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October 2019

Oct 31, 2019

Law Firm Financial Management – Creating a Budget the First Time


I am the firm administrator for an eight attorney firm in Nashville, Tennessee. I started this position approximately six weeks ago. While I have worked in the legal field for many years as a paralegal, this is my first position as a legal administrator. I have done bookkeeping for several firms over the years. The firm has never had a budget and has asked me to prepare one for the upcoming year. I am not sure where or how to start. Any help or ideas that you may have would be appreciated.


You will want to consider two budgets. The first will be an operating budget which is a revenue and expense budget that will contain the income and expense accounts that are listed in a profit and loss or income statement. The second will be a capital budget which will be a budget for capital expenditures that are typically listed as assets on a balance sheet such as furniture and equipment.

Here is a process that you might want to use.

Operating Budget 

  1. Print out a general ledger chart of accounts list and profit and loss statement
  2. Using the chart of accounts list (income and expense accounts only) setup an Excel spreadsheet with the following columns.
    1. Account Number
    2. Account Name
    3. Prior year actual year to date
    4. Proposed upcoming year budget
    5. Final upcoming year budget
    6. Planning notes
  3. Account number and account name columns. List all of the accounts from the profit and loss statement in the account number and account name columns.
  4. Prior year actual year to date column. Enter figures for the prior year in the prior year actual year to date column for revenue/income and expenses.
  5. Proposed upcoming year budget. Start with revenue. However, in the budget worksheet have a revenue account for each revenue producer (attorney and paralegal) – not necessarily in the general ledger but on your budget worksheet and project their billable hours/collections expected. If you are a contingency fee practice this will require an analysis of the cases in process and estimated case outcomes and timing. This is a good place to get commitment and establish realistic revenue goals for the year. You may want to have a discussion concerning this in a firm meeting. I believe that the revenue goals are the most important part of the budget and where most firms need to focus.
  6. Proposed upcoming year budget. Enter proposed expenses. You can start by examining last year’s actual figures. Give consideration to any growth (typically lawyer and staff headcount) for the upcoming year and any anticipated changes in expenses. Develop a payroll spreadsheet listing each attorney and staff members receiving W-2 pages, their compensation last year, a anticipated salary and bonus for the upcoming year, with columns for calculation of appropriate payroll taxes. Anticipate new hires during the year. Then enter in to the proposed upcoming year account columns.
  7. Planning notes. As you develop the budget note your assumptions, etc. in the planning notes section.
  8. Submit for discussion and approval. Submit the budget worksheet to your managing partner, executive committee, partnership, etc. for discussion and approval.
  9. Enter approved budget in the Final Upcoming Year Budget Column. 
  10. Enter approved budget in to the General Ledger System, QuickBooks, etc. You can now enter the approved budget into your accounting system and simply include budget on your profit or loss statement for systems that provide this function or in QuickBooks print a Budget v Actual Report with your monthly reports. When you enter the approved budget into your system you can take the quick and dirty way and enter the annual amount for each account and have the system allocate the budget equally to each month or you can allocate to each month when you anticipate the expense – for example an insurance premium for the entire year might be allocated to the specific month when the policy will come up for renewal rather than equally to each month.

Capital Budget

This is often just a simple list in a spreadsheet and manually tracked. Many of the general ledger systems only allow budgets for income and expense accounts.

Good luck with your project.

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



Oct 23, 2019

Associate Attorney Compensation – Incentives Beyond Billable Hours and Working Attorney Collections


I am the owner of a five attorney firm, myself and four associates, in Bakersfield, California. While we are a general practice firm, much of our practice is focused on commercial real estate, estate planning/probate, and corporate/business law. All of the associates have been with the firm over five years. The associates are paid a salary plus a bonus based upon their individual working attorney collections that exceed a quarterly threshold. While there have not been any complaints with this system I am not sure that it is the best system and that I am providing the right set of incentives. I would appreciate your thoughts and any ideas that you may have.


Many firms use a system such as your system. However, other firms add more factors into the equation. A system that focuses on billable hours or individual working attorney fee collections often creates a firm of lone ranger attorneys that:

You might want to consider additing a component that recognizes delegation to paralegals and other attorneys (responsible attorney collections) and client origination (originating attorney collections). Some firms rather than rewarding client origination directly pay a bonus for handling new client intakes and successfully closing new business in the form of a flat dollar bonus after designated thresholds. You could also pay flat dollar bonuses for contribution to firm and business development – not time or activity – but for specific results such a having articles published, implementing a document assembly system, or writing a procedures manual. If you wish to avoid a formula approach simply use a discretionary bonus to reward firm these other factors and firm contributions. However, be clear about the factors that are be rewarded and the importance/weight of each.

