Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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May 25, 2022


Law Firm Succession – Equity Partnership – Process for Admitting Equity Partners

Question:

I and another partner are the owners of a seven lawyer family law practice in Chicago suburbs. We started the firm twenty years ago after leaving behind a partnership in another firm. Of the other five attorneys there are three non-equity partners and the rest are associates. I am sixty three years old and my other partner is sixty. Both of us are beginning to think about retirement and how we are going to transition out of the practice. Two of the non-equity partners are well seasoned attorneys, have major case responsibility, and bring in client business. We have discussed equity partnership vaguely with two non-equity partners but they have been non-committal. I would appreciate your thoughts and advice on what our next steps should be.

Response:

I believe that you have been two vague in your discussions. Your non-equity partners need to know what the deal is, what financial investment will be required, and what their expected return will be based upon the historical financial performance of the firm. It is hard for non-equity partners or associates to commit to equity and taking on the risk of ownership when they don’t know what the deal is. This is a scary proposition for them and they need detailed information so they can evaluate and make an informed decision. A vague discussion doesn’t cut it. I suggest that you put together an equity partnership proposal that includes:

  1. Profit and loss statements for past the five years.
  2. Balances sheets for the past five years.
  3. A current accounts receivable and unbilled work in process report.
  4. Tax returns for the past five years.
  5. Malpractice insurance application.
  6. Building and other leases.
  7. Proposed Partnership Agreement
  8. Proposed Equity Partner Compensation Plan
  9. Planned date of admission
  10. Governance and management plan
  11. Ownership percentage being offered
  12. Capital contribution or buy-in requirement
Meet and discuss the proposal with your candidates, allow sufficient time for candidates to discuss with their families and advisors, and set a timeline for their decisions. I think you will see a different reaction. If they still are unable to commit your may have to begin thinking about an external strategy and looking around for merger candidates.

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

Feb 09, 2022


Law Firm Succession – Management Training for Future Firm Leaders

Question: 

Our firm is a sixteen lawyer firm in Cleveland, Ohio. There are six equity partners, three non-equity partners, and seven associates in the firm. Our firm is a litigation boutique that represents small to mid-size companies. Three of the six equity partners are initial founders and three became equity partners later. All six are in their sixties and plan on retiring at different times over the next three to six years. The firm is managed by the six equity partners. The non-equity partners have no involvement in firm management. The six of us have concerns as we approach retirement that there will be a leadership vacuum and no one will have the management skills to manage the firm. What are your thoughts regarding this issue?

Response: 

Failure to train younger lawyers as managers in both the business of law and the practice of law aspects of a firm can result in a disaster either from a “internal revolution”, because the firm is unwilling to address the question and provide the opportunity, or from a decline in earnings and the exodus of key partners because the firm waits too long and ends up using untrained lawyers to undertake key management positions.

Law schools do not train or develop managing partners or lawyer managers, nor does doing excellent and complicated work for demanding clients. Highly competent attorneys do not necessarily make good managing partners or lawyer managers. Some of the best lawyers are the worst managers.

The better lawyer managers have a second sense for people and management, in addition to being good lawyers and possibly outstanding rainmakers.

I assume that you will be offering equity partnership to some of the non-equity partners in the near future to ensure that there are equity partners in place committed to carrying on the firm in the future after the six of you retire.

Many firms develop successors to management by delegating to selected junior partners short term management assignments and by rotating these partners through various management areas to develop their general management skills rather than developing particular lawyers as specialists in specific management areas. These firms begin to train junior partners by assigning short term, low risk management activities before entrusting them with key management jobs.

Management Skills

The following are suggested areas in which the management skills of non-equity partners can and should be developed:

  1. Financial Management
  2. Facilities Management
  3. Technology
  4. Business Development and Marketing
  5. Human Resources

Also keep in mind that transition of clients and referral source relationships will need to be considered and planned as well and this can take some time.

Based upon your retirement timelines I would start this process as soon as your can.

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

 

Jan 26, 2022


Law Firm Succession Planning & Practice Transition – Have I waited too Long?

