Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Dec 06, 2018


Hiring an Associate Attorney as a Solo’s Exit Strategy

Question: 

I am a solo practitioner in Central Illinois. I have been in practice for 30+ years and I just turned sixty. I have two staff members and no other attorneys in the firm other than myself. I plan on working another five years and then I would like to gradually exit from my practice and then retire. I want to have a home for my clients and employees and I would prefer to be able to sell my interest to an associate attorney working for the firm. I think we have the work to justify hiring an associate and this is the route I would like to go. I have never had an associate so I am not sure what I should look for. Your thoughts would be most appreciated.

Response: 

I believe that an internal succession/exit strategy is your best option if you can find the right associate. Unlike years ago, there are many associates today that just want a job and work/life balance is more important than taking on an ownership role in a firm. They simply are not interested in the work, stress, and risk that it takes to own and manage a law firm. So it is important when searching for an associate that you really vet out this interest to insure that you are hiring someone that will be willing to buy out your interest when you retire and take over your practice.

I have worked with a lot of firms that think they have an exit plan via an associate only to be told no when approached with a proposal to acquire their practice.  When you interview candidates look into their history and their family history to see if you can find a hint of entrepreneurship. You may want to hire a more seasoned attorney that has a small practice that could expand his or her practice by becoming part of your practice. Hire someone that has an interest in the business of law as well as practicing law.

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

Nov 28, 2018


Associate Attorney Mentoring and Giving Feedback

Question:

I am the owner of an elder law firm in Jackson Mississippi. There are three associate attorneys working in the firm that have been with me under five years. All three were hired directly out of law school. While I try to mentor and train each of the associates as needed in “real time” I also conduct annual performance reviews with each associate and provide them with a written performance evaluation. I am getting frustrated as it seems that the feedback that I provide them does not stick and they continue to make the same errors and mistakes. I welcome any thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

You may need more frequent discussions that are scheduled. I have some law firm client owners  that have an ongoing scheduled meeting with each associate twice a month. You may also want to examine how you actually provide feedback to your associates. Often owners beat around the bush and don’t really provide meaningful feedback.

Giving meaningful feedback contributes an essential component to effective associate management. Whether you give feedback informally, midway through the work or at the end, or formally through a scheduled  evaluation process, it gives you a powerful management tool, assisting individuals in professional development, teaching those you manage to work more effectively, and giving recognition and showing appreciation when deserved.

Effective feedback should be:

Praise you associates when deserved. Praise provides an effective motivator for most associates and should include:

Provide constructive criticism when deserved. It should include the items listed above and you should give it:

Use the following outline when giving constructive feedback:

Try to implement some of these ideas and go from there.

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

Nov 21, 2018


Client Feedback from Law Firm Clients

Question: 

I am the owner of a four attorney, myself and three associates, estate planning firm in Charleston, West Virginia. I spend the majority of my time managing the business and developing business and very little time servicing clients. This has been intentional as I enjoy the business aspects of the practice more than providing legal services. I conduct comprehensive written and face-to-face performance reviews with my associates annually and in real time as needed. These reviews are used as an associate performance management tool and a client service quality control tool. While the performance reviews include a performance rating category for client satisfaction I have no real way of determining client satisfaction. Do you have any thoughts on how to measure this?

Response: 

Much can be learned by soliciting feedback from your clients. Structured telephone interviews and other forms of surveys conducted by a neutral third party can provide many surprises as well as answers. Client satisfaction surveys can be the best marketing investment that you can make. In addition, client satisfaction surveys can be used to quantify and measure client satisfaction with individual attorneys in your firm.

Our law firm clients have found their clients to be impressed that the firm cares about their opinions. It is good business to listen to your clients. Understanding what bugs people about your services and those of your competition can be the most valuable input to strategy development you can get your hands on.

Many of our law firm clients that represent individual clients use a short two page survey document that is mailed or provided online at the conclusion of a matter. The survey poses a series of specific questions that addresses performance in several categories and rates performance on a 1-5 scale which allows a performance grade to be calculated for the firm and the attorney handing the matter. The survey also includes an area for comments. Paper surveys mailed back from clients are compiled in spreadsheets and a running score determined for the firm and individual attorneys.

If you use a paper survey mailed to clients I suggest:

  1. Send a cover letter with the survey attached with a postage paid return envelope.
  2. Thank the client for their business.
  3. Ask them to think of you again when they have future needs.
  4. Ask them to refer business to you.
  5. Ask them to complete the survey and return to your office.

