Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Career Management

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Oct 10, 2019


Finding and Training in a New Estate Planning Attorney

Question: 

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.

Response: 

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 www.indeed.com, ISBA.org 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

Sep 19, 2019


Do You Have “Stars” in Your Partner Ranks?

Question: 

Our firm is a second generation insurance defense firm in Bakersfield, California. We have fourteen lawyers, nine of which are partners. While all of the partners are great trial lawyers, work hard, and bill the required lawyers none of our partners are good at business development, leadership, or management. Our business comes from the client that we inherited. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Response: 

Successful law firms need at least a few star partners in their ranks.

“People are our most important asset” is a standard phrase heard in business. A more accurate and honest statement in many industries might be” competent people are a necessary component of our success.” However, as important as the company’s people are, they are somewhat expendable. The reason is simple. In most businesses the company’s competitive advantage does not rely on the retention, motivation, and behavior of particular individuals. Instead, it turns on shelf space, brand strength, core position, distribution systems, price, technology, product design, location, or any number of other variables that can exist apart from individuals who created the product or service. So except in the long term, most companies profit does not necessarily correlate with their people assets.

This is not the case for law firms. A law firm’s success depends not just on its people assets but on stars. Who are an organization’s stars? They are the individuals who have the highest future value to the organization, the men and women critical jobs whose performance is central to the company success. In a law firm, if a star leaves, the firm and its clients notice the difference. If enough stars leave the firm’s financial performance suffers. In a law firm, partners for significant clients, practice areas and offices are its stars.

In law firms stars are typically partners, but not all partners are stars nor are all stars partners. What  what makes them law from stars is that they propel the business model along all three of its dimensions – building and enduring client relationships, performing up to their full potential in putting the firm first, and implementing strategic imperatives. Because they are so accomplished other members of the firm emulate their behavior.

You need to either develop or eventually recruit a few star partners that have the leadership, management, and client development skills that help the firm grow or stagnation will develop over time. I have seen make practices such as yours limp through second generation and dissolve in third generation.

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

Aug 01, 2019


Care and Feeding Associate Attorneys

Question:

I am the owner of a law firm in Chicago suburbs that specializes in estate planning. I started the firm twelve years ago. Over the years the firm has grown from just myself as a solo to a firm with myself and six associate attorneys. Prior to starting the firm I worked in several other firms as an associate and as a partner. I felt I was not being compensated for my hard work so I started by own firm. I have always worked hard and in addition to managing the firm and bringing in all the clients I bill 1700 billable hours a year. My associates are a disappointment. They work the bare minimum, some are lazy, and none are even billing 1400 hours a year. Some are not even billing 1200 hours a year. I have tried bonus systems based on production of fees collected and they have had no effect. In my old firms this was not the case, everyone worked hard and was self motivated. I am at a loss and I don’t know how to motivate these associates. I would appreciate any thoughts that you have regarding what I should do?

Response: 

I suspect that you, as a founder, expect the same sort of work ethic and drive that you, as well as others, in your prior firms had over the years. Welcome you the new generation of workers and the era of work-life balance. This is not to say this generation of workers is lazy – their priorities in life are different and work is not the only priority in their lives as it may have been in yours. They may not also not have the drive and self motivation that you had and require direction. You can’t simply put them on autopilot – they require care and feeding in the form of:

Often a little care and feeding will go a long way to changing performance and often accomplishes more that formulaic bonus systems. Here is a prior blog on how to go about this. 

I agree that 1200 billable hours is unsatisfactory and you should be expecting 1600 for your type of practice.  Expectations need to be established, if they aren’t, and consequences for non-compliance. I think bonus systems such as yours are fine but often do not accomplish desired results without some care and feeding. If you are unwilling to do some care and feeding your other option is to fire your worst offenders and try to replace them with self-motivated associates that have a documented track record of performance. Getting the right people on the bus can be more productive than care and feeding beyond a certain point.