Question:

I am the sole owner of a twelve-lawyer defense litigation practice in Chicago. We represent automobile manufactures and have approximately ten major clients. I am the only equity partner in the firm and all of the other lawyers in the firm are associates. Two associates are seasoned lawyers with substantial experience and have been with the firm for many years and the other nine have less than five years experience. The two seasoned associates are in their mid-sixties. I am sixty-eight. I just realized that the firm’s office lease expires in eight months and I have decided that this is a good time to retire. I will not sign another lease and I would like to be completely retired in the next six months. My wife has some health issues and I need to devote my total time time to her. I have talked with the two senior associates and they plan on retiring as well. Therefore, I will have to either close the firm or find another firm interested in taking over the firm. Have I waited too long?

Response: 

Possibly so. Eight months is a very short timeline to locate another law firm that might be interested in acquiring or merging with your firm. However, this is not always the case. I have had situations where interested parties were located in a month or two through cold approaches, discussions held, details worked out, and the transaction concluded within six months. If you have a few firms in mind that you could approach the process could go much quicker than if cold approaches have to be used. So your timeline is not impossible but you need to get started yesterday. Keep in mind that client transition is paramount in the success of such arrangements and usually the acquiring firm wants a transition period, often of a year or so in which you work at the firm in a consultant capacity to assist with client relationship management and transition. Therefore, you might have to stick around in an Of Counsel role for a year or two.

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

Jan 05, 2022


Law Firm Remote Work Post COVID 19 – Is Remote Work Here to Stay

Question:  

Our firm is an estate planning practice in the suburbs of Washington D.C. We have five attorneys and six support staff working at the firm. During the COVID lockdowns in 2020, and to some extent in 2021, our attorneys and staff worked remotely. At first we all felt that productivity actually increased. However, after a month or two working remotely we began to change our minds. Communications with each other, review of work, etc. took much longer and once the lockdowns were lifted all of us were anxious to return to the office. We have been working almost exclusively at the office since the lockdowns were lifted. During the last several months we had to hire an additional attorney and a couple of paralegals. During the hiring process we found that prospective employees are demanding some form of remote work option. In order to hire these employees we had to provide them with a partial remote work option as well as signing bonuses. Is remote work here to stay?

Response:

I believe it is, especially in large metropolitan areas with heavy traffic congestion and long commute time. Law firms of all sizes are finding that hiring and retaining talent – attorneys and staff – is becoming increasingly difficult and is their number one strategic challenge and even more concerning than development of business. Large and small law firms are implementing permanent remote work policies in various forms.

Post-COVID-19, one of the innovations of the pandemic, the adoption of remote work, is set to attract the best talent to law firms. This was seen in a recent survey from legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa, which found that most lawyers from the incoming generation are looking for an opportunity to work remotely, even if it’s just some of the time.

According to a recent survey conducted by FlexJobs survey, 97 percent of workers want some form of remote work post-pandemic, with 58 percent preferring to be full-time remote and 39 percent opting for a hybrid work environment. To provide insight into the broad interest in remote career opportunities amid an uncertain and fast-changing work landscape, FlexJobs has released a report: FlexJobs has released a report: Remote Work Statistics: Navigating the New Normal, which offers a by-the-numbers look at the current impact of remote work on the workplace.

“The data outlined in this report suggests that even during the most challenging of circumstances, remote work provides important benefits across the board,” said Sara Sutton, Founder and CEO of FlexJobs. “From improved mental health and better work-life balance to increased job satisfaction, the majority of employees have responded very favorably to remote work, with many now strongly inclined to pursue a permanent remote career. As we consider the future of work, it’s clear remote work policies will be critical in shaping the modern workplace,” Sutton concluded.

Visit https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/remote-work-statistics/ for more information.

I believe you should at least consider a partial remote work option going forward.

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

Nov 10, 2021


Law Firm Year End Retreat – Ensuring that the Effort is Worth the Time Investment

Question:  

We are a thirteen attorney law firm in San Diego with four equity partners, three income partners, and six associates. We are a business litigation firm and we are in first generation. The four equity partners founded the firm and manage the firm. A few years ago we held our first retreat. Everyone enjoyed the experience but when it was all said and done nothing changed – no decisions made during the retreat were implemented – and many feel that the retreat was a waste of time. There has been some recent discussions of holding another retreat and several partners feel that we should not due to our failure to make any changes whatsoever. Do you have any suggestions?

