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May 25, 2022


Law Firm Succession – Equity Partnership – Process for Admitting Equity Partners

Question:

I and another partner are the owners of a seven lawyer family law practice in Chicago suburbs. We started the firm twenty years ago after leaving behind a partnership in another firm. Of the other five attorneys there are three non-equity partners and the rest are associates. I am sixty three years old and my other partner is sixty. Both of us are beginning to think about retirement and how we are going to transition out of the practice. Two of the non-equity partners are well seasoned attorneys, have major case responsibility, and bring in client business. We have discussed equity partnership vaguely with two non-equity partners but they have been non-committal. I would appreciate your thoughts and advice on what our next steps should be.

Response:

I believe that you have been two vague in your discussions. Your non-equity partners need to know what the deal is, what financial investment will be required, and what their expected return will be based upon the historical financial performance of the firm. It is hard for non-equity partners or associates to commit to equity and taking on the risk of ownership when they don’t know what the deal is. This is a scary proposition for them and they need detailed information so they can evaluate and make an informed decision. A vague discussion doesn’t cut it. I suggest that you put together an equity partnership proposal that includes:

  1. Profit and loss statements for past the five years.
  2. Balances sheets for the past five years.
  3. A current accounts receivable and unbilled work in process report.
  4. Tax returns for the past five years.
  5. Malpractice insurance application.
  6. Building and other leases.
  7. Proposed Partnership Agreement
  8. Proposed Equity Partner Compensation Plan
  9. Planned date of admission
  10. Governance and management plan
  11. Ownership percentage being offered
  12. Capital contribution or buy-in requirement
Meet and discuss the proposal with your candidates, allow sufficient time for candidates to discuss with their families and advisors, and set a timeline for their decisions. I think you will see a different reaction. If they still are unable to commit your may have to begin thinking about an external strategy and looking around for merger candidates.

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

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