work as a group and gradually increase the team’s responsibility and authority. See how it goes and observe the interpersonal dynamics. After a year you should have a good idea whether they can work together as partners and whether an internal succession strategy will work for you. You might want to create a different category for these associates – senior associate or non-equity partner at the time that you do this as well.

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

Dec 06, 2017


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Dealing with an Overpaid Partner

Question: 

I am a founding partner of a two partner firm in Springfield, Illinois. We are finishing up our third year since we started the firm. We have six associates and our practice focuses on health law. My partner and I each have a fifty percent interest in the firm and our compensation is based on our ownership percentages. We split firm profits fifty-fifty. Ever since starting the firm I have been bringing in substantially more fees that my partner. This year I will bring in sixty-five percent of firm fees. I am getting frustrated and feel that our compensation system is not fair, not working, and needs to be changed. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

It sounds like you are referring to origination of client business and referencing fees resulting from business that you brought into the firm. Most firms do not consider fee origination as the only partner compensation variable. Working attorney fee collections as well as other contributions such as firm management, mentoring and developing associates, developing firm systems, etc. are also considered when determining partner compensation. Many firms actually give more weight (credit) to working attorney production that to origination while others may give no credit at all.

I think you need to keep in mind overall contributions of each partner – not just client origination. Pull working attorney statistics and include these in your analysis as well as firm overhead consumed. Consider other contributions that each of you have and are making and see where the data takes you. Don’t look at just one year – look at the data over the long term – say three year trends. If you still feel that the compensation arrangement is no longer fair, you and your partner need to sit down and have a heart to heart discussion.

The best approach may be to simply realign your compensation percentages after you have come to terms with the compensation factors that you consider important to the firm and the metrics you are going to use going forward.

If you and your partner can’t sit down and have such a discussion consider getting outside help.

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

Nov 28, 2017


Business Development for New Associate Attorneys

Question: 

I am a partner in a fourteen attorney firm in Denver, Colorado. We have six equity partners and eight associate attorneys in the firm. Our practice is limited to health care law. We represent many of the local hospitals in the area. Our associates range from associates that have been with the firm less than a year to associates that have been with the firm for over fifteen years. None of our associates have developed business development skills and none of them have ever brought in a single client. Most of our associates would not even be able to retain our existing clients if the partners for one reason or another left the firm. This is in part our fault. When we hired them we told them that we had plenty of client work and their mission was to “bill hours” and service our clients. However, as we the partners age and consider the future of the firm we are beginning to realize that this was a mistake. How can we turn this around?

Response:

The earlier that attorneys start to build client development into their weekly routines, the easier it will be for them to bring in business later. Many successful rainmaking attorneys began their business development efforts early in their careers, usually during their first year or two as attorneys. This is a pattern that you want your attorneys to emulate. The firm should set expectations about the kind of effort the firm is looking for at each level in an attorney’s career. It should then support these expectations with appropriate training for each level. Training should begin as soon as an attorney is hired. During the initial firm new associate training session, provide an hour’s instruction on client development. That will help new associate hires realize that they will have to bring in business later in their careers and they can start building a foundation  for later business development efforts immediately. The quantity of education on client development should increase as an attorney advances within the firm. This should be reinforced by mentors assigned to associate attorneys.

When your associates reach the point in their careers when they should be bringing in business, the focus on business development needs to increase. Business goals should be developed and attorneys at this level should be required to prepare annual personal business development plans. These goals and plans should be linked performance reviews and to compensation.

It will take time to create this culture in your firm.  It may be too late for some. I would announce that it is a new day, launch a program, and stay on top of it.

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

 

Nov 22, 2017


Law Firm Growth – Partnership/Merger

Question: 

I am the sole owner of a six attorney energy law practice in Houston. I have had my practice for twenty years and have enjoyed the independence of being the boss but I am tired of being solely accountable for the success of the practice, having to do all the management, and having all the worry and stress. I believe I have reached the point where I am ready for a partner or partners and I believe that the practice can be positioned for growth if I bring in a lateral partner, make a couple of my associates partners, or merge with another firm. I welcome any suggestions that you may have.

