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Jul 19, 2018


Law Firm Structure and Elevating Associates to Partnership

Question: 

I started my firm as a solo nine ago in New Orleans. My practice focuses on maritime defense litigation. Over the years I have added associates and currently I have six associates working for me. I am overwhelmed with work – from the legal work that I am doing in addition to the business development and firm administration. My thought is that I should consider restructuring the firm by making some of my associates partners so I can offload and share some of the administrative responsibilities. I would like your thoughts. What are other firms in my situation doing.

Response: 

Years ago when I started in this business there were solo practitioners and there were multi-attorney firms that were partnerships. There were not many multi-attorney firms that were what I call sole owner firms – firms will many attorneys and just one owner. This has changed. More and more attorneys don’t want to be in partnerships with other attorneys. Sometimes this is a result of bad experiences in other partnerships. In other cases they simply want to go it alone. Also, more and more associates don’t want to take on the stress and financial obligations of partnership – they simply want a job that provides them with a decent income with work life balance. I have law firm clients with sole owners, fifteen to twenty attorneys, and fifty to seventy staff employees. These firm owners have hired firm administrators, marketing managers, and other such talent to offload the administration. While these firm owners have been enjoying the fruits of sole ownership eventually they will have to reevaluate their situation when they begin planning their succession and exit strategies.

I think you have to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is adding partners the best way to offload your administrative responsibilities? Should you hire a firm administrator?
  2. Are  you ready for partners?
  3. Do you have associates that meet your requirements for partner admission? Have you thought about these requirements?
  4. Do the associates that you would consider for partnership have an interest in being partners?

Give this some more thought – don’t just make partners to have partners or to have someone to handle administration.

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

 

Jul 11, 2018


Law Firm Goodwill and Valuation

Question: 

I am the owner of a six-attorney litigation firm in San Francisco Bay area. I am sixty and starting to give though to gradually transferring my interest to associates in the firm. I have heard other attorneys mention that I should get some goodwill out of my practice. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Many law firm owners prefer to leave a legacy and keep the firm “within the family” and transition the firm to non-equity partners or associates in the firm at a discounted value and buy-in as an incentive to stay on with the firm and a reward for their years of dedication to the firm.

Some law firms – typically second generation or later firms – allow non-equity partners or associates to become equity owners with no buy-in whatsoever. The thought being that the real assets of the firm are its talent – its people and the firm’s priority is to retain and keep the best talent that it can. These firms also do not have hefty buy-outs for partners or shareholders leaving the firm other than possibly the initial founders of the firm. Over the years, such firms fund retirement through 401ks, profit sharing plans, and other mechanisms. When partners or shareholders leave the firm, they get their cash-based capital account, or share of retained earnings and their share of current year earnings.

A “founders benefit” is sometimes put in place for firm founders in which they may be paid a share of the accrual-based capital or retained earnings – WIP and A/R. They may also be paid a goodwill value as well either in the form of a multiple of earnings or a specific sum based upon a multiple of gross revenue.

The problem in many firms is that associates are still paying off student loan debts and they don’t have cash available to purchase the owners interests. As a result, if you don’t start early, the cash often has to come from future cash flows that are available after the owner leaves the firm from the compensation that the owner is no longer receiving.

You need to start early, get people committed and start selling affordable minority shares years before you retire so you can get at least half of your ownership interest paid for before you leave the firm and the other half paid out over a five-year time period.

Wait too long and your associates may feel they can just wait you out and inherit your clients without having to pay you anything.

Click here for our blog on succession

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

Jul 04, 2018


Lawyer Performance and Setting Expectations

Question:

I am the owner of a real estate practice in Rockford, Illinois. I have two offices – one in Rockford and the other in Chicago. I started my practice twenty years ago and have had my associate for the past five years. He works in the Chicago office and I work in the Rockford office. Prior to this associate I had two other associates that did not work out. My present associate has fourteen years’ experience and worked in three other law firms prior to joining my firm.  While he has been with me for five years I am not happy with his performance. The legal assistant that works with him has advised me that he often does not come in the office until ten and often leaves in the middle of the day. Clients have complained that he does not return phone calls or emails. His production is low – his annual billable hours have never been above 1200 hours. I am paying him a salary of $98,000. I have had numerous conversations with him about these issues to no avail. Frankly, I am sick of it – I don’t trust him and things need to change. What should be my next step?

Response: 

I find that often owners of law firms and partners in multi-partner firms when dealing with associates often fail to really lay their cards on the table when counselling associates. They beat around the bush and fail to lay out expectations and consequences for non-compliance.

As owner of your firm you can’t beat around the bush and be sheepish concerning your expectations concerning desired performance and behavior in the office. Confront the performance or behavioral problem immediately. Manage such problems in real time. Don’t wait for the annual performance review and don’t treat serious problem as a “self-improvement” effort. Tell him how you feel about the performance or behavioral issue, the consequences for failure to resolve the issue, your timeline for resolving the issue, and the follow-up schedule that you will be using to follow-up and monitor the issue. If he must resolve the performance or behavioral issue in order to keep his job tell him so. He may need this level of confrontation in order to give him the strength to be able to deal with his issues.

Being a wimp does not help you or him. Tell him like it is and conduct a heart-to-heart discussion. You will be glad you did.

I would set a timeline for his performance improvement – say 60 or 90 days with weekly coaching follow-up meetings. Document these meetings. If he does not meet your expectations by the timeline you should terminate his employment and look for a replacement.

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

Jun 27, 2018


Elder Law Firm Expanding into Personal Injury and Other Areas

Question: 

I am a partner in a four attorney law firm in a small town south of Waco, Texas. We have two partners and two associates. Our practice is limited to elder law, estate planning, and estate administration. The practice was formed thirty years ago by the  two partners. The firm has built a strong brand in elder law and estate planning/administration and does a significant amount of business in several other counties. The firm is doing well financially. Our main problem is that we are overwhelmed with work and we need to hire an additional attorney. We have interviewed an attorney that is a partner in another two attorney law firm in the area that has some limited experience in small business corporate work and estate planning. However, most of his experience is in personal injury plaintiff, criminal, and family law.  If he joins our firm he wants to continue to develop these practice areas as well as bring his personal injury, criminal, and family law cases with him. Bringing him on board could solve our lawyer staffing issue as well as increase our business. Should we bring him on board?

Response: 

It sounds like the attorney you are considering is a trial lawyer and has limited experience in your practice areas and he wants to expand his personal injury, criminal, and family law practice. You need help in your core practice areas.

This would cause your firm to become more of a general practice firm rather than the specialty firm that you are presently. While there are general practice firms that handle elder law and estate planning/administration, more of the successful firms your size are specializing in these practice areas. Bringing these practice areas into your firm would totally change the firm’s brand, image, culture, and strategy. Marketing will be more complex. The firm will have to fund client advances for the personal injury cases. You need to revisit your strategy and ask whether you want to go this direction. Personally, I think you should pass. If you want to expand into other practice areas you might consider real estate and corporate. I have several elder law/estate planning firms that handle real estate and corporate work.

I would cast a wider net and look for additional candidates. I would start by looking for an experienced elder law/estate planning attorney. However, these attorneys are hard to find. You might have to hire and train a recent law school graduate.

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

Jun 20, 2018


Associate Attorney Compensation and Motivation

Question: 

Our firm is based in Springfield, Illinois. We have four partners and four associates. We are a general practice firm. All of our associates have been with the firm over ten years and each of them are receiving $100,000 base salaries plus discretionary bonuses. Our associates are excellent attorneys however none of them bring in any business  and their production numbers are low. Annual billable hours are below 1200 and working attorney fee collections are below $300,000. We have not given raises or bonuses for the last several years. We are losing money on some of our associates and not even covering our overhead alone making any profit from our associates. We are at a loss as what to do. Please share any thoughts or ideas that you might have.

Response: 

It would be interesting to know whether you set production goals such as billable hours or working attorney fee collection goals for your associates and if and how they are enforced. Billable hours should be in the range of 1600-1750 per year and fee collections should be $300,000+ for associates being paid $100,000 per year. It sounds like production goals either don’t exist or are not enforced.

I suggest that you look in to the cause or causes of your associates low production. Here are a few questions you should ask yourselves concerning the cause of your associates low production:

  1. Does the firm have enough work for the associates?
  2. Are the associates working enough hours? What is their work/billable hours ratio? Goal 70%.
  3. Are the associates clear as to their goals – billable hours/fee collections.
  4. Do associates have time management issues?
  5. Do associates have time keeping issues?
  6. Are there consequences for poor production?

I suggest that you meet with each of your associates, address the above questions, and determine what is going on. It could be one or all of the above. If the firm does not have enough work for the associates you need to determine if partners are delegating sufficient work, whether business is down at the firm (short-term vs long-term), and whether the firm may have too many associates for the work that is available. If there is simply not enough work, has not been enough work for some time, and it is projected that the firm’s workload will be the same for the foreseeable future the firm will need to consider eliminating an associate’s position or reducing the work hours, and compensation, of one or more associates. If the work is there and associates are just not working and putting in the hours you need to insure that goals and consequences for non-performance are in place – you might want to consider changes your compensation system. If associates are having problems with time management or timekeeping conduct some training sessions and coaching.

Some firms have changed their systems whereby associates are paid a base salary plus a bonus for billable hours or collected fees over a predetermined threshold. However, incentive bonus work better when salaries are kept low. Often when salaries reach $100,000 or more additional bonuses may not motivate attorneys that are not hungry for more, are comfortable, and their priority is work-life balance.

While you must get associate compensation right in order to acquire and retain top associate talent as well as reward performance and reinforce desired behaviors, the starting point is hiring and retaining the right people to begin with.

Research from a classic business study that was highlighted in the popular business book “Good to Great” (Collins, 2001) authored by Jim Collins found that the method of compensation was largely irrelevant as a causal variable for high and sustained levels of performance. Other research also bears out that performance and motivational alignment are impacted by intrinsic and other factors other than just extrinsic factors such as compensation or methods of compensation. Over the years I have seen too many partners leave lucrative situations in law firms to join other firms for less compensation or to start their own firms to suggest that it is only about the money or compensation package.

Your compensation system should not be designed to get the right behaviors from the wrong people, but to get the right people on the bus in the first place, and to keep them there. Your compensation system should support that effort.

James Cotterman, Altman & Weil, Inc., (Cotterman, 2004) contents that there are two groups of employees for whom compensation is not an effective management tool. The intrinsically motivated (6% to 16% of partners perhaps) do not need compensation as an incentive. The struggling performers (another 6% to 16%) will not react favorably to a compensation system that rewards positive behavior.

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

Jun 12, 2018


Law Firm Strategic Planning – Culture as an Essential Ingredient

Question: 

Our firm is a twelve attorney firm – eight partners and four associates in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm was founded by the present partners twenty years ago. We are an eat-what-you- kill firm – partners are allocated their fees, overhead is allocated, and their compensation is their individual profit. While we have a firm administrator that handles the day-to-day management of our operations, we have done a poor job of long-term management and planning. One of our partners has suggested that we develop a strategic plan. However, I believe this would be difficult for us given that we never meet, have different ideas of our future, have never been able to agree on any major decisions, and unwilling to be accountable to each other and have a general attitude of mistrust. I don not believe we even have a firm culture – in essence we are eight separate practices operating under the guise of a partnership. Your comments are most welcomed.

Response: 

It is very hard for partners in an eat-what-you-kill firm to come together and implement a strategic plan when the partners have no common values, goals, or objectives. Eat-what-you-kill firms more often than not have no culture at all. Three components that are linked, reinforce each other, and must be balanced are strategy, compensation, and culture.

Culture is the outcome of how people are related to each other in a law firm, thrives on cooperation and friendship, and defines the firm’s sense of community. Culture is the glue that holds a firm together and is built on shared interest and mutual obligation. A firm’s culture boosts a firm’s identity as one organization and prevents disintegration and decentralization. Without a common culture a firm lacks values, direction, and purpose.

You firm is a fragmented or confederation culture and as such will find it difficult to even get started on a strategic planning process unless you are willing to change. You might want to spend some time addressing the question of whether you want to continue operating as lone rangers or whether you want to become a firm-first law firm. This will require that the partners give up some independence and be accountable to each other.

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

Jun 06, 2018


Law Firm Succession Planning – Getting the Conversation Started

Question: 

Our firm is a seventeen attorney business law firm in Chicago. Our clients consists of mid-size companies and a few Fortune 500 companies. There are eight partners and nine associates in the firm. Four of the eight partners are in their early sixties and the other four partners are in their forties and fifties. The four senior partners are the founders of the firm. Consequently, we have not had to deal with succession of partners until now. While we realize that we need to be thinking about succession planning we have not made much headway. The senior partners are reluctant to discuss their retirement plans and timelines. We would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions.

Response:

Client transition, management transition, and talent replacement are the major succession planning issues for law firms. Such transitions take time, especially with clients such as yours, and law firms can not wait until a senior partner comes forward, announces his intentions, and gives his required notice. Law firms should begin having conversations with senior attorneys and begin transition planning five years prior to a partner’s actual retirement. Having these conversations can be difficult. Senior attorneys may not know their plans themselves and may not have even discussed this topic even with their family. In some cases there can be trust issues at the firm and in other situations the firm’s compensation system may be a barrier. Law firm management must force the issue by institutionalizing a transition program and requiring conversation and discussion at a certain age. Some firms have mandatory retirement and others have a five year phase-down requirement with a formal client and management, for those partners that have management roles, transition program. Personally, I prefer the phase-down requirement with an individual tailored transition plan over the phase-down period. I suggest that transition plans be tailored for each retiring partner and reflect partner, firm, and client perspectives. Use compensation to reward successful client transitions.

Click here for our blog on succession

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

May 30, 2018


Outsourcing Appellate Work

Question: 

Our firm is a six attorney insurance defense firm in Kansas City. For the last few years our associate attorney costs have gotten out of control and in some cases revenues generated by particular attorneys are not even close to where they should be considering their costs. We have one associate attorney that we are paying a base salary that only does appellate brief work. He does not like litigation and does a poor job doing our bread and butter litigation work. We simply don’t have enough appeals to keep him busy. We are paying him a base salary of $100,000 a year. Last year his working attorney fees collected were $110,000. I welcome your thoughts.

Response: 

Obviously, you are losing money on him. An associate being paid $100,000 per year should be generating $300,000+ if you are looking to make any margin from him. Overall you should be making 25%-30% profit from your associates. Margin from associates is critical in an insurance defense firm. You are not even covering his direct cost alone any indirect overhead cost.

I believe you cannot justify this position and should consider eliminating this position and outsourcing your appellate work . Many insurance defense and other litigation firms that I work with are outsourcing appellate work to other law firms that provide this service for other law firms. There are also solo practitioners and freelance attorneys with appellate expertise that are working as contract lawyers for law firms doing appellate work. Another option is a legal process outsourcing firm.

It is imperative that you conduct proper due diligence and really check out the background, experience, and appellate track record of the firm or individual attorney that you are considering. Your short list should only include firms or attorneys that have a proven track record of appellate wins. Talk with some other law firms that are doing this.

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

May 22, 2018


Law Firm Financial Management – Using Credit Line to Purchase Equipment

Question: 

I am the financial partner with our sixteen attorney firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. The firm has had a rough couple of years. We had several partners leave the firm and they took several corporate clients with them. Unfortunately, this was ongoing consistent retainer and time bill work. While we still have some retainer and time bill corporate work, a much larger mix of our work is now contingency fee work. As a result we have had some cash flow challenges and for the first three months of this year there was no money to pay partner draws. We have a credit line with the bank of $125,000 that we have not used. We only use our credit line for long-term equipment purchases. We would appreciate any suggestions that you have.

Response: 

A line of credit is designed to be used for financing short-term working capital needs – not long-term financing needs such as fixed asset acquisitions. I would use either leases or long-term bank loans for equipment and other fixed asset financing secured by those assets. This leaves your your credit line available for short-term financing needs. While I hate to see a firm use a credit line to pay partner draws, often there is no other choice in law firms that are not adequately capitalized, especially contingency fee firms.  Partners have to eat too. Contingency fee practices can have wide cash flow swings and often have to use their credit lines to temporarily fund payroll and partner draws.

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

 

May 16, 2018


Law Firm Client Surveys – How to Collect and Report the Data

Question:

Our firm is a sixteen attorney firm in Chicago. Our marketing committee has been discussing implementing a client survey program. We are not sure where to start or how best to collect and report the data. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Response: 

Surveys can be used for a variety of purposes including the following:

I assume that you are planning on doing a client satisfaction survey in order to solicit feedback on how well the firm is meeting client needs, quality of services being provided, and additional needs that the client may have where the firm can provide services.

The type of survey will depend upon whether your clients are individuals or institutional clients such as corporate or governmental. If your clients are institutional I recommend that you conduct telephone structured telephone interviews with these clients using a interview questionnaire consisting of quantitative and qualitative questions. If you have a large number of institutional clients then you may want to consider conducting these interviews with your top fifty, twenty-five, or ten top clients and use a paper mail survey or online survey for the remainder. For individual clients you may want to use a paper survey or online survey for your entire database of individual clients and thereafter a paper mail survey or online survey at the conclusion of a matter. Another option would be to survey a random sample of your clients.

Once the surveys are completed – whether telephone interviews or paper mail or online surveys the questionnaires/surveys will need to be tabulated and provided in some form of a report. Some firms use two Excel spreadsheets – one for the quantitative responses and one for the qualitative/narrative responses for interview and paper mail questionnaires.  Then averages, percentages, and other summary statistics can be calculated for the quantitative responses. If you use an online survey service such as Survey Monkey the tabulation and the statistics will be done already for these surveys. If you have a Survey Monkey account you could also enter your interview questionnaire and paper mail questionnaires responses into Survey Monkey and use it rather than Excel. If you want more sophisticated statistical analysis you might want to look into statistical software such as SPSS which is sold and marketed by IBM.

Once you have summarized analyzed the questionnaires you may want to prepare a summary report document using your word processing software. Include the tabulation, statistical calculations, charts, etc. as attachments to the report.

There are several articles on our website – see links below – that discuss client satisfaction survey programs and how to get started.

Click here for our blog on client service

Click here for our article on client satisfaction

Click here for our article on client surveys 

Click here for our article on analyzing survey results

Click here for our article on developing your client service improvement plan

Click here for our article on tips for rewarding and recognizing employees

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

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