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


Oct 10, 2019

Finding and Training in a New Estate Planning Attorney


I am the owner of an estate planning firm in the Western Chicago suburbs. My practice is a specialized practice that focuses on estate planning, estate administration, estate litigation, and elder law. While I was a solo practitioner for many years approximately four years ago I brought in an associate that had three or four years experience with an other estate planning firm. Unfortunately, he just gave me his notice and advised that he was leaving to join another firm. We have too much work for me to handle by myself and I am going to need another attorney with estate planning experience. How do I go about finding this person. Any suggestions that you have will be appreciated.


I have assisted several of my Chicagoland estate planning law firm clients as well as clients in other parts of the country and I can tell you that experienced estate planning/administration and elder law attorneys are like gold and hard to find. This was even the case during the 2008 recession when recent law school graduates and experienced attorneys with other skill sets were having difficult times finding jobs. Now, with the current job market, finding experienced estate planning/administration and elder law attorneys is even more difficult. Many of these attorneys tend to work in small firms, are loyal to their firms, and less mobile. They tend to stay put and often remain with one law firm for their entire careers.

I would start your search for an experienced attorney by:

  1. Putting the word out through your professional network. Ask around.
  2. Prepare an ad for the position
  3. Post the ad with, Career Center, LinkedIn, local suburban bar associations, and local law schools.
  4. Have resumes come to you electronically.
  5. After initially reviewing resumes and narrowing down to candidates of interest use a telephone interview as your first interview and face to face for a subsequent interview if appropriate.

If after thirty days or so you are having no luck you might have to consider using a local headhunter or simply looking for a recent law graduate and investing the time to train a new attorney.  Several of my estate planning/administration and elder law clients are having to hire new law graduates and train them. Many have been quite satisfied with the results and now believe it is the best way to go. Recent law graduates start with a clean slate and do not bring in any baggage or bad practices or habits picked up in other law firms. They are often more loyal and stay with the firm longer.

A few suggestions concerning recent law school graduates:

  1. Look for candidates that took elective courses in estates/trusts/elder law.
  2. Look for candidates that had meaningful clerking experience with law firms specializing in estate planning/administration and elder law. Not running errands but meaningful experience.
  3. Develop a comprehensive training plan with specific timelines designed to get the attorney billable and productive as soon as possible in easier forms of work (possibly guardianship) and then gradually move the attorney into simple estate plans and more complex areas over time.
  4. Be patient – the process will take time – consider it an investment.
  5. It will take time for you to make money from the new associate. Be happy if you cover the cost of the associate in the first year.

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

Oct 03, 2019

How to Handle the Messaging and Public Relations When a Law Firm Partner Leaves


Our firm is a twelve attorney litigation defense firm in Phoenix, Arizona. We have eight partners in the firm and I am a member of our executive committee. Yesterday at a partner meeting we were advised by four partners that they were leaving, would be starting a new law firm, and would be taking several key clients that they handle with them. A couple of associates and staff members will be going with them. What do we tell people and how do we go about it? You suggestions are most welcomed.


My first suggestion is to move very quickly otherwise the rumor mill will get started and rumors will get ahead of you. You must get in front of the message to all audiences. The remaining and the departing partners should meet immediately, come to terms and agreement with the message, and be prepared to answer the following questions:

  1. Who is leaving
  2. Why following
  3. Whether the relationship is contentious or amicable
  4. How the departure is going to effect clients
  5. Whether the departing partners are named partners
  6. Future name of both firms
  7. Where the two firms will be located
  8. Contact information

I further suggest that you:

  1. Plan and advance and drill
  2. Identify your audiences and appropriate messages for each
    1. Clients
    2. Employees
    3. Legal community
    4. General public community
  3. List anticipated questions that your audiences will have
  4. White out the answers to the questions
  5. Write out the message for each audience
  6. Designate a single spokesperson to respond to the press and others so that messaging remains consistent from firm management.
  7. Identity clear lines of authority.
  8. Ensure that you follow the rules of professional responsibility in regarding client communications.

Situations such as this can be very stressful for all concerned. Try not to let your personal feelings cloud your vision and get in the way of a properly planned transition. There will be a lot of work to be done on the part of the remaining partners and departing partners. A well designed project plan will be helpful in managing all the tasks that will have to be handled and managed. The public relations should be at the top of the list.

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

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