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Jul 22, 2020


Merging a Small Law Firm with a Large National Firm

Question: 

I am a sole owner of four attorney, including myself, boutique litigation law firm in Chicago. I am fifty-two and looking for a long-term succession strategy for my firm. I have been approached by a large Chicago national firm involving merging my practice with their firm. We have had several meetings and they have provided me with an initial proposal. I have spent many years building my law firm, and, by merging with a large law firm it seems that I am not really receiving any value for goodwill. What are your thoughts?

Response: 

It is normal to exchange equity in your firm for equity in a large firm and not receive any cash consideration in those situations where equity partnership is being offered. Some large firms have a goodwill factor which is included in the value of each capital share or unit. The payment of the goodwill factor is usually waived in a merger. However, if you are considering merging with a large law firm and you will not be receiving any cash consideration for your practice, you should give serious consideration to why you are merging. In other words, why work for 20 years and receive nothing for the goodwill or for the value of the client list and the development of excellent personnel? Perhaps you could be included in the firm’s retirement plan, which could be considered a payment for goodwill. Another approach might be for you to receive a certain percentage from your clients and referral source fee collections for say three years after you retire. Receiving cash consideration for goodwill in a merger occurs more often in mergers with smaller firms.

Bear in mind that in many mergers where small firms merger with large firms equity partnership is not being offered and non-equity partnership is being offered instead.

With all of this said there could be other considerations that could result from a merger with a large national law firm such as greater compensation, professional recognition, peer mentoring, size and type of cases, staff and other resources, etc. that could outweigh a cash consideration for goodwill.

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

Jul 01, 2020


Law Firm Acquisitions – Acquiring a Senior Attorney’s Practice

Question: 

I am a partner in a small law firm in Northern Virginia. We are a four attorney firm with two equity partners and two associates. We are interested in acquiring a solo practitioner’s practice that is 60 years old and ready to retire. What are the issues that we should be concerned with before we spend a great deal of time on this matter?

Response: 

I understand your concern and reason for asking for my thoughts. You must immediately determine the nature of the clientele that you would be acquiring and whether the seller is interested in remaining with the firm for a period of at least one year so your firm can become acclimated to the new clients. If the firm’s clientele are older, what would be the reaction if they were represented by younger attorneys? People chemistry is very important. It has often been said that clients hire the lawyer and not the firm. While this is not totally true – there is some truth in this statement. A successful client transition and retention is crucial.

If the sole practitioner is interested in selling out and leaving the area, then you may consider proceeding with the transaction with payments which would be based upon subsequent collections during a period of years after the acquisition. In other words, the more the seller participates during the first year to retain certain clients, the more the set we would receive.

The worst scenario is if the seller dies unexpectedly after signing the agreement. This recently happened one of our clients, and they had to spend a great deal of time and effort trying to retain clients that they had never had contact with.

You must also review the financial records to determine the profitability of the practice. Many sole practitioners do not keep adequate time records, don’t have automated practice management systems, and are not paperless. What is the shape of their client files and how well are they organized? Certain data is stored in their heads. In many cases, the hourly rates are low and could be raised during the first year to make the practice more profitable. However, this increase must be one that will be accepted by the client. The next question would be whether family members are involved in the practice, if they are, there may be problems in the future. The clients know the family, and if there are any remaining family members working in the firm, they may leave the your firm empty-handed. For example, if a paralegal who is a family member leaves the firm after the merger is consummated, several clients could follow the paralegal to their new place of employment. In such situations I have had client law firms that have had such persons execute non-compete agreements. In one situation the deal was aborted by the acquiring firm due to the paralegal not willing to sign a non-compete agreement. This was a situation where the paralegal in the firm actually had the client contact relationship. The owner’s contact with the client was limited. The paralegal had the relationship.

Finally, there should be other safety valves for the purchaser in acquisition of this nature. On a positive note, the situation could present a fine opportunity for growth. Just ensure that the  buy sell and other legal agreements provide the appropriate safeguards.

The above issues such as non-compete and practice sale agreements should be addressed with your business attorney.

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

 

 

Jun 04, 2020


Law Firm Administrator Compensation

Question: 

I am a member of a three member management committee in a sixteen lawyer boutique litigation firm in downtown Chicago. The firm has been in business for over forty years. We have sixteen lawyers in the firm of which ten are equity partners and six are associates. The original founders are retired and we are in second generation.

Until five years ago all partners were involved in all aspects of firm management. At that time we made the decision to put in place a three-member management committee that was charged to handle certain aspects of firm management with the full partnership only participating in major decisions. We hired a firm administrator to handle the day to day administrative responsibilities. Our administrator reports  to the management committee. This structure has worked very well for us. We are currently paying our administrator a base salary and a discretionary bonus. After five years of salary increases our administrator is making more than our associates. Is our present approach to compensating our administrator the best approach or should we be looking at a different method of compensation?

