Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Career Management

« Earlier

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.

Click here for our blog on marketing

Click here for articles on other topics

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.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for articles on other topics

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.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for our blog on human resources

Click here for articles on other topics

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.

Click her for our blog on partnership matters

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

 

Jun 22, 2016


Law Firm Associate Satisfaction and Retention

Question:

I am the owner of a twenty attorney litigation firm in Seattle. The nineteen associates are all in the same tier or category and are paid a salary plus bonus. Their time with the firm ranges from one to fifteen years. I enjoy sole ownership but I realize that to continue to grow and prosper I must make some changes. I have recently lost several associates that I would have liked to have stayed with the firm. I am also getting stressed having all of the management responsibility since I currently make all of the decisions. Several associates have told me that the morale is low. I welcome your thoughts.

Response:

Compensation and benefits is one determinant as to whether associates are satisfied with employment at a firm. However, compensation and benefits is not enough to motivate and retain top performers. Law firms must help their associates invest in their careers and motivate and help them develop competencies and skills to enhance their productivity. With the downsizing, push for 2000+ annual billable hour push, etc., associates are skeptical about their futures and feel they have no power or ability to influence their careers. Associates want:

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Share more information about the firm where you can – its plans for the future, where it is heading, it's strategic plan, etc.
  2. Improve and open up communications with associates.
  3. If there are other tiers such as senior associate, non-equity partner, equity partner – prepare and share with your associates documents that outline what it means to be a member in each tier and what performance and other factors are required to advance to each tier.
  4. Improve your review process and incorporate goal setting with each associate.
  5. Consider a management advisory committee or other committees where associates can participate in firm management.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for articles on other topics

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

May 31, 2016


Law Firm Succession – Transitioning Clients to the Next Generation

Question:

I am a member of a three-member executive committee for a 34 lawyer firm in Austin, Texas. We have been in practice for over one hundred years. While we have had partners retire in the past with no issues we are now facing a situation where seven partners are approaching retirement at the same time and each of them controls significant books of business. What can the firm do to ensure that retiring partners properly transition their clients so the firm can continue to flourish after the partners are no longer here? We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

This is problem that many law firms are facing as baby boomers approach retirement. Rather than one or two partners coming up for retirement many firms are experiencing a "bunching of retirees" all at the same time. This can have a significant impact upon cash flow planning, client development, and attorney talent management.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Access your lawyer talent pool to insure that you have people in place that can service the needs of the retiring partner's clients. If your talent pool is insufficient develop a strategy (lateral recruitment, merger, etc.) and develop a plan for locating lateral/merger opportunities.
  2. If the firm does not have a plan for dealing with the upcoming partners retirements and the transition of their clients write a client transition plan and commence its implementation. The plan should include an action plan that is structured like a project plan with beginning and ending dates, specific times, and individuals assigned to specific tasks. The plan should serve to keep things moving over a three to five year transition time period.
  3. Your committee should be communicating with your partners approaching retirement, talking with them about their goals and timelines concerning retirement, and getting them to commit to a date certain even if it is many years into the future.
  4. The compensation should include incentives that encourages retiring partners to transition rather than hoard clients.
  5. Determine a shortlist of who in the firm should take over clients.
  6. Begin client introductions to successor attorneys early. Go deep with relationship building – not just a simple introduction. Your committee and the retiring partners should monitor and follow-up with successors to insure that they are developing relationships with these clients.
  7. Assign co-responsible attorneys to all matters that a retiring partner is assigned.

There are a lot of other ideas that you can explore. The key point is to communicate with your senior partners, get them thinking about retirement rather than pushing it under the rug so there is a three to five year transition period, and start early. I have seen too many situations where a partners walks in and announces that he wants to retire in the sixty days, six months, or one year. This is not enough time if the firm wants to retain retiring partner's books of business.

Click here for our blog on succession

Click here for out articles on various management topics

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

 

Nov 03, 2015


Law Firm Administrator – New and Struggling

Question:

I am a new administrator in a 17 attorney law firm in the greater Boston area. I am the firm's first administrator and this is the first law firm that I have worked for as a firm administrator. I been on the job for six months and I am struggling. I don't know whether I am living up to the expectations of the partners and I feel like I am lost. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

While administrators have made great strides in terms of role and acceptance during the past decade, administrators in firms of all sizes still remain frustrated with:

– Poor, slow, and ineffective decision making
– Ineffective firm leadership and governance
– Internal politics and infighting
– Micromanaging
– Management by committee
– Lack of influence and ability to effect change

Being the first administrator for a law firm is tough. In additional to proving yourself to your partners you will have the additional task of justifying the position itself. After a few months when the honeymoon is over some partners will start questioning whether the position is necessary and worth the expense. Don't assume that the partners really thought through what their expectations were for the position prior to hiring you. Don't wait for them to manage you – you must take a proactive role – initiate discussions regarding expectations and identify priorities, projects, etc. Look for low hanging fruit when you can enhance revenue or reduce costs in the short term and track any results achieved.

Few things are as important to an administrator’s future as that person’s ability to influence the decision-making process and effect change.  Skills and competencies are important but so are results. In order to transcend to the next level and enhance their value to their law firms, administrators must help their firms actually effect positive changes and improvements and improve performance. This requires selling ideas to partners in the firm and having them accept and actually implemented. To succeed administrators must achieve three outcomes:

- Provide new solutions or methods
– The firm must achieve measurable improvement in its results by adopting the solutions
– The firm must be able to sustain the improvements over time.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

 

Aug 04, 2015


Law Firm Associate Attorney Performance

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 8 attorney general practice firm in Chicago western suburbs. We have 5 partners and three associates. For years it was just the five partners all who started the firm together. In the last three years we added our associates. We are not making money from our associates and wondering what we need to be doing differently. One associates is logging 925 billable hours, one is logging 1200 billable hours, and the other 1400 billable hours. You thoughts are welcomed.

Response:

If these are full time associate positions and they have been with your firm a couple of years you should be getting 1600 – 1700 billable hours per year. If your firm does litigation – 1800+ billable hours. Some practice areas such as estate planning/elder law – range in the 1500-1600 hour area.

The starting place is setting expectations. During interviews with associate attorneys at client law firms I ask – what is your billable hour goal/expectation, etc. Frequently I am told that they have no idea or they tell me that they think that the expectation is such and such. Other times they advise me that the firm simply does not have a billable hour expectation. Of course the partners tell a different story and can't believe that their associates are not clear on billable hour expectations. 

Some firms put in place auto pilot type incentive bonuses based upon hours or dollars and believe that these bonuses in themselves will motivate performance and as a result billable hour expectations are not needed. Often this is simply not the case.

I believe that baseline expectations should be spelled out and measured monthly. These baseline expectations are the minimal requirement to remain employed and justify the base salary that the associate is being paid. If these baseline expectations are not been met, you must had some heart-to -heart discussions in real time. Outline the problem and consequences for non-compliance. 

The billable hours your associates are logging just won't cut it. If the work is there they simply must get their hours up to desirable levels. You might look into the reasons for the low hours – work ethic, time management issues, or problems with timekeeping. If there is not enough work – long term – you may have to consider reducing the work hours that you are paying for.

It sounds like you may not be adequately mentoring or training your associates. Consider performance reviews and active mentoring and coaching. Insure that you are providing adequate feedback to your associates. Your time investment in the short term will pay dividends in the long term. 

 

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

Nov 18, 2014


Law Firm Administrators – Effecting Change by Selling Your Ideas to Your Partners

Question:

I am the firm administrator with a 27 attorney firm in Detroit. We have fifteen partners and twelve associates. I have been eight months with the firm and in this position. I replaced another administrator who was terminated because the partners did not believe he lived up to their expectations. He was their firm administrator. This is my first law firm and I want to be successful. I feel that I am struggling and am not sure of my priorities. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Few things are as important to an administrator’s future as that person’s ability to influence the decision-making process and effect change.  Skills and competencies are important but so are results. In order to transcend to the next level and enhance their value to their law firms, administrators must help their firms actually effect positive changes and improvements and improve performance. This requires selling ideas to partners in the firm and having them accept and actually implemented. To succeed administrators must achieve three outcomes:

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

 

Apr 29, 2014


Law Firm Associate Training and Mentoring – Ideas for Reducing Spin Time and Increasing Profitability

Question:

We are a three attorney personal injury plaintiff firm in Moline, Illinois. There are two partners and one associate in the firm. We handle a large volume of small PI files – currently we have 700+ open files handled by three attorneys and 5 assistants. We recently hired our fourth attorney – second associate – that came to us with 20 year's experience as an associate in several large firms (100 plus attorney firms). The attorney, who has been with us for about 8 weeks, has never handled personal injury cases and is having some problems getting organized. Do you have any suggestions?

Response:

I am a believer that time invested in orientation, training, and mentoring upfront can dramatically reduce a new associate's spin time, help them get online quicker, and improve overall profitability. Even though your associate has 20 year's experience in a large law firm – the work and the case management challenges are different. The associate may never have had overall management responsibility for cases or client relationships. The associate may have been assigned tasks to be completed with the partner having the case and client management responsibility. If the attorney did manage cases there is a major difference between managing say 25-50 large cases versus managing 150 small cases. There are new case management and client management skill sets and practices that will have to be developed and practiced in addition to the new area of law.

Invest time training and mentoring and share case and client management tools that can help your associate get off to a faster start.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

    Subscribe to our Blog
    Email *