Response: 

This is a common problem that many law firms experience – especially the retreat was their first retreat. You need to be sure that you come away from the retreat with a specific plan for follow-up action on every problem discussed. If you decide to start a telling search to fill a lawyer, paralegal, or staff position, or if you have assigned several attorneys or staff members to work further on a specific problem and to report the results, it is important that the individual assignments and target dates for reporting and completion be made explicit. Determination of this kind should be recorded and made part of the minutes of the retreat. Further, a system of follow-through meetings to assess progress is advised, in order to maintain momentum achieved at the retreat. Many firms benefit considerably by incorporating specific retreat decisions into a 12 month growth plan and schedule of activities to meet firm objectives. Planning of this kind typically results in significant firm progress, even though initial resistance to these efforts by some firm members may be substantial.

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

 

 

Sep 29, 2021


Finding and Hiring Law Firm Associate Attorneys During These COVID Pandemic Times

Question: 

I am the sole owner of an estate planning firm in Chicago Suburbs. I have three other associates in the firm. Our volume of business has expanded rapidly during the last six months and we desperately need one to two more associates on board. I have been looking for three months and have been unsuccessful. I have had some leads but when I made offers they were not accepted. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Response: 

These are tough times for attracting and retaining talent in all businesses. Law firms are having difficulty hiring lawyers as well as staff. Many of my law firm clients are telling me that finding clients is no longer their primary concern – their top strategic concern is now finding, hiring, and retaining lawyer and staff talent.

During these times it is imperative that law firms get creative and think outside of the box. Flexibility is key. Here are a few things that some of my clients have done that has resulted in successful attorney hires:

  1. Paid for sponsoring with Indeed ad placements.
  2. Took out a paid ad with their state bar association.
  3. Used a recruiter.
  4. Increased starting salary/bonuses.
  5. Added medical insurance as a benefit.
  6. Paid a signing bonus.
  7. Provided reimbursement for moving/relocation costs.
  8. Implemented a permanent remote work policy allowing all personnel to work at home a certain number of days per week.
  9. Increased number of vacation/personal time off days.
  10. Added 401k plan.

Successful law firms must attract both clients and talent in order to be successful. All businesses are suffering and having a hard time attracting and retaining attorneys and staff. This also means that other law firms are desperate and may try to steal you lawyers and staff with better pay or other incentives. You need to review all of your benefits and policies as well as compensation to make sure that you are more that just competitive – you need to be on the cutting edge and ahead of the pack. Employees now expect more flexibility, remote work, etc. than ever before.

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

Aug 25, 2021


Law Firm Associate Compensation – Bonuses Based on Hours or Dollars?

Question:

Our firm is an eight-lawyer insurance defense firm in Chicago. We represent insurance companies across the ChicagoLand  area representing their insured’s in personal injury cases. Our clients are billed by the hour and we have a wide range of hourly rates based upon the client, type of matter, who is working on the case, etc. We have three equity partners and five associates working in the firm. Currently all of the associates are paid a straight salary and a discretionary bonus. We are having issues with our associates not putting in the billable hours that we need them to be putting in. We would like to put in a bonus system to motivate them to increase their billable hours. Should we focus on hours or collected dollars? Your suggestions would be most welcomed.

Response: 

Both approaches – hours and collected fees are used in many law firms and I prefer collected fees when they are workable for the firm. Usually the focus is on working attorney fee collections but can also include a client origination and sometimes a responsible attorney (delegation component). However, in insurance defense firms this is often not workable due to the wide range of hourly rates and the potential unfairness for associates that are assigned to lower hourly rate client matters. Most insurance defense firms that I have worked with either pay associates a salary plus discretionary bonus or salary plus a bonus based upon adjusted billable hours that are actually billed to clients after a certain billable hour threshold is reached. For example:

Many firms breakdown the expectation in to a quarterly or monthly expectation and pay bonuses on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Make sure that your associates don’t game and milk hours. Advise them that the bonuses will be based on hours after write-downs or adjustments. In other words hours that are approved by the billing partner and are billed to clients.

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

Jul 14, 2021


Law Firm Succession Planning – Will Your Non-Equity Partners or Associates Simply Wait Your Out?

Question: 

I am one of three founding partners in a fourteen lawyer firm in Cleveland, Ohio. We are an insurance defense firm with three founding partners, five  non-equity partners, and six associates. We have three primary insurance companies that refer a majority of cases to the firm. All three of us founding partners are in our early to mid sixties and contemplating our retirement and departure from the firm in the next five to eight years. Our lease runs out in eight years and none of us want to sign another lease. Three of our non-equity partners are in their mid to late fifties and two are in their forties. All of our associates have less than five years experience. When and how should we begin planning for our retirements and exits from the firm?