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

 

 

Jun 05, 2019


Law Firm Partnership Tiers – Different Qualifications For Equity and Non-Equity Partners

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a six lawyer firm in Nashville, Tennessee. There are two partners in the firm, myself and another partner, and we have four associate attorneys. Two of our associates have been with firm for over ten years. We are trying to put in place a career progression policy for them and we are thinking about having a non-equity and equity tier which would serve as a prerequisite to equity partnership. What are the differences between the expectations and requirements for non-equity and equity partner?

Response: 

The main difference between an equity partner and non-equity or income partner is that the equity partners assumes a higher degree of capability in a lot of areas, not just good lawyering. Equity partners are expected to develop business, to manage large client relationships, and to have a level of commitment that allows them to do all of that and maintain a very full practice load at the same time. Non-equity or income partners are generally lawyers that are excellent lawyers in his or her field but doesn’t satisfy the other requirements required of equity partners. In addition, equity partners usually invest capital in the firm and assume the risks of the office lease, credit line, and other liabilities. Non-equity partners usually have guaranteed salaries and equity partners do not.

Here are a few of the typical hurdles that are required to move up to equity partner:

The primary difference is non-equity partners focus is on lawyering and the focus of equity partners is on lawyering and being a businessperson as well – practicing law and managing a business.

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

 

Mar 14, 2018


Attorney Career Progression – Competency Model

Question: 

I am a member of a three member executive committee with our twelve-attorney firm in San Antonio, Texas. One of our responsibilities is oversight of our career development program for associates and non-equity partners. We  have been discussing our policy of admitting associates to non-equity partner and non-equity partners to equity partner. Presently, we do not have anything in writing regarding timeline for consideration or what qualifies one to move to the next level. Associates and non-equity partners are unhappy with the present process. They want more clarity concerning their career advancement within the firm. You advise would be helpful to us.

Response: 

Several of my clients are developing career advancement programs that incorporate a competency-based approach that  outlines specifically what is takes to be successful and advance from associate to non-equity partner and from non-equity partner to equity partner. Rather than leaving the formula for success in the minds of the equity partners, a competency model gives each attorney in the firm an understanding of how he or she will need to perform in order to be perceived as progressing, an ultimately, as successful. Competency models offer transparency and clarity. The model outlines specific behavioral observations as the primary source of performance information. Benefits are as follows:

Associates are presented with clear information on expectations for their level of experience and a road map of what is expected as they progress. Specific expectations are laid out for progression to non-equity partner as opposed to a specific timeline.

Non-equity partners are presented with clear information on expectations for their level of experience and a road map of what is expected as they progress. Specific expectations are laid out for progression to equity-partner as opposed to a specific timeline.

Equity partners and senior lawyers benefit from a consistent description of performance standards that allow them to access performance, assign work effectively, and offer more meaningful career guidance.

The firm has a consistent methodology for making and compensation decisions.

In order to work, a competency model should be integrated with attorney recruiting, performance evaluations, training, and compensation systems. Associates and partners must invest time in attorney development.

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

 

Dec 27, 2017


Associate Attorneys as a Succession/Exit Strategy

Question: 

Our firm is a Tucson, Arizona business litigation firm. We have four founding partners and four associates. The partners are in their late fifties and early sixties. All four of us are contemplating retirement in the next eight to ten years. We are assuming that our associates will be willing to step up and buy-out our interests. We have not had any discussions with our associates concerning this. Your thoughts will be appreciated.

Response: 

Do you have the right associates on the bus for the long term? In other words, has the firm hired associates that want to be business owners and own a law firm? Many owners and senior partners in law firms are approaching retirement age and are beginning to think about succession strategies. As they examine their associate lawyer ranks, some partners are often surprised to learn that there may be few takers. While their associates may be great lawyers, they may not bring in business or even be able to retain clients that the firm has. They may not be interested in ownership or partnership. Such firms have hired a bunch of folks that just wanted jobs and have no interest in owning a law firm. While this hiring approach may have satisfied the firm’s short-term needs – it may fall short in the long term.

While partnership/ownership is still important to many – do not assume that all your associates will even want to be equity partners – especially if it means a hefty capital contribution and signing personal guarantees for a large amount of firm debt.