A better approach, if your clients are e-mail and computer friendly is to use an online survey tool such as Survey Monkey and send clients an email with the contents listed above with a link to the online survey. Client feedback would automatically be compiled and would save you the cost and effort of mailing out surveys, postage, staff cost of compiling the surveys in a spreadsheet, and make it easier for clients.

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

Nov 14, 2018


What Does it Cost to Operate a Law Firm?

Question: 

Our firm is a four attorney personal injury plaintiff law firm with three partners and two associates located in upstate New York. Could you advise us as to what the expected cost range per year is for an attorney to practice? Assume the attorney generates gross revenue of $500,00 per year. What should he/she expect to earn as gross income based on that revenue?

Response: 

Depends on the type of practice, whether the firm does extensive advertising, etc. In general, the average range of margins are running from 35%-45%. In other words the partnership pie – profits available to partners whether in the form of W2 salary or net income. If a partner were practicing alone with minimal overhead and maximizing the use of technology the margin could be better. In general a lawyer generating $500,000 in revenue in a firm such as yours with typical overhead -hopefully 35% – 45% margin – $175,000 – $225,000. I have worked with some firm such as foreclosure law firms where the margins are 15% margin and some high volume advertising PI plaintiff firms at 20% margins.

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

Nov 08, 2018


Selling an Owner’s Law Practice to an Associate Gradually

Question: 

I am the owner of an elder law firm in Phoenix, Arizona. I have one full time associate, one part-time associate, and three staff members. I am earning around $300,000 a year from the practice and my full time associate’s salary is $100,000 a year. I am sixty and would like to retire and be out of the practice in five years. I would like to begin phasing down and working part time in the next year or two. My full time associate has been with the firm for ten years and she is an excellent attorney and has an excellent relationship with our clients and referral sources. While she has not brought in many clients through her own referral sources she has done an excellent job signing up new clients from the firm’s referral sources, website, and seminars that she has conducted. I have talked with her in general terms about her buying my practice when I retire and she has expressed an interest.

I feel that I should be entitled to some sweat equity from the practice in the form of retirement compensation or buy-out. With this said I would prefer that my practice “stay in the family” and be sold to my associate rather than selling my practice to an outside buyer. I would appreciate your suggestions.

Response: 

One of the issues today with many associates is they have large student loan debt and have little in the way of capital and little or no borrowing capacity. As a result many firm owners in your situation have to get much of their payout from future earnings after their retirement if they wait too long. Your best bet is to start selling shares as soon as you can based upon a valuation method that you determine. You have five years remaining – ten years would have been better. In essence you determine the value of the firm, determine the price per share, determine how many shares that associate will acquire, and then calculate the price for the number of shares being acquired. For example, let say you practice is valued at $600,000. Divide by 100 = $6,000 per share or percentage point. For an initial twenty percent interest or twenty shares the buy-in price would be $60,000. Then over the next five years gradually sell the associate additional shares. Upon your retirement you would have sold all of your shares.

Typically the problem is the associate does not have any cash or ability to borrow on their own. You may be able to help the associate borrow the money from your bank. If you can – this would be the preferred approach. If the associate cannot raise the capital they you will have to finance the buyout. For a $600,000 buyout a five-year timeline will be impossible for you to have all your cash by retirement. How you structure your compensation as you begin working part time and your associate’s compensation as a partner will have a bearing on capital that your associate will have available. Be careful that you are not funding your own buyout. You will more than likely have to get a large portion of your payout after retirement via a secured promissory note with the associate for the balance.

The sooner you start the better your chances for a successful outcome.

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

Oct 31, 2018


What Law Firms Must Do to Remain Competitive in the Internet Age

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a twelve attorney family law firm in Kansas City, Missouri. We have been in practice going on thirty years. Over the last ten years we have shifted more of our advertising from print directories and advertising to the internet. Today virtually all of our work comes from the internet. While to some extent this has been a blessing it has also been a curse as we must continue to make investments in search engine optimization, update the website, pay to be included in online directories, etc. It is a vicious circle and we are losing business to new attorneys just starting out that are putting up first class websites and making online investments.  I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

The internet as well as advances in information technology has and will continue to be the key driver forcing change in the legal marketplace as well as other segments and our daily lives as well. Shopping malls are disappearing from our communities and department stores are struggling for survival. Being the king of the hill or the biggest is not the strategic advantage that it once was. The internet is leveling the playing field in many industries as well as law firms.  There are new opportunities and new competitors. Consider the following:

  1. Everything is being commoditized. More practice areas are moving down the value curve and prices are becoming more price sensitive.
  2. Disintermediation of traditional delivery channels. The internet provides new access to information and is eliminating the middleman. It is impacting how we shop, bank, conduct business, and pay our credit cards and taxes. It is also impacting how clients locate and select lawyers and how legal services are delivered.
  3. Our society is becoming – more and more – a DIY (Do it Yourself) nation.
  4. Lawyers competitors are just a click away whether they be legal process outsourcing providers (LPO) in India, other lawyers in your state – but further away and servicing clients remotely, legal publishers, or online form providers.
  5. New client opportunities for your may also be just a click away.

Challenges and Questions to Think About

  1. How do you deal with commoditized transactions?
  2. How do you tie yourself to your client in an online world?
  3. How do you compete with new models and approaches to the delivery of legal services?
  4. How do you compete with virtual law firms?
  5. Would you consider adding a online delivery component to your traditional brick and mortar practice?
  6. Should you consider other practice areas?
  7. Should you consider expanding your geographical reach in areas where you are licensed and other areas by forming relationships with licensed attorneys in those areas.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. For your practice area you should continue what you are doing and maximize your online and electronic marketing investments.
  2. Online reviews are becoming more and more important. Have a protocol in place that asks clients for reviews upon completion of their matter. Make it easy for them by providing them with appropriate online links.
  3. Your website does not do enough to demonstrate expertise. I do not see any evidence of attorneys publishing any articles, serving on law related committees, or chairing such committees pertaining to family law. There are no testimonials from past clients or others on the website. Get your attorneys writing articles, get them published where you can, and get them posted to your website. Get testimonials from past clients and referral sources and post them to your website. Also get your attorneys involved in bar and other law related associations. Do more to build the brand of the firm and the individual attorneys. Many of my family law firm clients still receive a bulk of their business from past client referrals and referrals from other attorneys.
  4. Consider satellite offices in some of the suburban communities in Missouri and Kansas. I have family law firm clients that have been quite successful with multiple offices – staffed and not staffed.

Even in the age of the internet expertise, professionalism, and reputation is important. Do all you can to convey this through your website and your initial communications with clients.

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

Oct 24, 2018


Law Firm Client Surveys – Developing a Client Service Improvement Plan

Question: 

Our firm is a twenty-four attorney litigation firm in Pittsburgh. We represent insurance companies and business firms. We recently conducted a client satisfaction survey of our top tier clients via telephone and face-to-face interviews. We have discovered that we have numerous issues regarding client satisfaction. Where do we go from here?

Response: 

Nothing is more important to your firm’s future than exceptional client service. An effective client service improvement program is one of the most important marketing initiatives that a firm can undertake. National studies demonstrate that approximately 70% of clients who stop using a particular attorney do so because they feel they were treated poorly or indifferently and 30% changed attorneys because their previous attorneys weren’t available. Clearly, from what law firms’ clients are telling us in our telephone interviews with them – attorneys and law firms need to improve client service by integrating a client-first service focus into everyday practice.

Frequently when we mention action plans and implementation to a group of attorneys we get the following reactions and responses:

Moving from debate to action planning and implementation is difficult for attorneys. However, unless a firm can move from debate and ideas to actual accountability and implementation it will remain anchored in the past in a field of dreams, obsolete practices, and unhappy clients.

Here is a road map to help you get started:

  1. Assemble the client service improvement team
  2. Review the issues discovered from the client survey
  3. Identify and write a client service mission statement and client service goals
  4. Brainstorm solutions you can and are willing to implement
  5. Put together the client service improvement plan
  6. Implement the plan
  7. Notify clients, especially the clients that were interviewed, of the changes that the firm will be implementing.

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

 

Oct 17, 2018


The Focused Law Firm

Question: 

I am a member of a three-member management committee. Our firm is a twenty-five attorney firm located in the greater Washington D.C. area. We specialize in governmental law. We are feeling that our committee and the firm spends a lot of time in meetings discussing management problems, strategies, etc. to no avail. Not much changes or gets implemented. I welcome your comments.

Response: 

One of the major problems facing law firms is focus. Research indicates that three of the biggest challenges facing professionals today are: time pressures, financial pressures, and the struggle to maintain a healthy balance between work and home. Billable time, non-billable time or the firm’s investment time, and personal time must be well managed, targeted and focused. Your time must be managed as well.

