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October 2008

Oct 01, 2008


Surviving in the Present Economy

Question: We are a 12 attorney firm located in the mid-west. We are concerned about the impact that the economy is having on our practice and the current business environment. Our business is down and we are unsure what we should be doing financially to evaluate and improve performance – and survive.

Response:

According to Thomson West PeerMonitor Index the first quarter of 2008 marked the lowest point in nine quarters. Demand for legal services is shrinking, the billable hours growth rate has been declining since the second quarter of 2007, and productivity has been shrinking since late 2006. Trends are casting 2008 to be a challenging year for law firms.

Management of cash flow is critical. Here are our suggestions of how to examine where you are based upon receipts and your pipeline of future collections:

  1.  Monthly BillingsAre you budgeting your fee billings? Are your billing and collections on track? Are your individual attorneys and other producers meeting their revenue goals? Why not?
  2. Collections and ReceiptsAre your collections in alignment with your cash requirements for firm expenses, client advances, loan repayments, and attorney draws. Remember – the total expenses listed on the income statement does not represent all of your cash requirements. Balance sheet accounts such as partner draws, client advances, purchase of assets (equipment), and payments on loans, also involve uses of cash and must be taken into consideration. Typically, there is a lag of three months between the time of when you incur expenses and do work for a client and receive payment. Be aware of potential cash deficits.
  3. CostsHow are your actual expenses/costs tracking against your budget? Are you within your budget? If not – why? Investigate reasons. If over budget should you cut costs or is there a way to increase revenue? Sometimes you have to spend money in order to make money. What costs should be cut – and which should not? Be careful cutting marketing/client development investments.
  4. Accounts ReceivableAre they increasing or decreasing? What percent are they of your annual billings? Fifteen percent is high – five percent is within the range of acceptability. Uncollected accounts can sink the firm – stay on top of them with an effective management system. Deal with collection problems early – formulate a client acceptance/credit policy – get retainers up front – reject problem clients from the onset.
  5. Work in ProgressIs your work in progress increasing or decreasing? Why? Investigate reasons.This represents future receivables and future receipts. Are you on target? Bill immediately anytime during the month if work is completed – don’t wait until the end of the month? Bill monthly and cut-off bills by the 25th of the month so they are in the client’s hands by the 28th or 29th of the month.
  6. Unbilled Client AdvancesGet money from clients up front to cover these expenses or bill them immediately upon disbusement (if total client advance balance reached $100.00) regardless of the billing cycle established for the client’s fee billing. One exception may be contingency cases.
  7. Realization RateThe realization rate is the percentage of fees collected from the billable work of the firm’s timekeepers. Low realization rates indicates that attorneys are not effectively utilizing firm resources. Realization rates should be no lower than appropriately 90 to 95 percent.
  8. Lawyer – Client – Area of Law – MetricsExamine collections, accounts receivable, work in progress, unbilled client advances, unearned retainers, by lawyer, client, and area of law. Spot problems and deal with issues immediately.
  9. Producers Time ReportsAll producers (lawyers, paralegals, and staff) should keep time on billable and non-billable time and should enter into the computer system daily. Weekly time reports should be produced weekly and reviewed by firm management to insure that goals are being met for billable and non-billable time. Each producer should be provided with a copy of their own report weekly as well. Firm management should spot problem areas and identify reasons – i.e. – not putting in the time, lack of resources to delegate work, poor time managment or time keeping habits and practices.
  10. Trust Account BalancesReview this report weekly. If funds can be applied to work performed – transfer funds over to the firm’s operating bank account. Notify clients that need to replentish their retainers.John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
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