Response: 

Base salary with discretionary bonus is the most common approach that I find being used to compensate firm administrators. The problem with discretionary bonuses is that many law firms don’t tie these bonuses to measurable performance and as a result they become expected and end up being an entitlement. However, I have worked with many firms where we have put in place alternative bonus systems that have either replaced or supplemented discretionary bonuses. This has allowed firms to put more emphasis on performance as opposed to continuing large salary increases for just showing up. While administrators still receive salary increases they are at a lower rate of increase, performance bonuses take on a larger role, a larger percentage of the compensation is variable rather than fixed, and administrator performance is aligned with firm goals.

A few approaches that firms have taken:

These approaches are just a few examples. The key is to align your administrator’s performance with firm goals and pay for performance.

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

 

 

 

 

May 14, 2020


Law Firm Marketing – Using Webinars to Market Estate Planning and Probate Services During and Post COVID-19

Question:  

Our firm is a four attorney estate planning and probate specialty practice in Fresno, California. We are in our 15th year of practice. In addition to word of mouth referrals from past clients as well as referrals from attorneys and other professionals, seminars has been a major source of new business for the firm. In fact, for the last several years seminars has been our number one source of new client business. As a result of COVID-19 we are no longer conducting seminars and we have concerns that this is going to have a major negative impact on our business both now and even in the future after current stay at home restrictions are lifted. We would appreciate any thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

While I don’t have a crystal ball I believe that you are correct in assuming that people are going to be guarded and less likely to want to attend such seminars after current stay at home restrictions are lifted. Even before COVID-19 we have been seeing a trend of more and more people preferring to receive information online. For several years now state bar associations have seen their online CLE attendance surpass attendance at live events. More and more college programs are being offered online – either partially or totally. Several years ago I began advising my estate planning/probate law firm clients to begin experimenting with webinars and many firms have being doing them very successfully and have had good results.

I suggest that you look at some of the webinar platforms such as www.gotowebinar.com, www.webex.com, and zoom.us/webinar. View videos from each product as well as their demos and sign-up for a service. Then attend the vendor’s online training for both organizer and attendee so you have a feel for both sides of the webinar tool. Customize settings for your firm and add you logo, etc. Plan the date for your webinar, decide on a topic, prepare your registration invitation, email invitations, prepare handouts, and prepare your PowerPoint. Generally you need more slides for a webinar than you do for a live presentation. Then practice and practice some more. You need to be comfortable both with the webinar tool as well as giving a presentation to a computer screen. I suggest that you have someone serve as your moderator that will introduce the program and the general program procedures, introduce you, review online questions as they come and read the questions to you either as they come in or at the end of the presentation (depending on how you decide beforehand to take questions), and close out the program.

I think you will find webinars a suitable replacement for live seminars and at a lower cost and time investment.

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

 

Apr 30, 2020


How are Law Firm’s Doing During COVID-19

Question: 

Our firm is a four lawyer estate planning firm in Bakersfield, California. As you know our state has been under stay at home orders for sometime. We have everyone except our receptionist and one attorney working remotely from their homes. We are doing much better than I expected. In fact we are getting new clients at close to our usual number per month and our fee collections have actually exceeded our normal monthly fee collections. How are other firms doing?

Response: 

It depends on practice area and firm size. Many of the very large firms are facing dramatic work slowdowns and are laying off attorneys and staff and or cutting partner, associate, and staff compensation. However, many small consumer facing practices such as estate planning/probate, general practice, family law, and personal injury advise us that they are doing well in terms of fee collections and new matter signups. Intellectual property firms also advise us that they are holding their own.

The biggest issues for many of these small firms have been:

Small firms that are “paperless” and are using cloud-based billing and practice management systems are having the easiest time of working remotely.

Don’t get too comfortable based on March and April’s numbers. I believe that May or June will provide you with a better glimpse of the future both in terms of new business and fee collections. There could have been initial client demand based on the need for people to get some things done in preparation for the virus lock-down and you could see in May or June client demand dropping off. Also keep in mind that some of your fee collections were based upon accounts receivable and prior unbilled work in process. In addition, some of the billable work for the past month or so was probably performed on matters or cases that you already had in the pipeline.

May or June may give us all a better picture.

Good luck!

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

 

Apr 16, 2020


Law Firm Planning During COVID-19

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a fourteen attorney business law transaction and litigation firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Our area is in lock-down as a result of COVID-19 and everyone in our firm except for our receptionist has been working remotely. We had planned on putting in place a strategic plan this year and completed a couple of initial meetings. As we move forward how do we plan in this environment or should we even try?