Response: 

I suggest that you start now, especially if you are planning on an internal succession strategy. I believe that an internal succession should be your first step if you have the right people in place. When a firm has institutional clients such as you do with many different relationships within each client organization it can take time to transition relationships to the next generation of attorneys in the firm to ensure that clients stay with the firm when you retire. Transition to the next generation of attorneys usually involves legal skill development, management skill development, and client transition. We often recommend five years.

If you are looking for a buy-in for new equity partners you need sufficient time so new equity partners can pay for their initial ownership interests over time and acquire additional interests as they can afford to acquire more. Waiting too long can also create a situation where non-equity partners in the firm feel they can simply wait your out and inherit the clients without paying anything, or very little, for their ownership interests or buy-in/buyouts. Consider making a few folks minority equity partners as soon as you can.

This assume that any of your non-equity partners even want to be equity partners in the firm which is often the case these days. Three of your non-equity partners may also be close to retirement themselves and have no interest in stepping up to equity. If this is the case you will have to focus on the other two non-equity partners. I would begin a dialog with all of your non-equity partners to determine their interest level. At some point you will not really know until you present them will a proposal and appropriate financial information – initial buy-in if there is to be one and founding buy-outs if there is to be such.

If it looks like the interest or commitment level is not there in your non-equity partners you may have to consider an external option such as a merger. The timeline often can be much shorter in such situations.

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

 

Jun 16, 2021


Implementing a Non-Equity or Income Partner Tier in a Small Law Firm

Question:

I am the sole owner of a five lawyer firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. The other lawyers are associates. Our firm focuses entirely on estate planning and probate and trust administration as well as elder law. I am 60 and do not plan on retiring for another ten years. Two of my associates have been with me for 8-10 years and are vital to my practice as well as my eventual succession and exit strategy. I do not want to lose them so I am considering making them non-equity partners and giving them the title of partner. I am not ready to have any equity partners at this time. I have a production bonus system in place for the associates so I don’t plan on changing their compensation or the system under which they are compensated. How can I make their promotion to partner meaningful?

Response: 

Here are some things you might consider:

  1. Really build up their promotion to partner.
    1. Press releases announcing their promotion to partner to the local media.
    2. Mail out announcements announcing their promotion to partner to clients, past clients, other lawyers and law firms, judges, referral sources, and family and friends of the new partners.
    3. List them as partners on the firm’s website, letterhead, and other promotional materials. (Some firms have even listed them in the firm name – I don’t agree with this)
  2. Include them in firm management and at least begin sharing some, even if limited, financial information with them.
  3. Consider providing them with additional perks.
    1. If your present bonus system is based on working attorney collections, provide a delegation component for fee collections/receipts from other attorneys or paralegals on matters that the partner is responsible for and is managing.
    2. Additional life insurance.
    3. Country or other club membership.
    4. Firm paid automobile.
    5. Gas card.
    6. Firm credit card.

The title of partner in itself is more important than you might think but it requires that a big a buildup. If you only do one thing – do the buildup announcement and secondly include them more in firm management.

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

 

May 26, 2021


How/When to Admit a New Law Firm Partner

Question: 

Our firm is a six lawyer family law firm located in the Chicago suburbs. There are two equity partners and four associates in the firm. Approximately five years ago the founder of the firm decided to retire and he sold the practice to myself and another associate in the firm. We just finished making our last payment the end of last year. We have an associate that we do not want to lose and he has inquired about his future with the firm and partnership. He has been with the firm for two years. My partner and I are considering offering him a partnership interest but do not know where to start. Any suggestions that you have would be appreciated.

Response: 

The two of you should start by asking yourselves the following questions:

The majority of firms that I work with regardless of size have a non-equity/income partner tier that an associate advances to prior to being considered for equity partnership. This gives associates the feeling of career progression, the title of partner which helps with client and peer recognition, additional responsibility in the firm, and additional compensation. Your associate may not even be expecting or be ready to become an equity partner – they simply want to know what the next step is in their career advancement and whether equity partnership is even possible in your firm down the road. Last week I interviews ten associates in a firm and six out of ten advised me that they had no interest at all in equity partnership. So, don’t assume that your associate is even interest in equity partnership.

I suggest that you give these issues serious thought before jumping off the cliff and prematurely admitting another partner. Adding another equity partner is a serious step and should be give appropriate due diligence.

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

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