Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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March 2014

Mar 25, 2014


Law Firm Associate and Non-Equity Partner Compensation: Is There a Cap or Ceiling?

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 16 attorney insurance defense law firm in Kansas City. We have two equity partners, four non-equity partners, and ten associates. Only the two equity partners bring in client business. Since our clients are insurance companies most of our work is new business from existing clients. Unlike other firms doing insurance defense work our billing rates are low and we have to put in a lot of billable hours and maintain a high ratio of associates and non-equity partners to equity partners.

In the past our associates stayed for a while and left after several years. As a result about the time they reached the higher compensation levels they left and we replaced them with lower cost associates. In the last few years – with the economy and the oversupply of lawyers – they are staying much longer. While we – the equity partners – want to be fair and are willing to share – we are concerned about our reducing profit margins and at what point an associate or non-equity partner's compensation is "maxed out." We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Law firms of all types of practice are experiencing this dilemma. The problem is even more evident in insurance defense firms where much of the work is routine discovery work that can be handled as well by an attorney with two years' experience as by an attorney with ten years' experience at lower cost. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Use the formula – 3 times salary as a general guide to determine where you are regarding working attorney fee production from each of your attorneys. If you are paying an associate or non-equity partner $100,000 a year salary you should be collecting $300,000. The goal is that 1/3 of each fee dollar goes to association of the attorney, 1/3 to overhead, and 1/3 to profit – this a 30% profit margin.
  2. Dig into your financials and determine your contribution to profit from each of your attorneys. Allocate all direct expenses and indirect overhead and calculate profit margin. Click here for an illustration on how to allocate overhead
  3. Profit margin should be between 25%-30%.
  4. Use the margin to establish a theoretical salary limit in absence of other contributions such as management, client origination, additional business from existing clients, etc.
  5. Cap salaries with the exception of periodic cost of living adjustments.
  6. Use a client or referral commission bonus, production/hours bonus, and bonus pools to reward exceptional performance.

 Click here for our blog on compensation

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

Mar 18, 2014


Law Firm Websites – Videos on Site

Question:

I am the partner in charge of marketing for our 12 attorney firm located in the Dallas suburbs. We are an estate planning/estate administration firm exclusively. We have a pretty good website with attorney bios and photos, articles, practice area descriptions, client testimonials and a blog that is updated weekly. We have been discussing the pros and cons of adding videos to the site. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

I believe that videos can add to the quality of the site if done properly. A quality video can help you showcase your personality and bedside manner and help a potential client "get to know you." What you say may not be as important as how you say it. However, unless the video is a quality video and well done – it can do more harm than good. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Consider a video introduction by the managing partner introducing the firm linked off the home page.
  2. Consider a video by each attorney linked off their bio pages.
  3. Consider your audience – mom and pop individual clients as well as potential referral sources. Since your clients are individuals – dress and set your tone accordingly. Be a little less formal – speak to your client concerns. Think about their concerns.
  4. Smile and be friendly.
  5. Hire professionals to help you script and film professional quality videos. (Quality lighting and sound separates professional looking quality from homemade looking videos.)
  6. Provide on-camera training and have your attorneys – Practice – Practice – Practice before live filming.
  7. If you don't have anyone that looks good on camera – don't do it.
  8. Use your own attorneys – don't hire outsiders to be presenters in the videos.
  9. Don't let the videos sound like ads or commercials.
  10. Presentations should be educational in nature and goal should be to enable viewers to get to know you. Presentation style is critical.

Done well – quality videos can improve the performance of your website – done poorly videos can reduce the performance of your website.

Click here for our blog on marketing 

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

 

Mar 11, 2014


Law Firm Billing Arrangements – Flat Fees

Question:

I am the managing owner of a four attorney estate planning firm in Phoenix. We also have two paralegals, a receptionist, and an office manager. We have always billed our clients by the hour but have been considering switching to a flat rate billing arrangement. I would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions.

Response:

I am currently working with quite a few estate planning/elder law firms. The majority of these firms are still using "time bill" billing arrangements. (8 out of 10 firms) A few firms are using flat fee arrangements for estate planning and asset protection matters and "time bill" arrangements for estate administration and other matters.

Few firms that are using flat fee arrangements are realizing effective billing rates even close to their standard "time bill" rates. In some cases I have found effective rates per hour $100 per hour less than their standard "time bill" rates. In some cases the problem is not working effectively or efficiently. In other cases the flat fee price has not been properly set or limits placed on the work that will be done for the flat fee – for example – number or document rewrites, etc. 

I believe that more than ever clients are wanting the budgetary certainty that flat fees provide.  I think that a flat fee pricing strategy is a good strategy but the scope of work and proper price point must be properly established. A couple of suggestions:

  1. Do some basic market research – secret shopping – and obtain the best information that you can on competitor pricing.
  2. Review time charges on typical estate planning matters and get a handle on the amount of time that it typically takes – by each office professional – for matters of varying levels of complexity.
  3. Based on these time estimates determine flat fees using the desired standard hourly rate and then add a risk premium of 10%. If a matters typically takes 10 hours and your desired rate is $200 per hour – set the flat rate fee at $2200.00.
  4. Incorporate into your engagement letters, fee agreements, etc.
  5. Get at least 1/2 of the fee before commencing work and the other half before deliveringand executing the final documents.
  6. Keep time sheets on the matters for time expended.
  7. Review at least quarterly effective rates realized on completed flat rate matters.
  8. If effective rates are below your target rate review the time detail and determine where the problem lies.
  9. Make changes and adjustments if needed.

I believe that properly implemented and managed flat fees can be a worthwhile strategy.

Click here for our blog on financial management

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

 

Mar 04, 2014


Lawyer or Businessperson

Question:

I am an attorney in Miami. I have been out of law school for five years. I worked with a small firm for a year and then went solo and have been doing contract work for other law firms for the past four years. For the past year I have been trying to get a position as an associate with a small firm – but have not had any success. Recently, I had an interview with a 2 attorney (2 partners in their early 70s) firm and I thought the interview went well – I believe that I impressed them with my legal knowledge and skills. However, I did not get the position. They advised me that they were looking for less of a lawyer and more of a business person. What am I doing wrong?

Response:

I help many of our law firm clients hire lawyers for associate and lateral positions as well as search for merger candidates. One of my favorite questions is – are you more of a lawyer or a business man or woman. Small firms are more often than not looking for candidates that are both. In a small firm you must be able to bring in clients, manage people (clients, lawyers, and staff), and perform quality legal work. There are a lot of good lawyers available on the market – there are less good lawyers that are also good business persons.

I suspect that the firm you interviewed with is looking at this hire to be part of the firm's succession strategy and the partners are looking for a lawyer/business person that can carry the firm to the next generation of practice.

Next time you interview with a firm in a similar situation – blend in a discussion of business topics as well. Even though you are a solo doing contract work you can still share some business experiences. You have had to bill for your services, manage your receivable and payables, market yourself and your practice, etc. Share your thoughts.

Click here for our blog on career management

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

 

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