Response: 

These are definitely uncertain times and the legal profession will be facing an uncertain future. I believe that COVID-19 will leave a lasting imprint on the legal profession and will change and accelerate law firms into the digital age. This digital transformation will effect law firm clients, law firms, and the judicial system. Status quo will be altered permanently and new operating procedures will be developed. Entrenched legal service delivery methods will be abandoned. The following practices that we are seeing now will become commonplace:

Competition for legal talent will intensify and commodity work competitive will be greater than ever.

I believe that long range/strategic planning will be more important than ever but more difficult. However, right now everyone is in survival mode with a focus on the day to day. While these are unusual times with a very uncertain future, short and long-term planning will be more critical than ever. Right now I believe your focus should be on short-term tactical operational planning with three month planning horizons. The following are just a few of the topics that you should focus on:

You will need your short-term planning to be flexible as the current situation changes.

Once you have a handle on the short-term you can continue working on your strategic plan. I suggest that it initially be for a five year time period. You should incorporate some degree of scenario planning with different strategies for different future scenarios. While the future may be uncertain an uncertain plan is better than no plan at all.

Finally, if you have people in your firm that are casual users of technology I suggest that this is a good time to push them to get up to speed. Recently I was speaking with the partner of law firm that advised me that he wished he was more comfortable with technology and he is severely handicapped since his IT skills are limited to checking email and browsing the web.

Good luck!

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

 

 

Apr 08, 2020


Law Firm Succession and Exit Planning in the Era of Covid-19

Question: 

I am the owner of a general practice firm in the Southwest Suburbs of Chicago with four associates and four staff members. I am 66 and was planning on beginning to work on my retirement plan this year and approach two of my senior associates regarding acquiring my practice. I was hoping to retire and exit the practice two years from now. Now with the Covid-19 situation I am not sure what I should do. Is this a good time to even think about approaching my associates? While business is slow we are doing fairly well working remotely. I still want to retire and be done in two years. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

One thing is for certain, you will continue to age regardless of the virus and unless you needed higher income in your last year or two, your retirement goal and timeline has not changed. While I would not suggest approaching your associates for the next few months I believe you could begin some of the preparatory work. When I work with law firms on succession planning projects there is a sequence of work steps that take place that take time and often the process can take several months. For example:

  1. Initial call with owner or partners.
  2. Document request to law firm.
  3. Law firm collecting and gathering documents (financial and other) and sending to us.
  4. Financial and document reviews.
  5. Telephone with owner or partners.
  6. Telephone interviews with associate candidates that you are thinking of transitioning the practice.
  7. Preparation of opinion letter (valuation, approach, etc.)
  8. Telephone call with owner or partners re discussion of opinion letter and next steps.
  9. Preparation of proposal to be presented to associate candidates.
  10. Conferences calls.
  11. Presentation of proposal to associates.
  12. Execution of legal documents.

So as you can see there is a lot of pre-work that needs to be done before you even approach your associates. Slow times are a good time to work on non-billable administrative and management projects and unless you have changed your mind on your retirement and exit goals this might be a very good time to begin working on your succession and exit planning.

Since legal skill, client, and management transition takes times you don’t want to wait too long otherwise you may have to move your retirement timeout out further.

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

 

Mar 26, 2020


Law Firms Working Remotely During Covid-19

Question:

I am the sole owner of an estate planning firm in downtown Chicago with four other attorneys and six staff members. Since we are considered by the state of Illinois to be a  necessary business service most of us are still working at the office. I know that many firms are working remotely. How is that working out and what are the specifics of how to make that work – new client intake meetings, work on client matters, coordination with attorney and staff team, and client document signings?

Response: 

It is working out very well for many firms and better than expected. Here is what one of my estate planning law firms with four attorneys and seven staff members is doing:

  1. The firm has the receptionist at each of its two offices working at each office.
  2. The receptionist at each office answers the phones, makes appointments for new clients, and since the firm has landlines emails remote attorneys and staff their phone calls/messages who in turn return phone calls.
  3. The receptionist at each office receives mail at the office, scans the mail, and emails to appropriate attorneys and staff. Incoming client documents are scanned to client files. Vendor invoices are scanned and emailed to the firm administrator who in turn updates the billing and bookkeeping systems.
  4. The receptionist at each office makes remote bank deposits using the remote deposit scanner provided by the bank. A copy of the deposit report is emailed to the firm administrator who updates the billing and accounting systems.
  5. All new client intake interviews are being done over the phone or via Skype, Zoom, or GoToMeeting.
  6. Client document signings are being postponed or done at the office in a special sanitized room after clients are screened.
  7. The firm has been paperless for some time and attorneys and staff are able to access form documents and client files remotely. GotoMyPC was setup on each attorney and staff member’s PC in the office and access is obtained to the firm’s server via GotoMyPC.
  8. The firm administrator initiates the billing process by generating prebills in pdf and emailing to attorneys who in turn markup with comments on the pdf. The administrator makes changes, generates final invoices, email to clients that receive email invoices, and emails to the receptionist at each office who in turn mails to those clients that receive paper invoices.
  9. Virtual team meetings are held weekly.
  10. A new employee hired before Covid-19 will be trained virtually

This approach is working pretty well. The firm has sufficient work in process to keep people working and the firm, although new client calls are down, the phone is still ringing are the firm is signing up new business.

It would have been easier had the firm had cloud-based billing and accounting systems as well as VOIP phone system. However, the procedures and protocols the firm is taking is working reasonably well.

Personally, our firm went remote 20 years ago and we don’t miss the days of high office space cost, overhead, wasted commute time, etc. At that time I built out and dedicated 1,000 square feet of space in our home and we have all the systems (phones, file servers, conference room, etc.) that would be found in a typical office. We supplement this with a virtual arrangement with Regus.

Good Luck to all during this challenging time.

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

 

Mar 04, 2020


Law Firm Short-Term Succession Planning

Question: 

I am the owner of a six lawyer business transnational law firm in South Florida. I have been practicing law for twelve years and I started my present practice nine years ago. I am 42 years old.  The five attorneys that work for me are all associates of which two are very experienced seasoned lawyers and three have less than five years experience. Since I am still a young attorney I am not concerned about retirement or long-term succession planning, maybe I should be, but I am concerned about the short-term. What would the firm do if I got hit by a bus?

Response: 

Your concern is the concern of many solo practitioners and sole owners of firms that have several associates but no equity partners. In fact many state bar associations are beginning to require attorneys in private practice to have written succession plans or in the very least a designated representative authorized to act on a limited and short term basis to protect the rights and interests of lawyers and lawyers’ clients in the event of an attorney’s death, disability, disappearance, practice abandonment, or any other similar event.

At the personal level a concern would be your personal income. If you are a major producer of revenue in the firm, which I assume you are, there would be a major impact on revenue and your personal income as well. Covering firm overhead would be an issue as well. Part of this can and should be covered with insurance. You might want to consider:

The second level of concern will be at the firm level, particularly if you were to become disabled either for an extended period or permanently or die. In this situation a key question would be whether or how the firm would sustain itself or even continue. Will the work continue to come in and who would do the work? If you have a firm administrator he or she would be there to manage the business-administrative side of the house but who (lawyer) would manage the client/project side (client service side) of the firm? This would generally fall to the other partners, but until such time as you have partners another attorney in the firm needs to be identified and groomed for such a role. If you decide that a non-equity partner tier is appropriate for your firm this role might fall to a non-equity partner until such time in the future that you have, if you have, other equity partners.

You would want a succession plan or what I call a practice continuation arrangement. A practice continuation arrangement is an arrangement – typically in the form of an agreement or contract -made between you and an attorney or attorneys in the firm or outside lawyer or law firm. The arrangement would describe a course of action to manage and cover and possibly transfer your practice and sets payment for its value. In the event of temporary or permanent disability, or death, a practice continuation arrangement protects the practice, the your business interests or your clients and your and your family’s financial interests.

Your plan should include records pertaining to client identity and financial records as well a list of passwords and other security protocols necessary to access the attorney’s electronic business files, calendar, and other law office related records in a location known and accessible by the attorney’s designated representative or office personnel.

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

 

 

Feb 13, 2020


Law Firm Marketing – Internet Strategy Crucial to Retail Practices Such as Family Law and Estate Planning

Question: 

I am a family law practitioner in the western suburbs of Chicago. I have been in practice for thirty years. I have two associate attorneys and two staff members. In the past I had other partners but that was many years ago. Over the last few years our business has been declining. Our financial performance last year was terrible and I made less than my associates. If this continues I may have to lay off an associate or two. Recently we have made some improvements to our website but I am not sure we have not done enough. I have noticed that more business seems to be coming from the website and less through referrals. I would appreciate any thoughts your may have.

Response: 

We are finding that law firms that serve retail consumer clients in practice areas such as personal injury, family law, elder law, and estate planning are becoming more and more dependent on the internet for their business. Family law firms especially are becoming more dependent on the internet for business and a sound internet strategy and investment is crucial for success. This is especially true in the larger cities and metropolitan areas. Less business is coming from traditional referral sources and more from the internet. I have family law clients in your area that tell me they are receiving ninety percent or more of their business from the internet.

A few suggestions that you might want to consider:

I hope this helps and good luck!

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

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