Response:

Whether you bring in a lateral partner, elevate your associates to partnership, or merge this will be a major step for you and you will need to do some serious soul searching. Here are some general thoughts:

Partnership is like a marriage. You must marry the right person or persons. Most partnerships that fail do so as a result of partnering up with the wrong partners. Compatibility is critical. Consider:

  1. Long term goals of both parties
  2. Work ethic computability
  3. Common interests
  4. Money and compensation

Thinking of merging? Research indicates that 1/3 to 1/2 of all mergers fail to meet expectations due to cultural misalignment and personnel problems. Don’t try to use a merger or acquisition as a life raft, for the wrong reasons and as your sole strategy. Successful mergers are based upon a sound integrated business strategy that creates synergy and a combined firm that produces greater client value than either firm can produced alone. Right reasons for merging might include:

  1. Improve the firm’s competitive position. Increase specialization – obtain additional expertise.
  2. Expand into other geographic regions.
  3. Add new practice areas.
  4. Increase or decrease client base.
  5. Improve and/or solidify client relationships.

Reasons for wanting to merge and your objectives. Ask yourself the following questions?

  1. Do you want to practice in a large firm? If not, what is the largest firm that you would want to practice in?
  2. What is driving the desire to merge?
  3. If the desire to merge is being driven by a desire to retreat from internal problems – what have you done to address these issues internally?
  4. Is your name being part of the firm name important to you?
  5. What are your expectations and objectives for a merger?
  6. What are you looking from a merger partner?
  7. Make sure that you look for a complimentary fit. If you are weak in firm leadership, management and administration – look for a partner that is strong in these areas. Strong leadership, management, and administration may be hard to find in a firm under 25 attorneys.

Partnering up with others can be a great move for you if you make the right people partners for the right reasons or merge with the right people for the right reasons. Due your due diligence and your homework.

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

 

Nov 15, 2017


Law Firm Marketing – Paid Seminars

Question:

I am a partner in a six-attorney estate planning firm in Dallas, Texas. For many years our primary marketing activity has been seminars that we put on for clients, prospective clients, and referral sources. These seminars have been either put on solely by our firm or in partnership with other organizations such as nursing homes, hospitals, etc. These seminars have been free of charge. We provide a lot of value at these seminars and have been wondering whether we should charge a fee. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Reponse:

Do not assume that you must offer free seminars to get a marketing-benefit spinoff nor that only free seminars produce other business. In some respects paid-attendance seminars are even more powerful as marketing media than are free seminars. For one thing, the attendees who pay to attend are serious prospects. They are prospects that are qualified at least to the extent of having demonstrated serious interest in the subject, whereas at least some attendees at a free seminar are curiosity seekers with nothing better to do that afternoon or evening.

This is balanced by the heavier attendance at the free seminar, which may produce a greater number of good prospects, if not a better ratio of good prospects to curiosity seekers. That is there is a presumption of heavy attendance, for there is no guarantee of heavy attendance even at a free seminar.

There is a compromise position possible. You may opt to subsidize your own seminars by keeping the cost of attendance low which should produce good attendance, while still screening out the idle curiosity seekers. This would enable you to have modest registration and attendance fees.

I suggest that you review your past attendance history, ratio of attendees that have become paying clients, and determine whether you have an issue of curiosity seekers. If you have been doing a good job converting attendees to clients and have not had a problem of curiosity seekers I would probably stay with free seminars. If you have problems with curiosity seekers and your costs are getting out of control – I would consider modest registration and attendance fees. I would not look to these seminars as being a profit center for the firm.

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

Nov 08, 2017


Law Firm Retreats – Should Spouses be Invited?

Question: 

Our firm is a twenty-five attorney firm located in Austin, Texas. I am the firm administrator with the firm. We are planning on having a firm retreat consisting of the attorneys in the firm in February and are wondering whether we should included the spouses. Some of our partners think we should include spouses and others think that we should not. We had had retreats in the past and have not included spouses. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Having spouses attend law firm retreats varies from firm to firm. The majority of the retreats that I have facilitated have not had spouses attend. The decision to have wives or husbands of attorneys attend the retreat depends on the retreat program and the retreat goals. Firms do not generally invite spouses when the retreat is devoted primarily to firm business and little time is available for recreation and informal socializing.

If social programs are planned, some firms do invite spouses and design special programs (e.g. sightseeing tours, tennis/golf games, lunches, special sessions) for them, with couples getting joining each other in the evening for dinner and evening programs.

Some firms will setup special sessions during the weekend to orient spouses to the firm’s organization, operation, and culture. In these special sessions, spouses are introduced to the firm’s history, culture, pecking order among the lawyer ranks, why attorneys work after hours and on weekends, and how career advancement works.

When wives or husbands occupy positions in the firm, special day-to-day programs are often created that deal with any problems that the firm may be experiencing as a result of their employment. Problems such as spousal conflict, differences in compensation, and work production are just a few examples of issues that can occur when spouses are employed in a law firm. Special pre-retreat consideration needs to be given to how the presence of family staff members would influence the retreat proceedings.

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

Oct 31, 2017


Law Firm Strategy – What is a Strategy for a Law Firm?

Question: 

We are an Oklahoma City law firm of seventeen attorneys – ten of which are partners. Our firm does a little of everything. We have a three-member management committee of which I am a member. The firm was founded by four of the present partners twenty-two years ago. For many years the firms was very successful, however for the last five years financially we have been hard pressed and we have been stagnant. We have been discussing what to do about the situation. One of our partners suggested marketing and another suggested that we needed a new strategy. We do not have a marketing plan and I didn’t know we even had a strategy. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

A strategy is the firm’s decision on what services to sell, to whom to sell these services, and on what basis to sell these services. In other words a law firm must determine what legal services to be provided, to which clients and in what geographic locations, and how these services will be differentiated from those provided by other law firms. Law firms can choose a broad or narrow range of clients. Law firms can compete either on the basis of price, quality of service, or expertise. Firms compete on price by charging lower fees than their competitors. If the firm’s clients perceive that the firm has unique advantages over its competitors in the way services are provided, then the firm is competing on the basis of quality of service. If the firm offers its clients a superior knowledge base, it is competing on expertise.

Your strategy or lack of a strategy has been broad. A narrower strategy is appropriate in today’s competitive legal marketplace.

Here are a few suggestions for narrowing your strategy:

  1. Commit to one mode of competition – price, quality of service, or expertise.
  2. Select a strategy compatible with industry conditions.
  3. Select a unique niche.
  4. Diversity practice area risks.
  5. Select a strategy compatible with the firm’s internal environment.
  6. Look for practice areas in which the client is at great risks.
  7. Turn away clients.

I suggest that you study up on the strategic planning process and engage all of your partners in the process and comes to terms with an appropriate strategy for your firm. Then develop a strategic plan and use as your roadmap for getting there.

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

Oct 25, 2017


Law Firm Equity Partner Succession – Transition in a Multi-Partner Firm

Question:

I am an equity partner in a thirty-six attorney firm in Miami. We have seven equity partners, eight non-equity partners, and twenty one associates. Our practice limited to civil litigation defense and our clients are institutional clients consisting of business firms, governmental agencies, and insurance companies. The ages of our equity-partners are: 64 62, 60, 58, 54, 48, and 44. The firm does not have a succession plan for the senior partners and has not even discussed the matter. I am not sure what the partnership agreement provides. I am concerned about our future if we don’t start addressing this. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

With three members already in their sixties you are going to have some retirement bunching issues before long and I agree that you should start planning and deal with this sooner than later.

The partners as a group need to start talking and the senior partners should begin sharing their ideas and plans concerning their retirement goals. There should be an ongoing dialog with your senior partners. Review the firm’s partnership/operating/shareholder agreement. After reviewing these documents, determine how the firm’s policy regarding retirement, if there is one, will affect various partner’s retirement timelines, compensation, and payout. Does the policy require mandatory retirement at a certain age? Ascertain whether the policy provides for phase-down. How does the phase-down handle management and client transition? Is there an “Of Counsel” provision after retirement? The firm needs to reach an agreement with its senior partners nearing retirement concerning their retirement timelines, client and management transition, and retirement payout or return on invested capital.

The initial challenge in a larger firm is to determine who the successor or successors will be to transition clients and management responsibilities. This may be no easy task especially if the firm is in first generation and the retiring partner is one of the founders.

Client Transition

In firms your size, clients are more likely to be large sophisticated clients, possibly Fortune 500 companies, which refer many matters to the firm during the course of a year. Often such clients may be both a blessing and a curse for the firm. A blessing in that their business provides the firm with huge legal fees during the course of a year. A curse in that their business represents a large percent of the firm’s annual fee collections and a significant business risk if the firm were to lose the client. An effective client transition is critical, takes time, and must be well planned.

Successful client transition – moving clients from one generation to the next – is a major challenge for larger firms. Shifting clients is not an individual responsibility but a firm responsibility. To effectively transition clients the individual lawyer, with clients, must work together with the firm to insure the clients receive quality legal services throughout the transition process. Both the individual lawyer and the firm must be committed to keeping clients in the firm when the senior attorneys retire. Potential obstacles include:

Management Transition

In larger firms, partners may have management responsibilities as well as client responsibilities. A retiring partner may be a managing partner, executive committee chair or member, or serve as a chair or member on other firm committees. Retiring partners will have to transition these responsibilities to other partners in the firm.