I suggest that you talk with your people – individually and as a group – and see where they really stand. Help them to begin developing client development and business skills. Depending on you and the other partner’s retirement timelines – you may have to consider other options such as laterals or merging with another firm.

A key suggestion is to look for entrepreneurial associates when hiring future associates. The desire for ownership of a business is often in a person’s blood. Do not start the interview with a discussion from law school until the present. Dig deeper into hobbies, family, etc. that will provide clues as to whether you may be hiring someone that just wants a law job or someone that eventually wants to own or be a partner in a law firm.

The sooner you begin the better off you will be especially if several partners are close to the same age and looking to retire about the same time. Not only does it take years for associates to be groomed for management and client transition it can also take years for them to be able to pay for their ownership interest.

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

 

Nov 28, 2017


Business Development for New Associate Attorneys

Question: 

I am a partner in a fourteen attorney firm in Denver, Colorado. We have six equity partners and eight associate attorneys in the firm. Our practice is limited to health care law. We represent many of the local hospitals in the area. Our associates range from associates that have been with the firm less than a year to associates that have been with the firm for over fifteen years. None of our associates have developed business development skills and none of them have ever brought in a single client. Most of our associates would not even be able to retain our existing clients if the partners for one reason or another left the firm. This is in part our fault. When we hired them we told them that we had plenty of client work and their mission was to “bill hours” and service our clients. However, as we the partners age and consider the future of the firm we are beginning to realize that this was a mistake. How can we turn this around?

Response:

The earlier that attorneys start to build client development into their weekly routines, the easier it will be for them to bring in business later. Many successful rainmaking attorneys began their business development efforts early in their careers, usually during their first year or two as attorneys. This is a pattern that you want your attorneys to emulate. The firm should set expectations about the kind of effort the firm is looking for at each level in an attorney’s career. It should then support these expectations with appropriate training for each level. Training should begin as soon as an attorney is hired. During the initial firm new associate training session, provide an hour’s instruction on client development. That will help new associate hires realize that they will have to bring in business later in their careers and they can start building a foundation  for later business development efforts immediately. The quantity of education on client development should increase as an attorney advances within the firm. This should be reinforced by mentors assigned to associate attorneys.

When your associates reach the point in their careers when they should be bringing in business, the focus on business development needs to increase. Business goals should be developed and attorneys at this level should be required to prepare annual personal business development plans. These goals and plans should be linked performance reviews and to compensation.

It will take time to create this culture in your firm.  It may be too late for some. I would announce that it is a new day, launch a program, and stay on top of it.

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

 

Aug 02, 2017


Associate Attorney Career Track in a Small Law Firm

Question: 

I am the owner of a five-attorney estate planning practice in Denver. I have four associate attorneys of which three have been with the firm for over twelve years. Last year an associate that had been with me for many years left the firm and started his own practice. I thought I was paying him well by virtue of a competitive salary and discretionary bonus in additional to other benefits. I do not want to lose other seasoned attorneys. What should I do to provide more incentives for them to stay with the firm?

Response: 

Our experience as well as research over the years by our firm and others has demonstrated that the following, in priority order, are the key drivers of associate attorney job satisfaction:

  1. Satisfaction with immediate manager or supervisor
  2. Opportunities for training
  3. Satisfaction with team and coworkers
  4. Opportunities for career growth
  5. Compensation
  6. Opportunities for promotion

While compensation often is considered the primary factor related to associate satisfaction, I often find that opportunities for career growth and promotion play a significant role. Associates do leave law firms for less money for career growth and promotion opportunities in other firms or in some cases starting their own firm.

A key tool that law firm’s should be using for managing attorneys is a well-defined career path/track. The critical components of a career track include well-defined levels, roles and responsibilities at each level, promotion criteria, and compensation plans for each level. Typically these are outlined and documents in a career advancement program policy document. For example:

  1. Levels. Each attorney level within the firm (partner, non-Equity partner, principal, senior associate, associate) should carry a specific and clear title.
  2. Roles and Responsibilities. For each level, the typical roles and responsibilities should be clearly documented including client service work as well as business development and administrative responsibilities.
  3. Promotion Criteria. For each level in the firm, the criteria for promotion to that level should be outlined in the career track or career advancement program policy document. These criteria are often tied to competencies (knowledge, capabilities, and experience of the attorney), tenure as well as other factors.
  4. Compensation. A compensation plan should be developed for each level. (salary, bonus, benefits, and other perks)

I suggest that you give some thought to developing such a program. As you start with levels you will have to do some soul searching and confront the most burning issue – is partnership an option for associates in your firm – do I want partners –  and go from there.

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

 

 

 

 

Mar 21, 2017


Retaining Valued Associate Attorneys – Conducting Exit Interviews

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen attorney law firm in San Diego, California. We handle business transactions and litigation for business firms in the area. I am a member of the firm’s three-member executive committee. We have been experiencing associate attorney turnover for the past two years and don’t know whether it is due to more opportunities in the job market as the economy has improved or whether we have internal issues. We would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Response:

I suggest that in the future you conduct structured face-to-face exit interviews when associates resign their positions. You may want to even interview associates by phone that recently resigned and left the firm. Exit interviews can provide an opportunity to find out how you can retain your valued associates. Departing lawyers that are willing to be open regarding their experience with your firm can provide valuable feedback and information as to how your firm is viewed by your associates, why your associates are leaving, and what the firm can do to resolve issues and improve retention.

I suggest that you conduct either face-to-face or telephone interviews or as a last resort written confidential voluntary questionnaire. Questions might include:

  1. What influenced your decision to join the firm?
  2. Has the firm met your expectations? Describe?
  3. Were your work assignments aligned with your personal and professional goals and interests?
  4. Did you find your work assignments interesting and challenging?
  5. Were there particular individuals who had a substantial impact on the quality of your experience here? How did they impact your experience?
  6. Did you receive timely and quality feedback regarding your performance?
  7. What experiences did you find the most positive?
  8. Least positive?
  9. Is there anything that the firm could have done to improve your experience here?
  10. Were you satisfied with your compensation and benefits?
  11. Why did you decide to leave the firm?
  12. What factors influenced your choice of the new firm that you joined?
  13. Other issues or recommendations that you feel would be helpful for the firm to know.

After you have solicited feedback via exit interviews it is critical that you look into any issues reported, determine whether there is merit, and take appropriate actions that can be taken to resolve issues and improve retention.

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

Feb 21, 2017


Law Firm Equity Partnership/Admission Requirements

Question: 

Our firm is a sixteen-attorney business law firm in Cleveland, Ohio – six equity partners and ten associates. We the equity partners have been discussing putting in place an associate attorney career advancement program and outlining equity partner admission requirements. Can you share your thoughts on what we should be considering and how we should get started.

Response: 

You might want to consider developing a competency model. Rather than using a timeline – how long an associate has been with the firm – base career advancement to senior associate, non-equity partner, and equity partner upon achievement of competencies at various levels. These include:

Examples of core competencies might be legal excellence, client orientation, leadership, career commitment, etc.

In addition to competencies typically required to be  a Level Three attorney equity membership has additional requirements and obligations. For example:

  1. Equity owners will be sharing in the risk and reward of ownership and will invest their time and capital in the firm. They will have a firm-first orientation and they will share the vision and core values of other equity owners in the firm.
  2. Equity owners must add value to the firm. They must not just be good worker bees – they must pay for themselves, cover their cost and their share of the firm overhead, and generate enough work to keep other attorneys busy.
  3. Equity owners must be client finder, minders, and grinders.
  4. Equity owners must act like owners of small businesses.
  5. Equity owners must contribute to management and marketing of the firm.
  6. Equity owners must mentor younger attorneys.
  7. Equity owners must follow firm policies, system, and procedures – no lone rangers.
  8. Equity owners should contribute capital and sign for the office lease, firm credit line, and share in other financial obligations of the firm.
  9. Finally, future equity owners must be good marriage partners considering the other equity partners in the firm.

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

 

 

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