Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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March 2016

Mar 30, 2016


Law Firm Compensation for TIme Spent by Partners Managing The Firm

Question:

Firm has three partners, two associates, and 2 staff members. We are a new firm and just started in practice a year ago. We are equal partners and we allocate compensation equally based upon these ownership interests. We believe the system has worked well for us but we been considering whether one person should handle all the management duties and if so how that person should be compensated. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

First I would identify the duties and hours involved and make sure the duties are managing partner level duties and not office manager level duties that should be handled by staff. Delegate or consider hiring an office manager for duties than can be delegated. For duties that can't be delegated I would suggest you that a look at the hours that will be required and determine a  fixed additional compensation amount based on expected hours and the partner's standard billing rate. The partner's compensation would be his/her fixed additional compensation amount plus his/her allocation based upon ownership interest.

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

 

Mar 22, 2016


Law Firm Partner Retirement Buyouts – How to Keep from Breaking the Bank

Question:

Our firm is a 14 lawyer firm in the Boston suburbs with 4 founding partners and 10 associates. Two of the partners are in their 50s and two are in their 60s. Several years ago we adopted a retirement buyout plan for the founding partners where each partner upon retirement is paid the balance of his cash-based capital account and a multiple of one times an average of his last three years earnings paid out over a five year period. I am concerned that when partners begin to retire the retirement payouts will place undue stress on operating funds and the firm's ability to continue to be successful. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

If nothing else you should consider a cap that places a limit on how much can be paid out in a single year where aggregate payments to all retired partners in any one year are capped at 10 percent or less of distributable net income. Any obligations that cannot be paid in one year as a result of the cap would be rolled forward to the next year also subject to the same cap.

Unfunded plans can present problems down the road if they become unaffordable for the next generation of attorneys as they have to be funded out of future earnings. You should look into ways to fund your partner's retirements as much as possible through 401k and other retirements plans, life insurance policies (on each of the partners that can fund the buyout in the event of death or where paid up cash values can be used upon retirement to apply toward buyouts, and sinking funds (Rabbi Trusts, etc.) where funds have been set aside out of current earnings.

We all have been witnessing what is happening with governmental unfunded pension programs. The same thing is happening with law firms that have unfunded retirement programs as baby boomers are retiring in record numbers.

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

Mar 15, 2016


Law Firm Alternative Billing – What Do Clients Think

Question:

Our firm is a 18 attorney firm based in Tucson, Arizona. Our practice is a boutique general liability defense firm. Our clients tend to be self insured large corporations and smaller business firms. Currently all of clients are billed by the hour. Recently we have been discussing whether we should propose an alternative billing approach to our clients. We would be interested in your thoughts.

Response:

I do not want to discourage alternative billing – there are a lot of benefits that can be obtained – however I find that firms practicing your type of law and that have your type of clients that alternative is talked about more than actually implemented. You may find that your clients like the thought of the certainty of fixed fees but have concerns about the quality of representation under such arrangements. Recently, a litigation defense law firm asked me to interview their clients concerning their satisfaction with the law firm. When asking one general counsel about his thoughts regarding alternative billing he told me:

"My concern with fixed fee billing is that there might not be the financial incentive for the law firm to dedicate all the resources and best efforts to obtain the best results for our company. I prefer hourly billing with case management plans and budgets. I want our law firms to be financially successful as long as they achieve results for our company and not be penalized or constrained by fixed fee arrangements."

You may find that your clients are open to discussing alternative billing arrangements but may be hesitant when it comes to implementation. They are comfortable with hourly billing.

With this said I think you should explore the dialog with maybe one pilot client and see where the discussion leads. Insure that you do the proper analysis of that client's billing history, overall risks, and develop a fixed fee strategy that not only allows you to attain your desired billing rate but provides for a risk premium as well. Also build in ability to take exceptions for matters that fall outside the scope of the fixed fee arrangement.

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

 

 

Mar 08, 2016


Law Firm Administrators – New Administrator – Accounting vs. Human Resource Background

Question:

Our firm is a 18 attorney firm based in San Diego. We are considering hiring our first legal administrator and have interviewed several candidates and have narrowed our search down to two candidates. One candidate has a strong financial background and has worked as a director of administration in several very large firms – 200 plus attorneys. The other candidate has a strong HR background, a weaker financial background, and has worked as a firm administrator in two different law firms – a 30 attorney firm and a 20 attorney firm. We like both candidates. Which candidate would you lean toward?

Response:

I would lean toward the administrator that worked for the smaller law firms. Having worked in smaller firms this candidate would be a more hands on administrator which is what a firm your size needs. In a firm your size the critical need is people management and leadership. As long as the candidate has a working knowledge of accounting the candidate should do fine with the oversight of your CPA firm. If you have to you can supplement any accounting deficiencies with outside resources – you can't outsource people management.  

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

Mar 01, 2016


Law Firm Marketing – Estate Planning Firm & Importance of Lawyer Referrals

Question:

I am the owner of an estate planning firm in Oklahoma City. I have four associates that work for me in addition to two billable paralegals and three staff support members. I am looking for ways to improve our business development and marketing. The majority of our business comes from past client referrals and referrals from employees and friends. We spend a considerable amount on advertising which includes our website, print ads, collateral materials, newsletters, etc. We would like to do more to increase client business. I would appreciate your thoughts?

Response:

I find it interesting that you did not mention referrals from other lawyers. I have many estate planning/elder law clients that receive a major portion of their clients from referrals from other lawyers. This should be a key component of your marketing plan. Your business development and marketing efforts should address this potential referral source. You should be investing targeted time:

Review your website and see if it speaks to both your individual clients (mom and pop clients) as well as professional referral sources such as other lawyers.
 

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

 

 

 
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