I started my firm as a solo nine ago in New Orleans. My practice focuses on maritime defense litigation. Over the years I have added associates and currently I have six associates working for me. I am overwhelmed with work – from the legal work that I am doing in addition to the business development and firm administration. My thought is that I should consider restructuring the firm by making some of my associates partners so I can offload and share some of the administrative responsibilities. I would like your thoughts. What are other firms in my situation doing.
Years ago when I started in this business there were solo practitioners and there were multi-attorney firms that were partnerships. There were not many multi-attorney firms that were what I call sole owner firms – firms will many attorneys and just one owner. This has changed. More and more attorneys don’t want to be in partnerships with other attorneys. Sometimes this is a result of bad experiences in other partnerships. In other cases they simply want to go it alone. Also, more and more associates don’t want to take on the stress and financial obligations of partnership – they simply want a job that provides them with a decent income with work life balance. I have law firm clients with sole owners, fifteen to twenty attorneys, and fifty to seventy staff employees. These firm owners have hired firm administrators, marketing managers, and other such talent to offload the administration. While these firm owners have been enjoying the fruits of sole ownership eventually they will have to reevaluate their situation when they begin planning their succession and exit strategies.
I think you have to ask yourself the following questions:
Give this some more thought – don’t just make partners to have partners or to have someone to handle administration.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am the owner of a six-attorney litigation firm in San Francisco Bay area. I am sixty and starting to give though to gradually transferring my interest to associates in the firm. I have heard other attorneys mention that I should get some goodwill out of my practice. I would appreciate your thoughts.
Many law firm owners prefer to leave a legacy and keep the firm “within the family” and transition the firm to non-equity partners or associates in the firm at a discounted value and buy-in as an incentive to stay on with the firm and a reward for their years of dedication to the firm.
Some law firms – typically second generation or later firms – allow non-equity partners or associates to become equity owners with no buy-in whatsoever. The thought being that the real assets of the firm are its talent – its people and the firm’s priority is to retain and keep the best talent that it can. These firms also do not have hefty buy-outs for partners or shareholders leaving the firm other than possibly the initial founders of the firm. Over the years, such firms fund retirement through 401ks, profit sharing plans, and other mechanisms. When partners or shareholders leave the firm, they get their cash-based capital account, or share of retained earnings and their share of current year earnings.
A “founders benefit” is sometimes put in place for firm founders in which they may be paid a share of the accrual-based capital or retained earnings – WIP and A/R. They may also be paid a goodwill value as well either in the form of a multiple of earnings or a specific sum based upon a multiple of gross revenue.
The problem in many firms is that associates are still paying off student loan debts and they don’t have cash available to purchase the owners interests. As a result, if you don’t start early, the cash often has to come from future cash flows that are available after the owner leaves the firm from the compensation that the owner is no longer receiving.
You need to start early, get people committed and start selling affordable minority shares years before you retire so you can get at least half of your ownership interest paid for before you leave the firm and the other half paid out over a five-year time period.
Wait too long and your associates may feel they can just wait you out and inherit your clients without having to pay you anything.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am the owner of a real estate practice in Rockford, Illinois. I have two offices – one in Rockford and the other in Chicago. I started my practice twenty years ago and have had my associate for the past five years. He works in the Chicago office and I work in the Rockford office. Prior to this associate I had two other associates that did not work out. My present associate has fourteen years’ experience and worked in three other law firms prior to joining my firm. While he has been with me for five years I am not happy with his performance. The legal assistant that works with him has advised me that he often does not come in the office until ten and often leaves in the middle of the day. Clients have complained that he does not return phone calls or emails. His production is low – his annual billable hours have never been above 1200 hours. I am paying him a salary of $98,000. I have had numerous conversations with him about these issues to no avail. Frankly, I am sick of it – I don’t trust him and things need to change. What should be my next step?
I find that often owners of law firms and partners in multi-partner firms when dealing with associates often fail to really lay their cards on the table when counselling associates. They beat around the bush and fail to lay out expectations and consequences for non-compliance.
As owner 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 him 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 he must resolve the performance or behavioral issue in order to keep his job tell him so. He may need this level of confrontation in order to give him the strength to be able to deal with his issues.
Being a wimp does not help you or him. Tell him like it is and conduct a heart-to-heart discussion. You will be glad you did.
I would set a timeline for his performance improvement – say 60 or 90 days with weekly coaching follow-up meetings. Document these meetings. If he does not meet your expectations by the timeline you should terminate his employment and look for a replacement.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC