Our firm has been getting by for 18 months since start-up. We are starting to get some repeat business and I think we on our way. However, my partner looked at the numbers for 2008 and realized that she made about a third more money last year, both in terms of actual dollars for her work and in terms of origination. Our actual hours were roughly even, but there might have been some slighter disparity. Now were are having that first talk about changing from the straight 50-50 split to the perhaps the other extreme of "each woman for herself" (after jointly paying basic expenses). What are your suggestions?
I have reviewed your comments. In small firms the best systems are those that are simple, easy to understand, and easy to implement. Often two partners start out on a 50%-50% arrangement and the arrangement eventually has to be changed when and if their situations change that has a major impact upon their overall contributions to the firm. (Notice I used the word contributions – not necessarily – fees collected).
However, until level of contributions change – I have often seen 50% arrangements work well in small firms that are looking to build a Firm – rather than simply their own practice and earn as much money as they can for themselves. When level of contributions change – in a healthy partner culture – the partners will be able to talk to each other and sit down and discuss an alternative arrangement that makes sense for them.
I encourage firms to look beyond single year timeframes – typically 3-5 year cycles. Sometimes in healthy firm cultures one partner may need to carry the other partner for awhile. For example, an attorney with a PI plaintiff practice may have wide swings and may need to be carried in lean times – but when the big fee comes in both share in the benefits. In other situations billing cycles mandated by clients, etc. can impact timing of collections. In your firm – it may be a little early yet to have a true picture concerning contribution. Sounds like you are both putting in about the same time investment in the firm and commitment even though one's numbers are higher. Is one of you managing the firm or doing other activities that still benefits the firm?
You must ask yourselves what kind of firm you want to be – team-based firm or group of space sharers or partnership of individual firms. Eat-what-you kill compensation systems are not appropriate for law firms that want to build a firm and create a team-based practice since such compensation systems typically reinforce "lone ranger" behavior resulting in a "me first vs firm first" orientation. It is hard to build a team-based firm with such an orientation. However, some firms do not want to practice as team-based firms – they want to practice as groups of individuals. For these firms such a system may be appropriate.
The challenge will be to nail down a method of allocation revenue and overhead that is fair and equitable to both of you. Compensation systems should do more than simply allocate the pie – they should reinforce the behaviors and efforts that the firm seeks from its attorneys. Many firms are discovering that desired behaviors and results must go beyond short term fee production and must include contributions in areas such as marketing, mentoring, firm management, etc. to ensure the long term viability of the firm. Eat-what-you-kill systems discourage these behaviors.
In the long term the highly successful law firms will be those that are team based that where the partners look beyond their own self interests and have a "firm first" attitude.
I think you need to have an open exchange about what kind of firm you want to build and the commitments each of you are willing to make to achieve that. You need to decide what you consider to be contribution and value to the firm – fees generated, fees originated, primary attorney fees, marketing, firm management, etc. If those commitments are in general alignment – they maybe you should stay on the 50-50 split for awhile longer. Another option would be to stay on the same split – but create a special bonus pool – say 25% of income that could be allocated on a discretionary basic for unusual accomplishments, etc. Of course you would have to agree on who gets how much. Another option would be to have a base draw and then either a formula or discretionary bonus pool for distribution of the excess.
The general trend in compensation systems in larger firms is toward more subjective based system rather than formula. However, many smaller firms do still use objective or formula based systems.
I hope this helps.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Question: I am a solo attorney with no other personnel at the present time other than virtual employees. I hope to add a staff member later this year or early next year. I am frustrated with the success of my practice and feel that I am lost and have no sense of direction or plan for the future. I have been to seminars that talk about the need for a long range plan but it seems that the mechanics of the process is geared to firms that have other partners. How can I best go about long range planning?
Response: Long range (strategic) planning is hard to do by yourself. It is not just the plan that you end up with that is important – it is the planning process itself – done over an extended period of time – that yields out-of-the-box-thinking and real results. Brainstorming needs to take place and you need to work on your plan over say a four to six month period of time.
A strategic plan is different than a business plan. A business plan is a firm startup plan and often used for evaluating whether to startup a business and for securing financing or capital. Typically the audience is primarily external. A strategic plan is for internal use and thus is more of an outline of the firm's mission, vision for the future, long range goals, objectives to be measured in the short term, issues and obstacles that must be confronted, strategies, and specific action items with timelines and milestones. The plan should be short 10 pages or less and should have an implementation focus. Accountability should be part of the plan.
We have numerous solo and sole owner law firm clients that have successfully implemented long range strategic plans. Often we have worked with our client firms on such projects as a part of our six month business coaching program. In this way we are able to do a little each week with the client and serve as an accountability partner.
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC