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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.

Click here for our blog on succession

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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

Feb 06, 2020


Law Firm Marketing and Business Development Coordinator or Director

Question:

I am the sole owner of an estate planning firm in San Francisco Bay area. I have four full-time associates, six paralegals, two secretaries, a firm administrator, and four other staff members. We are a high volume operation and we do a lot of marketing. We need help coordinating and handling and coordinating the marketing. Are we ready for marketing coordinator or director?

Response: 

Personally I think the firm is a little small for a full-time marketing position. If you can find a person that is willing to work part-time that could work in a firm your size. Many firms your size and larger that have a firm administrator include marketing responsibilities on the firm administrator’s job description and have marketing and business development coordination handled by the firm administrator. Here is an example of the marketing and business development duties that your administrator could handle.

Advertising

Coordinate the firm’s advertising program established by the owner.

Business Development

Coordinate and implement the business development program established  the owner

  1. Sponsorship’s and Community Programs – oversee, plan, and coordinate the firm’s:
    (1) Client seminars
    (2) Webinars
    (3) Ad hoc events
  2. Database Management and Distribution of E-News Letters

Oversight responsibility by performing or delegating the following:

1  Updating Firm E newsletter database

2 Monthly review of E newsletter Database blocked list report,
contacting contacts for updated email addresses, and updating
e-newsletter and all related databases.

3   Update Other Firm E-newsletter Databases

4   Update case management and time billing databases

5   Distribute Electronic E newsletters.

Client Testimonials

Prompting the owner monthly to solicit one client testimonial from a client and posting or coordinating with the firm’s website provider for them to post the testimonial to the website.

  1. Business Development Committee Meetings – Friday Attorney Meetings

2  Schedule, coordinate, and maintain a file on the firm’s file
server of action items and notes from each meeting.

3  Coordinate and assist in the implementation of action items.

Public Relations

Coordinate the firm’s public relations program.

Electronic Media

1. Website

Oversight responsibility for maintaining the firm’s web site and keep
the website’s content fresh and updated in coordination with website provider.

2. Social Media

Update entries on social media.

Directories

  1. Coordinate external directory listings
  2. Update the firm resume and material for printed and electronic directories.

Client Communication/Satisfaction Program

  1. Oversight and coordination of the end of matter survey/online review
    program and maintain database of responses
  2. Prepare monthly client survey report from survey database.

Firm Announcements

Supervise preparation and distribution of firm announcements

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

Jan 22, 2020


Associate Performance and Coaching

Question: 

I am a partner in a three attorney law firm based in Orlando, Florida. I did a quick Google Search this morning and stumbled upon your excellent blog posting – Associate Attorney Compensation.  John did an excellent job in answering the attorney’s question.  We have an associate who I like very much; however, heading into her 3rd year with the firm, she has gotten a bit comfortable with our laid back style of management.  Our situation is similar in many respects to the situation posted by the Chicago attorney.

I would like to find out more about whether coaching could help us improve our associate’s performance. Her billable hours are 800 per year and net profit after deducting her salary, benefits and assigned support staff from her collected fees is around $15,000 and this does not take in to account other office overhead. Frankly, I am a bit hesitant to spend more money on her practice area as it is not really producing a profit for the partners in the firm. However, I am exploring ways that we can improve the situation for this part of the law firm.  I look forward to chatting with one of you. Again, I enjoyed reading the article.

Response: 

Whether coaching can help depends upon the specific situation and the cause or causes of the problem. It sounds like you might want to kick the can down the road and have someone deal with the oversight responsibility that you and your partner should be handling. Typical causes of poor associate performance include:

An outside coach could possibly be helpful if the problem is poor time management or poor timekeeping habits. You would want her on board with using an outside coach and might want even to consider having her pay half of the coaching fee. However, if the problem is one or a combination of the other three areas, an outside coach might be a waste of money. Maybe you and your partner need coaching on the top three areas. It is also possible that you simply have an associate that wants to work nine to five and may not be wrong person on the bus. Successful professional service providers whether they be attorneys, accountants, or management consultants don’t work forty hour or less weeks – they work fifty hour plus weeks.

