Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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June 2018

Jun 20, 2018


Associate Attorney Compensation and Motivation

Question: 

Our firm is based in Springfield, Illinois. We have four partners and four associates. We are a general practice firm. All of our associates have been with the firm over ten years and each of them are receiving $100,000 base salaries plus discretionary bonuses. Our associates are excellent attorneys however none of them bring in any business  and their production numbers are low. Annual billable hours are below 1200 and working attorney fee collections are below $300,000. We have not given raises or bonuses for the last several years. We are losing money on some of our associates and not even covering our overhead alone making any profit from our associates. We are at a loss as what to do. Please share any thoughts or ideas that you might have.

Response: 

It would be interesting to know whether you set production goals such as billable hours or working attorney fee collection goals for your associates and if and how they are enforced. Billable hours should be in the range of 1600-1750 per year and fee collections should be $300,000+ for associates being paid $100,000 per year. It sounds like production goals either don’t exist or are not enforced.

I suggest that you look in to the cause or causes of your associates low production. Here are a few questions you should ask yourselves concerning the cause of your associates low production:

  1. Does the firm have enough work for the associates?
  2. Are the associates working enough hours? What is their work/billable hours ratio? Goal 70%.
  3. Are the associates clear as to their goals – billable hours/fee collections.
  4. Do associates have time management issues?
  5. Do associates have time keeping issues?
  6. Are there consequences for poor production?

I suggest that you meet with each of your associates, address the above questions, and determine what is going on. It could be one or all of the above. If the firm does not have enough work for the associates you need to determine if partners are delegating sufficient work, whether business is down at the firm (short-term vs long-term), and whether the firm may have too many associates for the work that is available. If there is simply not enough work, has not been enough work for some time, and it is projected that the firm’s workload will be the same for the foreseeable future the firm will need to consider eliminating an associate’s position or reducing the work hours, and compensation, of one or more associates. If the work is there and associates are just not working and putting in the hours you need to insure that goals and consequences for non-performance are in place – you might want to consider changes your compensation system. If associates are having problems with time management or timekeeping conduct some training sessions and coaching.

Some firms have changed their systems whereby associates are paid a base salary plus a bonus for billable hours or collected fees over a predetermined threshold. However, incentive bonus work better when salaries are kept low. Often when salaries reach $100,000 or more additional bonuses may not motivate attorneys that are not hungry for more, are comfortable, and their priority is work-life balance.

While you must get associate compensation right in order to acquire and retain top associate talent as well as reward performance and reinforce desired behaviors, the starting point is hiring and retaining the right people to begin with.

Research from a classic business study that was highlighted in the popular business book “Good to Great” (Collins, 2001) authored by Jim Collins found that the method of compensation was largely irrelevant as a causal variable for high and sustained levels of performance. Other research also bears out that performance and motivational alignment are impacted by intrinsic and other factors other than just extrinsic factors such as compensation or methods of compensation. Over the years I have seen too many partners leave lucrative situations in law firms to join other firms for less compensation or to start their own firms to suggest that it is only about the money or compensation package.

Your compensation system should not be designed to get the right behaviors from the wrong people, but to get the right people on the bus in the first place, and to keep them there. Your compensation system should support that effort.

James Cotterman, Altman & Weil, Inc., (Cotterman, 2004) contents that there are two groups of employees for whom compensation is not an effective management tool. The intrinsically motivated (6% to 16% of partners perhaps) do not need compensation as an incentive. The struggling performers (another 6% to 16%) will not react favorably to a compensation system that rewards positive behavior.

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

Jun 12, 2018


Law Firm Strategic Planning – Culture as an Essential Ingredient

Question: 

Our firm is a twelve attorney firm – eight partners and four associates in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm was founded by the present partners twenty years ago. We are an eat-what-you- kill firm – partners are allocated their fees, overhead is allocated, and their compensation is their individual profit. While we have a firm administrator that handles the day-to-day management of our operations, we have done a poor job of long-term management and planning. One of our partners has suggested that we develop a strategic plan. However, I believe this would be difficult for us given that we never meet, have different ideas of our future, have never been able to agree on any major decisions, and unwilling to be accountable to each other and have a general attitude of mistrust. I don not believe we even have a firm culture – in essence we are eight separate practices operating under the guise of a partnership. Your comments are most welcomed.

Response: 

It is very hard for partners in an eat-what-you-kill firm to come together and implement a strategic plan when the partners have no common values, goals, or objectives. Eat-what-you-kill firms more often than not have no culture at all. Three components that are linked, reinforce each other, and must be balanced are strategy, compensation, and culture.

Culture is the outcome of how people are related to each other in a law firm, thrives on cooperation and friendship, and defines the firm’s sense of community. Culture is the glue that holds a firm together and is built on shared interest and mutual obligation. A firm’s culture boosts a firm’s identity as one organization and prevents disintegration and decentralization. Without a common culture a firm lacks values, direction, and purpose.

You firm is a fragmented or confederation culture and as such will find it difficult to even get started on a strategic planning process unless you are willing to change. You might want to spend some time addressing the question of whether you want to continue operating as lone rangers or whether you want to become a firm-first law firm. This will require that the partners give up some independence and be accountable to each other.

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

Jun 06, 2018


Law Firm Succession Planning – Getting the Conversation Started

Question: 

Our firm is a seventeen attorney business law firm in Chicago. Our clients consists of mid-size companies and a few Fortune 500 companies. There are eight partners and nine associates in the firm. Four of the eight partners are in their early sixties and the other four partners are in their forties and fifties. The four senior partners are the founders of the firm. Consequently, we have not had to deal with succession of partners until now. While we realize that we need to be thinking about succession planning we have not made much headway. The senior partners are reluctant to discuss their retirement plans and timelines. We would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions.

Response:

Client transition, management transition, and talent replacement are the major succession planning issues for law firms. Such transitions take time, especially with clients such as yours, and law firms can not wait until a senior partner comes forward, announces his intentions, and gives his required notice. Law firms should begin having conversations with senior attorneys and begin transition planning five years prior to a partner’s actual retirement. Having these conversations can be difficult. Senior attorneys may not know their plans themselves and may not have even discussed this topic even with their family. In some cases there can be trust issues at the firm and in other situations the firm’s compensation system may be a barrier. Law firm management must force the issue by institutionalizing a transition program and requiring conversation and discussion at a certain age. Some firms have mandatory retirement and others have a five year phase-down requirement with a formal client and management, for those partners that have management roles, transition program. Personally, I prefer the phase-down requirement with an individual tailored transition plan over the phase-down period. I suggest that transition plans be tailored for each retiring partner and reflect partner, firm, and client perspectives. Use compensation to reward successful client transitions.

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

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