Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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May 2014

May 27, 2014


Law Firm Merger – Merger of a Solo with a Two Attorney Firm

Question:

I am a solo in Bloomington, Illinois. I have just completed my third year in solo practice. I have one full time secretary, a paralegal, and I office share with a group of attorneys. My overload is low and my margin is 61%. I have been approached by a two attorney (2 partners) firm regarding merging with their firm. One of the partners is relatively new (joined the firm 3 years ago) and the other is the firm founder and is planning on retiring in the next year. On average the other firm's revenue per attorney and partner earnings is on par or even less than mine. Their overhead is much higher. The two partners have been operating on a handshake with no succession/transition plan for the senior partner and no understanding of retirement financial arrangements (buy-out). While I have some concerns and fears about merging I believe that merger would provide me access to mentoring, additional resources and staff, and ability to improve my competencies and handle larger more complex cases. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

I would be concerned that you have been approached to help with the buy-out of the senior partner. In essence this may be a large unfunded liability that you and the other partner will be saddled with for a number of years. It sounds like, based upon past performance of the other firm, that if there is a substantial buy-out of the senior partner you could end up making less for several years. Other than your rent there will be marginal cost savings as a result of the merger. Improvement in your earnings will be dependent whether you and the other partner can in fact generate larger cases, larger revenues, and increased leverage. 

If I were you I would ask the firm to work out the details concerning the senior partner's retirement as to timeline, the mechanics, the cost/funding of the buy-out, and put same in writing. Once this is accomplished factor this into the rest of your due diligence and analysis.

If the firm is unable to get their arms around the retirement of the senior partner issue I would stay clear.

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

 

May 20, 2014


Law Firm Compensation – Bringing in an Associate with a Small Book of Business

Question:

I am the sole owner of a law firm in Walnut Creek, California. I have three associates and five staff members in the firm. I am looking to hire another associate. The associate I am considering has been out on his own for five years – no office and no employees. He would bring around 30 active matters with him. I was thinking of paying him a salary with a discretionary bonus based upon performance. Fees originated and generated would be a major component of the performance determination that would impact future salary increases, bonuses, and eligibility for partnership. However, I believe that I must do something with regard to the business that he brings with him. I would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions:

Response:

I agree with your general approach with regard to his compensation. Payments for originations for associates gives me pause.  However, I believe you have to treat business that he brings with him differently. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Create a list of the pending matters that he will bring with him. The list should list the A/R and WIP for time bill matters. For flat fee matters whether the fee has been collected and spent, whether there will be any more fee, the amount of work that remains to be completed (percent), and the estimated hours required to complete the work. For contingency fee work – a list of the expected fee - low and high – for matters in progress.
  2. He should get 100% of A/R and unbilled WIP earned but not billed or paid before he joins the firm. 20% of the work done after he is with your firm.
  3. I would pay him 20% of the fees earned (prorated) for flat fee matters while the matter is with your firm if a fee will be due and paid. If not – your firm should be entitled to an offset for the overhead servicing his work for which there will be no fee forth coming.
  4. Once the matters on the list are concluded any future work that he originates would be "firm accounts".

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

May 13, 2014


Law Firm Succession/Exit Strategy for Owner of a Six Attorney Insurance Defense Firm

Question:

I am the solo owner of a six attorney insurance defense firm in Phoenix. The other five attorneys are associates – most of whom have been with me three years or less and had limited experience prior to joining my firm. I am 47 and am looking to start to wind down within five years and be totally out of the practice in ten years when I am 57. I want to start thinking about my succession strategy early so I have time to execute it properly. I would appreciate your suggestions.

Response:

If you are like most small insurance defense firms you have a handful of insurance companies that sends you virtually all of your cases. I assume that you bring in all the business, hold the key to the client relationships, and guard those relationships carefully. This may be a double edged sword for you in that while controlling those relationships and using your associates as "worker bees" may keep them from getting close and stealing your clients this approach may also prevent you from developing suitable "bench strength" in the eyes of your clients that could constrain an internal succession/exit strategy down the road. Ask yourself this question – if you made a couple of deserving associates partners today and you left the firm next year would any of the clients stay? Often in situations similar to yours I am told – none. If this is the case you need to begin to hire the right associates – ones that actually want to become partners someday (not all do) and bulk up the team that you have. Otherwise, you may have to bring in lateral talent at the right time or merge with another firm.

Unlike many law firms we are working with you are starting to think about this early – so you have time.

Good luck

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

May 06, 2014


Law Firm Overhead

Question:

I am the managing partner of an 8 attorney firm in Carbondale, Illinois. Recently I was talking with the managing partner of a firm in the area and we were discussing overhead ratios and we seemed to have different definitions of overhead and I am wondering if we were trying to compare apples to oranges. Can you share your thoughts?

Response:

I consider overhead to be the operating cost required to support the producers in the firm. This is a different statistic than expenses. Typically in a law firm overhead is all expenses except for attorney salaries (associate and partners) and benefits. Often overhead is used is various benchmark surveys. However, when determing net income or profit (the profit pool) expenses would include associate salaries and associate and partner benefits. In a professional corporation where officer salaries are expensed we typically add shareholder salaries back to the net income figure to determine the profit pool for benchmarking purposes.

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

 

 

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