Click here for our blog on career management

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

Jan 08, 2020


Law Firm Partner Compensation and Performance Reviews

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen partner firm in the northern suburbs of Chicago with ten partners and four associates. We are a general practice firm with different partners focusing on specific practice areas. Our partner’s compensation is determined by a three member compensation committee.  The compensation committee uses a combination of quantitative data based upon working attorney fee collections and client fee originations and makes a subjective determination regarding other contributions that a partner has made to the firm. The problem that we have is the compensation committee does not have a way to effectively measure the other contributions that are being considered subjectively. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Your problem is a common problem. While it is easy to measure working attorney, responsible attorney, and originating attorney fee collections, billable hours, realization rates, and other hard measures of short-term financial performance, (it is hard to capture the subtler aspects of partners’ contributions such as mentoring new lawyers, firm management, idea development) and its virtually impossible to measure the long-term present value of each partner’s work and contribution.

The key is to make the subjective considerations more measurable. Many firms are supplementing the easily measured economic contributions per partner with additional measurements to determine the actual value per partner and incorporating into their compensation systems. Some firms:

Partner performance reviews are often avoided like the plague by many firms. They are time consuming and it is hard to give candid feedback to colleagues. However, without partner performance reviews neither the partners nor the firm will reach full potential. When partner performance reviews are used not only to review performance but to set measurable goals this data can be incorporated into the compensation system and provide additional hard data for providing a true measure of partner contribution and value.

Click here for our blog on compensation

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

Dec 31, 2019


Law Firm Management – What Will Be Keeping Owners and Managing Partner Awake at Night in 2020

Question: 

I am the owner of a twelve attorney business litigation law firm in Northern, California. I started the firm fourteen years ago after practicing ten years in a large law firm. While the practice has been fulfilling both professionally and financially, the management side is often a challenge. As I sit here on December 31, 2019 thinking about management challenges that I may face next year I was wondering what you envision the challenges will be in 2020.

Response: 

The following were the common challenges that owners and managing partners advised us that they faced in 2019:

  1. Talent Management – Attorneys and Staff
    1. Hiring
    2. Training
    3. Motivating
    4. Compensating
    5. Keeping (retaining)
  2. Firm Succession and Transition
  3. Getting and Keeping Clients and Additional Sources of Business
  4. Managing Cash Flow
  5. Satisfying Hard to Please Clients
  6. Balancing Time Between Servicing Clients and Managing the Firm
  7. Getting Paid
  8. Competition from Other Law Firms and Non-Law Firm Service Providers
  9. Proving High Quality Legal Services at an Affordable Price and Avoiding Malpractice Claims
  10. Finding Time for Personal Life and Family

In 2019 the number one challenge was talent management and I believe this will continue to be the case in 2020. The other challenges that I have listed will continue to be the major concerns of owners and managing partners in 2020.

Here are some links to a few of our resources that you might find helpful:

Click here for our blog on strategy

Click here for our blog on profit improvement

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

 

 

 

Dec 11, 2019


Law Firm Financial Management – Financial Red Flags

Question: 

Our firm is a twelve lawyer firm in Chicago and our practice is a business litigation firm. We have eight partners in the firm and we are managed by a three-member management committee that was just formed this year. I am a member of the committee and I am responsible for the general financial oversight of the firm. I am trying to get a handle on law firm financial metrics and especially what are the financial warning signs that I should be aware. If you have an outline or list that you would be willing to share we would appreciate it.

Response: 

Here is a short list of what I call financial red flags that you might find helpful:

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

Nov 27, 2019


Law Firm Contingency/Practice Continuation Succession Plan for a Solo Attorney

Question: 

I am an attorney in solo practice in the Southwest Missouri. I am forty five years old and I have two paralegals working for me in the firm. The practice is a general practice firm that I started ten years ago. I have been advise that I should have a succession plan. What exactly do I need to be putting in place? Any thoughts that you have would be appreciated.

Response: 

Due to the number of baby boomers approaching retirement much of my writing has been on succession and exit planning for this group. Based upon your age I think you are talking about contingency or practice continuation planning which is succession planning for the short-term. Since you are a solo you have no backup within the firm if something were to happen to you today. So you should form a relationship with another attorney or law firm to provide coverage if and when needed.

Generally a contingency plan or practice continuation plan is an arrangement with another law firm or attorney to step in if you become sick, disabled, or die. A basic contingency or practice continuation plan involves having written instructions designating another competent lawyer to temporarily assume the responsibilities of your practice and notify clients in the event that you become disabled or die. To prevent neglect of client matters in such situations, the ethical duty of diligence  requires in many status that each sole practitioner prepare a plan, in conformity with applicable rules, that designates another competent lawyer to review client files, notify each client of the lawyer’s death or disability, determine whether there is a need for immediate protective action, have a receiver appointed in some cases. Many states are making such plans mandatory.

A contingency or practice continuation agreement with another attorney or law firm should include:

Here is an article on practice continuation plans.

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

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