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June 2017

Jun 20, 2017

Characteristics of a Successful Liability Defense Law Firm


I’m a second generation attorney (about 5 years’ experience) at a small liability defense firm in Southern, California. My father is the managing partner and we have three total attorneys. My father and his partner probably have 5-7 years left practicing. We only do California workers’ compensation defense. I’m planning on taking over the practice but am concerned about trends in the industry that will affect profitability, such as more stringent billing guidelines/bill audits, cuts to travel time, etc. What are the characteristics of a successful liability defense firm that I should strive towards? (i.e., # of attorneys, leverage, overhead ratio, revenue per lawyer, etc.)


I appreciate your concerns. Both workers’ compensation defense and civil insurance defense firms have a real challenge with the performance pressures placed on them by their clients, billing guidelines and audits, and low billing rates. I have civil insurance defense firm clients across the country billing at rates averaging from $175 to $225 per hour and workers’ compensation defense firm clients billing at rates averaging from $140 to $175 per hour. Some firms are being required to take on more work on a flat fee basis.

Here are a few thoughts concerning characteristics of successful liability defense firms that you should strive towards:

  1. Number of attorneys will depend upon the amount of business that you can bring into the firm. If you are a sole owner you should have an additional four associates to achieve the level of leverage that you will need to be profitable. This assume that the work is there to keep them all busy.
  2. You should strive for a leverage ratio of four associates to every owner. Resist the temptation to make everyone a partner.
  3. Hold the line on expenses and remember that your largest expenses are salaries and office space. You do not need to hire lawyers from top tier law schools and pay the salaries that such lawyers are able to command. You also do not need to have your office in an A or B+ building. Look for B or C+ office space.
  4. Revenue per working lawyer should be in the $300,000 range.
  5. Profit margin (earnings available to owners) should be in the 35% to 45% range.
  6. Annual billable hours should be 2000 or greater for each attorney.
  7. Ensure that you tie lawyer compensation to performance. Pay your associates a salary but also have a variable performance bonus based upon billable hours collected or dollars collected. Keep the salary low enough that they are still hungry.
  8. Diversify the practice. Actively market to more companies and organizations that you can represent directly rather than representing strictly insurance companies. Consider big box companies as target clients. Get on their panels and bid lists. Consider expanding into civil liability defense work rather than doing just workers’ compensation. Many law firms in the Midwest do both.
  9. Some of our clients have found that a federal workers’ compensation practice is beneficial.

Here are links to two articles on defense firms that you might find interesting.

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


Jun 06, 2017

Law Firm Collections/Retainer Management – Using a Retainer Follow-up Report


I am the managing partner of a nine attorney general practice firm in the Chicago suburbs. We practice in the areas of estate planning/administration and family law. While our estate planning and uncontested family law work is done on a flat fee basis our estate administration and contested family law work is time billed. We collect initial retainers for these matters but we fail to insure that the retainers are replenished. We are having accounts receivable collection problems as a result. I would appreciate your thoughts.


This is a common problem that I see in firms doing estate administration and especially family law. The best way of managing your accounts receivable is to have less in outstanding accounts receivable in the first place. You do this by staying on top of your retainer balances compared to your work in process and ask the client for additional retainer before the work in process exceeds the retainer balance. In order to stay on top of retainer replenishment you need to develop what I call a retainer replenishment report and have someone assigned to reviewing the report daily and advising responsible attorneys to contact the client when work in process has hit a certain threshold (percentage of retainer used). Some firm’s present the report at a weekly attorney meeting and determinations are made regarding additional retainers to request. Other firms assign the responsibility to the firm administrator to automatically bill for the additional retainer. It is also important to insure that ongoing work is managed in a way that an excessive amount of work is not committed to a matter until the additional retainer replenishment is received.

A retainer replenishment report is not a standard report in many billing systems. You may have to create a custom report in your billing system using a report writer or in a worst case drop a accounts receivable report to an Excel file and add in some columns for the other information.

Here are the suggested data fields/columns for such a report:

Responsible attorney
Client/Matter name
Retainer Balance (typically this would be the balance in the trust account)
Unbilled WIP Fees
Unbilled Cost
Total Unbilled WIP
75% Retainer Threshold
Amount Over/Under Retainer
Additional Retainer Requested
Total Amount Retainer to Bill (Amount WIP over retainer plus additional retainer requested)

Many family law firms have advised me that after learning the hard way they are now doing a good job at this and advising me that they have minimal accounts receivable issues.

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





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