Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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March 2012

Mar 27, 2012


Capital Accounts For New Law Firm Partners

Question:

Our firm was started 20 years ago by four partners. We how have the original four partners as well as six associate attorneys. Originally each of the four partners contributed $25,000 each to their capital accounts. We are considering extending partnership to a couple of the associates. We have talked with other law firms and some require buy-ins (capital contributions) and others do not. What are your thoughts?

Response:

My first question is whether you are planning on creating a non-equity partnership tier. If so, then the associates would initially be brought into that tier first.

Typically a buy-in or capital contribution is not required for non-equity partners nor do I recommend such. Typically non-equity partners are salaried and may participate in some form of an incentive bonus system tied to individual, team, or firm financial performance. They are also not required to assume any responsibility for any of the firm's financial liabilities or debts.

If you intend on bringing in the associates as equity partners that is another matter. I believe that all new partners should be expected to contribute capital and have some "skin in the game." Whenever a firm admits a new partner, the firm should require the new partner to contribute capital. Increasingly, a partner's capital requirement should bear a relationship to the partner's share of profits. You may want to allow new partners a reasonable period of time to fund their capital accounts – say five years or help them arrange favorable terms at your bank to finance their capital accounts.

Some firms have a buy-in tied to either the cash-based book value of the firm or the accrual-based book value (includes accounts receivable and work in process). This is not the typical practice although I do run into it. Usually capital accounts are tied to working capital needed to operate the firm and the percentage of ownership/income that each partner will have.

There are only three ways to increase a firm's working capital to cover cash flow requirements and fund growth:

1. Have partners put more money in
2. Have partners take less money out
3. Borrow

Many firms use bank credit lines instead of capital contributions to pay routine firm expenses and partner draws during periods when cash flow is tight. It has been my experience that firms that follow this practice have ongoing financial challenges and problems.

The reality is that many firms are under-capitalized – don't become one of them!

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

Mar 20, 2012


Law Firm Staff Investment – A Sound Marketing Strategy

Question:

Our Chicago firm of 14 attorneys has been discussing various marketing investments that we should be considering. We have a very proactive marketing program but want to insure that we are exploring all avenues. What are your thoughts?

Response:

Invest in your people – your staff – your intellectual capital.

I am amazed at the minimal investment that law firms make in their staff. Law firms are in the knowledge business and their product is their intellectual knowledge. While law firms do invest in their attorneys, such is not the case with the staff. Although staff members are often on the front lines in dealing with clients, very few law firms are providing them with skill training in areas such as communication, marketing, client service, conflict management, effective writing and speaking, time management, computer applications, client complaint management, etc. By the way, attorneys need training in these areas as well. Why do law firms hire the cheapest talent they can find to fill the receptionist position when it is the receptionist who often has the initial contact with a new client. I find it amazing that firms spend huge amounts of money on advertising and marketing and they fail to invest in the other tools needed for effective new client intake. Small firms should consider assigning their receptionist the role of marketing coordinator with responsibility for assisting in the management of client relationships and the firm’s marketing program.

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

Mar 15, 2012


Improving Relationship With Insurance Company Clients

Question:

Our firm, a 17 attorney firm in St. Louis, Missouri, is have a major problem with client defections. We practice in the area of insurance defense exclusively. We have lost several insurance company clients and for those that we are working with – our case assignments are dwindling. Any thoughts or suggestions?

Response:

Our firm recently completed client satisfaction interviews for several of our insurance defense law firm clients. Here are a few quotes and a summary of what these insurance company law firm clients told us:

1. We want to work with proactive attorneys that aren’t afraid to try cases.
2. Limit the number of people working on a file. I like consistent assignments.
3. I expect attorneys to get back to me by the next business day.
4. I like one partner and one associate per file.
5. Most of our billing issues with law firms is due to excessive use of associates time.
6. I get upset with attorneys that want to settle right before trial.
7. The primary reason that we terminate our relationship with our outside attorneys is not reporting to us in a timely fashion and poor communications.
8. I find that many lawyers are poor at managing their files and have poor basic communication skills. I work with lawyers that can do both of these things well.
9. I think that it is important that law firms provide value added services such as newsletters, legislative updates, e-alerts, seminars, etc on a “no charge” basis. These services are provided by most law firms these days. Such services help us do our jobs better, improves communications and the overall relationship between our organization and the law firm, keeps us up to date on changes in the law, and helps the law firm stay abreast of emerging needs in our business.
10. I will pay higher fees to lawyers that aren’t afraid to try cases.

I suggest that you start by talking to your clients. Much can be learned by talking to your clients. Structured telephone interviews conducted by a neutral third party can provide many surprises as well as answers. Client satisfaction interviews can be the best marketing investment that you can make.

Good Luck!

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

 

Mar 07, 2012


Growing a Law Firm: Issues to Think About

Question:

Our practice is located in Memphis. We have three attorneys, 3 paralegals, and two staff members. We will generate $1,500,000 in legal fees this year. We plan on growing the firm and hope break the $2.5 million barrier in three years. We have a very proactive marketing plan and program. What else do we need to think about?

Response:

Growth will involve more the marketing and getting more clients. Particularly a firm your size. To generate this revenue you will have to add several revenue producers which could almost double your size. Your will become a different firm. Instead of three attorneys – you may have six or seven unless your growth will occur by adding mostly paralegals. Even so, there will be more people. This will impact your physical facilities and physical plant, your systems, your IT infrastructure, approach to talent management, and how the firm is managed. Growth requires investment and puts strain on cash flow. So this needs to be planned for. If you don't have a strategic plan (see our blog under strategy section) I suggest that your consider developing one. A strategic plan will require you to think beyond the marketing plan and getting clients – and address all of the other issues that will impact the firm as you grow.

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

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