Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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August 2012

Aug 29, 2012


Keeping Law Firm Clients Happy

Question:

I am managing partner with a 12 attorney general practice firm in St. Louis. As part of our marketing program we recently completed an informal client survey and were surprised at some of the feedback. The feedback was less positive than expected. Our clients advised us that our services took longer than expected and fees were also higher than expected. We work hard for our clients and I don't see how we can improve turnaround or reduce legal fees. I would appreciate any thoughts that you have.

Response:

Based upon client satisfaction surveys (telephone interviews) that we do for law firms we find that one of the biggest problems is that the attorneys are doing a poor job of managing client expectations. Your clients get frustrated when you promise one thing (timeline or fees) and the result is very different – especially when the work takes longer than promised or the fees are higher. Even though you don't structure it as a promise your clients take it that way. The key is to under promise and over deliver. I suspect that upon the initial client meeting you are under estimating the timeline and low balling the fee range. Reduce the promise – increase the - timeline and fee range and then shoot to deliver under that range. This will do wonders for improving the client relationship.

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

Aug 22, 2012


Admitting New Law Firm Partners

Question:

Our law firm is located in San Antonio, Texas. We have a total of eighteen attorneys which includes me and two other equity owners that founded the firm and contributed capital, three equity partners that were made partner that did not contribute any capital, two non-equity partners, and ten associates. The original three partners control the firm and make all of the decisions with little involvement or input from the others. They are not provided with financial statements or reports. The original three partners bring in virtually all of the business. We are faced with some hard decisions concerning partnership admission – non-equity to equity, associates to non equity, etc. Our compensation cost for attorneys is eating away at our earnings for attorneys that are worker bees and don't bring in any business. Your thoughts?

Response:

You may want to ask yourselves whether you want employees or partners. It sounds like the other three equity partners are not part of the inner circle and are not really functioning as part of the partnership. What is the criteria for becoming an equity partner? Is client development part of that criteria? Should they contribute capital? If they are not adding value to the firm – growth – you are diluting the earnings pool and reducing the size of the pie for yourselves. Personally, I think in a firm your size criteria for becoming an equity partner should, among other things, include client development and a capital contribution. They should have some skin in the game, contribute capital, and signup for their share of the liabilities. I also believe they should then be included in the inner circle.

I would start here by addressing these issues with the three equity partners. They I would develop non-equity and associate career progression plans – associate to non-equity partner and non-equity partner to equity partner – outlining timeline for consideration, the consideration process, the criteria, and the respective and expectations for each. (What it means)

Make the criteria tough and resist the temptation to make everyone a partner.

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

Aug 14, 2012


Law Firm Management Roles – What Do I Need To Be Good At?

Question:

I am the owner of a 12 attorney firm in Dallas. We have 26 people including attorneys and staff. I founded the firm 20 years ago. While we have an Accounting Manager – I am responsible for the management and direction of the firm. While we have done okay over the years – I often feel deficient as a manager and am not always sure that I am covering all of the bases. Is there such thing as management 101 for guys like me?

Response:

Mention management 101 and I think of the five functions of management. Each of these roles must be performed by someone in every law firm and business if it is to be successful. In a small firm such as yours you must perform each of these functions and be reasonably good at all of them.

Here are the five functions:

1.  Planning

Deciding in advance what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and who is to do it. Planning bridges the gap from where you are to where you want to go. It makes it possible for things to occur which would not otherwise happen. Planning is often referred to as business, long range, or strategic planning.

2.  Organizing

Creating an intentional structure of roles, duties and responsibilites, and accountabilities. Defining  what is to be done, by who, and how? Sometimes this involves establishing departments or practice groups.

3.  Staffing

Manning the jobs which involves hiring, performance management, training, mentoring, and development of people to fill the organizational roles.

4.  Directing

Directing employees involves motivation, communications and leadership.

5.  Controlling

Measurement of accomplishments of events against the standard of plans and the correction of deviations to insure attainment of objectives according to plans. In essence this involves reviewing your business, long range or strategic plan or budget against actual performance using metrics and dashboards/reports to determine how well you are making progress. If you are falling short of firm goals – determine problem areas and take corrective action to get performance back on course.

Use the above functions as a report card. Ask your self – how good are you at performing each of these roles? Are you performing them at all?

In addition to these roles you need to have a working knowledge of accounting and finance and be able to manage the financial affairs of the firm "work the books" as well as being good at getting the right people on the bus (hiring right) and keeping them there.

As you continue to grow you will eventually need to hire management talent to delegate some of these functions to perform.

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

Aug 08, 2012


Law Firm Owners and Partners – What is Your Primary Focus – Business Person or Lawyer?

Question:

I am an attorney in Chicago. I am the sole owner of an estate planning practice consisting of 4 other attorneys, 4 paralegals, and 2 administrative support staff members. We have reached a size where I am having problems handling and balancing the demands of serving my clients and managing my firm. It seems I am working day and night and have no time for anything but work. I am frustrated and it is driving my crazy? I would appreciate any thoughts that you may have.

Response:

You are not alone. This is a common problem in law and other professional service firms. I have similar problems in my own firm – it is very difficult to serve two masters – serving your clients and managing your firm. Eventually you have to pick one – client service (doing legal work) or managing and running your business – as the area that receives your primary focus. This is not to say that you should not do both – but you select the primary area that you are going to focus on and get help with the other area.

A question that I typically ask my new law firm clients – what do you want to be or do – be a business person or a lawyer. The answer to the question often provides a hint to how you should structure your firm. If you want to be more of a business person – hire legal talent to help with serving clients and performing legal work and spend more time working on your firm rather than in it. If you want to be more of a lawyer and do legal work and serve clients hire a legal administrator or business manager (this is more than an office manager) to manage and run your firm.

I have more and more owners of small law firms that are managing their law businesses and not practicing law. I believe the appropriate direction is what makes you happy and what type of work you enjoy doing. You practice should support and fulfill your personal goals, what you want out of life and what makes you happy. If that is managing – then manage. If that is doing legal work – do legal work.

Two great books on this subject are – The E-Myth Revisited and The E-Myth Attorney – available on Amazon. The theme of both of these books is:

Small business owners often spend too much time being the technician (i.e. lawyering) and not enough time managing and innovating.

Think about where you want place the priority of your focus – working on firm (business) or in it.

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

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