Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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October 2015

Oct 27, 2015


Law Firm Succession/Transition/Exit Planning – Two Phase Deal Arrangement for Sole Owners

Question:

I am the solo owner of a five attorney estate planning firm in Los Angeles consisting of myself and four associates. I am approaching retirement and looking at my exit options. Since there are no heirs apparent in the firm I am looking to sell the practice. However, the potential buyer that I have been speaking with is nervous and concerned about client defections, proper transition, etc. Also, I would like to continue to practice for a few years and don't want to run afoul of the rules of professional conduct. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

You might want to consider a two-phased approach. Merge with the other firm, continue to work for a few years, work on transitioning relationships, retire and sell your interests, and continue to work as an Of Counsel after that if you so desire.

For Example. A sole proprietor was generating $500,000 in annual revenues with one full-time senior attorney, a full-time paralegal, and a clerical person while netting 40%, including perks and benefits. This owner wanted to work three more years full time and several more years in a part-time role thereafter. The firm interested in acquiring the practice was a three-partner firm generating $2.2 million a year working with similar clients, under a similar culture and fee range.

Phase One consisted of a merger with the retiring owner agreeing to retire in three years and sell his ownership interests for an agreed amount. At its inception, the two practices were combined. The successor firm provided the practice with the same amount of labor required in the past through a combination of retaining and replacing staff, as both were deemed necessary by the parties. The successor firm took over most of the administration, and the deal was announced to the public as a merger. 

The transitioning owner was able to come and go reasonably as he saw fit, run his practice through the successor firm’s infrastructure, and retain significant autonomy and control. Because he historically generated a 40% margin, the successor firm agreed to assume all the operating costs of the practice and pay 40% of gross collections from the transitioning owner’s original clients as compensation. Phase One was set to terminate on the first of the following events: (1) the end of three years; (2) the death or disability of the transitioning owner; or (3) the election of the transitioning owner.

Phase Two was the buyout of the retiring partner's ownership interest, and it was set up in a traditional fashion. Phase Two kicked in at the end of Phase One. By deferring the buyout until the full-time compensation ceased, the transitioning owner could extend the period for his full-time compensation, and the successor wasn’t being asked to pay for the practice and full-time compensation at the same time."

Many firms have taken this approach and we have found that it increases the likelihood of successful client transitions, reduces the risk of client defections, and increases the value for the retiring owner.

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

Oct 20, 2015


Law Firm Competitive Strategy – Daring to Be Different

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 16 attorney business transactional firm in Chicago. Over the last five years we have lost several core clients due to client consolidation of their outside law firms and mergers of the clients themselves. Competition is getting fierce in our market, our services are being viewed as commodities, and it is getting harder to stand out. What can we do to differentiate ourselves from everyone else? We welcome your thoughts.

Response: 

Creating a competitive advantage that is sustainable over time is difficult at best. It is so easy for your competitors to copycat your recent innovations. Clients of law firms advise us that they hire the lawyer – not the firm. However, this only partly true. The firm – its image – its brand – provides a backdrop for the individual attorneys marketing efforts as well – makes marketing easier – and provides backup and bench strength that many clients require before retaining a lawyer.

In general the law firm is faced with the dual challenge of developing a reputation (brand) at both the firm and the individual lawyer level. In general – client delivery practices and behaviors that are part of the firm's core values and have been burned into the firm's cultural fabric are the hardest to copycat.

Areas in which you can consider differentiation strategies:

https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/blog/category/strategy/

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

 

Oct 13, 2015


Law Firm People Management and Accountability

Question:

I am the managing partner of a newly formed 8 attorney firm in Austin, Texas that was formed last year when several of us left another firm and started this firm. The most frustrating part of the managing partner job is managing the people – this includes other partners, associates, and staff. How do I deal with people that are not following firm policy or doing things they should not be doing?

Response:

Managing people is one of the toughest challenges that law firms face. Challenges often involve  people not following firm policy and doing what they should not be doing. It drives owners, managing partners, and administrators crazy.

My advice to frustrated owners, managing partners, and administrators – tell them to stop. Seriously. As the managing partner of your firm you can't beat around the bush and be sheepish concerning your expectations concerning desired performance and behavior in the office. Confront the performance or behavioral problem immediately. Manage such problems in real time. Don't wait for the annual performance review and don't treat serious problem as a "self-improvement" effort. Tell them how you feel about the performance or behavioral issue, the consequences for failure to resolve the issue, your timeline for resolving the issue, and the follow-up schedule that you will be using to follow-up and monitor the issue. If they must resolve the performance or behavioral issue in order to keep their job tell them so. They may need this level of confrontation in order to give them the strength to be able to deal with their issues.

Being a wimp does not help you or them. Tell them like it is and conduct a heart-to-heart discussion. You will be glad you did.

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

Oct 06, 2015


Law Firm Growth – Associate Hiring and Retention

Question: 

Our firm is a two partner firm located in Rochester, MN. We have been approached by a solo practitioner that wants to sell us his practice. The price and terms seem fair but we are concerned about staffing and managing the other office. His practice consists of himself and two staff members. We would have to maintain a second office, hire an associate or two for the office, and then manage both operations. We have recently tried to hire an associate without success by reaching out to targeted lawyers that we knew in our local area. Frankly, acquiring this practice is a little daunting. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

I believe the first issue is whether you are looking to grow the firm and are willing to undertake the additional management responsibilities that comes with growth. Some firms are ready for growth and others are not. Larger is not necessarily better. 

I would not let your unsuccessful associate hiring attempts discourage you from acquiring the practice if you desire to grow and the price and terms are acceptable. You may need to cast a wider net and be more focused in your efforts. Recently a two attorney firm in Mid-Missouri hired an associate from St. Louis. A two attorney firm in Central Kentucky hired an associate from Lexington, Kentucky. It may take some time but a concentrated recruiting effort usually pays off regardless where you are located – even in small communities. 

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

 

 

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