Today well-focused specialists are winning the marketplace wars. Trying to be all things to all people is not a good strategy. Such full-service strategies only lead to lack of identity and reputation. For most small firms it is not feasible to specialize in more than two or three core practice areas.

Based upon our experience from client engagements I have concluded that lack of focus and accountability is one of the major problems facing law firms. Often the problem is too many ideas, alternatives, and options. The result often is no action at all or actions that fail to distinguish firms from their competitors and provide them with a sustained competitive advantage. Ideas, recommendations, suggestions, etc. are of no value unless implemented.
Don’t hide behind strategy and planning. Attorneys love to postpone implementation. Find ways to focus the firm and foster accountability from all.

Go For Bottom Line Results

Attorneys respect facts. The quicker your committee can implement solutions that have a positive financial impact on the bottom line the quicker the committee will gain credibility and respect from the other partners.

Use The Consulting Process

Treat the problem or issues like a legal matter engagement or project. Conduct appropriate research and back up ideas and recommendations with hard data. Adequately prepare and rehearse presentations. Prepare like attorneys prepare a case for trial. The management committee’s credibility will only be enhanced if its ideas are accepted and implemented with positive results.

Use of Triads – Present Three Alternatives or Options

Time after time management committees have spent endless hours studying and researching a problem, brainstorming solutions, preparing and presenting their recommendations to the partners only to have their report tabled and asked to present additional alternatives. What happened? The management committee failed to present three options or alternatives. The partners had no basis of comparison.

Experience and research shows that the success rate improves dramatically when three options or alternatives are presented. The triad strengthens thinking abilities enormously and empowers people in making choices. It also trains the mind to see the relationships between alternatives and options. Management Consultants never present just one alternative or option.

Management Committees that use triads and present three alternatives or options will be more successful in selling their ideas to their partners.

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

 

Oct 10, 2018


Law Firm Merger as an Exit Strategy for Sole Owners

Question: 

I am the owner of a small general practice firm in Novato, California. I have three associates working in the firm, three legal assistants, and one office manager/bookkeeper. I started my practice thirty-five years ago right out of law school. I am sixty years old and wanting to retire within the next five years. None of my associates have the ability or the desire to take over the firm. I believe that my best option is to sell my practice to another practitioner or join another firm through merger or other arrangement. I would appreciate your ideas regarding merging with another firm and how I would be compensated and receive payment for the goodwill value of my firm.

Response: 

Merger or an of counsel arrangement are approaches that many sole owner firms are taking when there is no one on board that is capable or willing to buyout your interest. Often merger or of counsel arrangements look very similar in how they are structured. Typically, the owner joining another firm:

Employees that the new firm has accepted would join the new firm and receive compensation and benefits spelled out in the merger or Of Counsel agreement.

How the arrangement will be structured and how compensation/buy-out will be structured will depend upon the size of the other firm. I assume that you will be looking at a firm similar to your size or a little larger (1-20 attorneys). If this is the case and if the arrangement is structured as a merger you would more than likely be classified as a non-equity partner and not an equity partner. While the other firm could pay you in the same manner that other non-equity partners are paid, often a special compensation arrangement is developed where you are paid a percentage of your collections and if you are lucky a referral fee arrangement for your client origination’s for two or three years after your retirement – typically twenty percent. In many cases if will be difficult to get a goodwill value payment and impossible in mergers or Of Counsel arrangements with large firms.

Another option would be an outright sale to another sole owner or small firm for a fixed price for the goodwill value of your firm and any assets the firm desires to acquire. More than likely this would be with an initial down payment and payments over a three to five-year period. Typically, practice sale agreements have provisions whereby the purchase price can be reduced if revenues fall below a certain level.

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

Oct 03, 2018


Small Law Firm Financial Performance Indicators

Question: 

I am the owner of an estate planning firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I have five associates and four paralegals working in the firm. More of my time is spent on managing the practice and marketing than on servicing clients. I am trying to develop financial goals for the firm but I am clueless as to what financial indicators or ratios I should be looking at and what constitutes good or bad performance. Anything that you are willing to share would be appreciated.

Response: 

Here are what I believe to be key financial indicators/ratios and performance for a firm of your size and type:

I like to see profit margin – owner compensation – salary if paid as w-2 wages plus profit in the range of 35% – 45%.

Performance can vary by type of practice.

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

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