Transitioning client relationships and management responsibilities effectively can and where possible should take a number of years – preferably five years – typically not less than three years. For this reason, many firms use five-year phasedown programs for retiring partners. These plans provide detailed timelines and action steps for transitioning client relationships and management responsibilities.

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

Oct 18, 2017


Law Firm Merger – Pitfalls to Avoid

Question:

I am a partner in a twelve attorney firm in Rockville, Maryland. We are a corporate transactional and litigation firm. We are a first generation firm. The firm was founded by the present four equity partners twelve years ago. We have been very successful over the years and this is borne out by out by our excellent financial performance. While we have done well in our core practice areas we have been considering diversifying our practice into government sector work due to our proximity to Washington D.C. and we have been considering merging with a six attorney (three partner) firm in D.C. that is totally focused on such work. Can you share with us any pitfalls that we should look out for.

Response: 

It sounds like this might be an opportunity if the cultures and people are compatible, the practice area makes sense for your firm, there are no conflicts, the billing rates, and other factors are in line. Start getting to know the firm and its people. Then move to conflicts checks and ask for five year’s of financial statements and tax returns, internal financial reports, attorney and staff compensation data, partnership agreement and other partnership documents, schedule of billing rates, client lists, copy of building and equipment leases, and malpractice applications. Assess the stability of the revenue stream, repetitive ongoing clients, client dependency, etc. Make sure there are no pending malpractice claims or other liability issues.

Obviously you will want to do all the due diligence that you can.  Initially examine and make the following calculations:

Examine the balance sheet items such as bank debt, large tapped out credit lines, equipment leases and other liabilities. Take a look at the partner capital accounts. Then examine the items that are not recorded on the balance sheet – namely unfunded partner retirement buyouts and long term real estate leases. What are the ages of the partners in the candidate firm and are there partners close to retirement? What are their provisions for retirement of these partners? These are often major deal breakers in mergers and scare away potential merger partners.

Keep in mind that the financials are only part of the equation – the other part your gut feel. Does the potential deal make sense? Will one plus one equal three – will a synergy result? Do you feel comfortable with the people (partners) in the other firm? Do you share common vision and philosophies and will you make good partners?

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

 

 

 

Oct 11, 2017


Law Firm Capitalization – Should There Be a Buy-In?

Question: 

I am a partner in a firm in Los Angeles. We have nine attorneys – four partners and five associates. We are a young firm in that we have only been in business for four years. The four partners started the firm together, we are equal partners, and we split the profits equally. When we started the firm we each made equal capital contributions. We do not have a partnership agreement. We are thinking about bringing in two associates as equity partners and are trying to think through the mechanics and one of our questions is whether there should be a buy-in and if so how should we determine it. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Law firms have different viewpoints on this subject. I have worked with some larger firms that are in second generation or later that do not require a capital contribution at all. They use end of the year distribution hold backs and credit lines to fund their working capital requirements. Other firms do require capital contributions upon being admitted as a partner and additional contributions over time when additional capital is needed or when partners acquire additional capital interests.

Smaller firms tend to require new partners/shareholders to pay for their interest in the firm. The buy-in can provide additional capital for the firm or can be used to compensate the existing partners/shareholders for their investment and sweat equity in creating the law firm or in growing it to its present size. One approach that some firms use it to include in the partnership/shareholder agreement the formula for determining the value of the firm, to which the new partner’s/shareholder’s percentage interest can be applied. This could include non cash-based assets such as accounts receivable, unbilled work in process, and goodwill. Another approach is to base the buy-in or capital contribution upon a the cash-based capital based upon the number of ownership shares a partner receives. Most firms allow for a buy-in over several years. Firms that do have a buy-in provision also typically provide for a payment to partners/shareholders upon departure for the value of their capital account. In recent years, an increasing number of large firms have adopted a free buy-in. Under that approach, there are no payments to departing partners/shareholders.

I believe that you should require at least a capital buy-in based upon the cash-based capital on the books and the number of ownership offered. This assumes that the partners still have capital accounts on the books. I also think you might consider them buying into the accounts receivable and unbilled work in process as well or be excluded from participating in compensation from those receipts. You should also get a partnership agreement in place as well.

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

 

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