Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Career Management

« Earlier | Later »

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

 

Mar 04, 2014


Lawyer or Businessperson

Question:

I am an attorney in Miami. I have been out of law school for five years. I worked with a small firm for a year and then went solo and have been doing contract work for other law firms for the past four years. For the past year I have been trying to get a position as an associate with a small firm – but have not had any success. Recently, I had an interview with a 2 attorney (2 partners in their early 70s) firm and I thought the interview went well – I believe that I impressed them with my legal knowledge and skills. However, I did not get the position. They advised me that they were looking for less of a lawyer and more of a business person. What am I doing wrong?

Response:

I help many of our law firm clients hire lawyers for associate and lateral positions as well as search for merger candidates. One of my favorite questions is – are you more of a lawyer or a business man or woman. Small firms are more often than not looking for candidates that are both. In a small firm you must be able to bring in clients, manage people (clients, lawyers, and staff), and perform quality legal work. There are a lot of good lawyers available on the market – there are less good lawyers that are also good business persons.

I suspect that the firm you interviewed with is looking at this hire to be part of the firm's succession strategy and the partners are looking for a lawyer/business person that can carry the firm to the next generation of practice.

Next time you interview with a firm in a similar situation – blend in a discussion of business topics as well. Even though you are a solo doing contract work you can still share some business experiences. You have had to bill for your services, manage your receivable and payables, market yourself and your practice, etc. Share your thoughts.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

Aug 20, 2013


Law Firm Associate Performance Evaluations

Question:

I am the managing partner of an eight attorney firm in Central Illinois. We have five partners and three associates. Over the years we have experienced excessive associate turnover and have had problems retaining associates. While we believe that we provide adequate feedback to our associates regarding our expectations and their performance in real time and in their annual reviews several of my partners believe that we can do better. I would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions.

Response:

One of the most frequent complains I hear during interviews with associates in law firms of all sizes is lack of specific detailed feedback, unclear or non-existent expectations concerning their performance and future career progression, and vague informal performance reviews.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Institute a system where associates, especially when they are new, have a chance to work with all of the partners in the firm.
  2. As managing partner solicit feedback from your partners and meet monthly with each associate and discuss their performance during their first two years of employment with the firm.
  3. Annually conduct formal performance reviews with each associate. Before the review obtain specific feedback from each of the partners and have each partner complete a written review of each associate using the associate performance rating form. Ask each associate to conduct a self-evaluation using the firm's associate performance rating form and then conduct a detailed review with each associate. The review should be detailed and specific and should be developmental with specific goals and timelines established. Document the review in the associate performance rating form.
  4. Consider developing an associate career progression program (partnership track) and committing it to writing. The program should outline the timeline for first consideration for partnership, competencies and performance factors, what partnership means in your firm, how an associate becomes a partner, buy-in or capital contribution requirements, voting, etc.
  5. Be honest and open with your associates – don't try to be Santa Claus – tell them the truth, have the difficult discussions, and make the tough calls. Be accessible.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

 

 

Feb 24, 2013


Mentoring Law Firm Associates: Getting the Basics Right

Question:

I am the chair of our three member executive committee. We are a 20 attorney firm in Atlanta. We have 5 partners and 15 associates. We have done a terrible job of mentoring our associates and we need to do better. Do you have any ideas?

Response:

A law firm's greatest asset is its people and your associates are your firm's future. Lack of mentoring is one of the biggest complaints that we hear from associates in on-site interviews.While you may be too small for a comprehensive formal mentoring program you should at least explore an informal program. Start with baby steps and go from there. 

The keys to successful mentoring relationships involve the mentor and mentee deciding on the logistics up front. Many potential mentoring pairs fail to form because the parties did not agree
on the little things up front. Below are tips designed to help both participants in formal and informal programs:

1. Meeting schedule:  Decide on an approximate meeting schedule. Suggest that meetings be scheduled at least once a month.

2. Means to schedule meetings: Share the best way to get on each other’s calendar.

3. Scheduled meetings: Don’t wait until the end of one meeting to schedule the next. Always have the next two or three meetings on the calendar.

4. Length of program/partnership: For formal programs; the firm may suggest a length of time to meet (usually a year). For informal mentoring, suggest having a date on the calendar to review goals and examine the relationship.

5. Confidentiality: Mentors and Mentees need to discuss what confidentiality means to them. It is the foundation of trust, which is the basic currency of mentoring.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for articles on other topics

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

Oct 16, 2012


Maximizing Law Firm CLE Investments

Question:

We are a 18 attorney firm in Wheaton, Illinois. We have started the preparation of our budget for 2013 and are looking for ways to maximize the benefits from our CLE and other training and education investments. Any ideas?

Response:

Training and skill development is not easy. Studies reveal that 90 percent of the people who attend seminars and training sessions see no improvement because they don’t take the time to implement what they learn. Practices create habits and habits determine your future. Up to 90 percent of our normal behavior is based on habits. The key to skill learning is to get the new skill to become a habit. Once the new habit is well developed it becomes your new normal behavior. This requires practice. Unfortunately, law firms do not give employees time to practice and experiment.

Research on memory and retention shows that upon completion of a training session, there is a precipitous drop in retention during the first few hours after exposure to the new information. We forget more than 60 percent of the information in less than nine hours. After seven days only 10 percent of the material is retained. Most memory loss occurs very rapidly after learning new information. Your attorneys and staff can improve their memories by:

Skills become automated through practice. The more we perform a set of actions, the more likely we are to link those actions into a complete, fluid movement that we do not have to think about. With enough practice, employees can become fluent in many different physical and mental skills.

Provide your attorneys and staff with time to practice and experiment. Schedule lunch and learn programs. Provide ongoing training in small bite size chunks relevant to the needs of the firm in a just-in-time fashion.

Use it or lose it!

Click here for our blog on HR topics

Click here for our articles on other topics

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

Sep 26, 2012


Hiring Entrepreneurial Associates That Can Eventually Become Equity Owners or Partners in a Law Firm

Question:

We are a Toledo, Ohio law firm with ten attorneys. We have four partners – all of which are in their 60s and approaching retirement. While our six associates are great lawyers – none bring in business nor do any of them seem to really be interested in partnership. It seems that we hired a bunch of folks that just wanted jobs and have no interest in owning a law firm. I would be interested in your ideas and thoughts.

Response:

Years ago it seemed that all the associates working in law firms wanted to eventually become a partner in the law firm. This has changed as a result of the new mix of women and men graduating from law schools and entering the legal profession, changing attitudes toward work life balance, other opportunities outside law firms, and other variables. While partnership/ownership is still important to many – don't assume that all the associates that you hire 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.

A question that I would ask – have you really discussed with your associates their interests in equity ownership? As a group? Recently an associate, whom the firm had written off, advised me that while he was not interested now due to his present situation in life, he would be in maybe five years – especially if others also were brought in as well – in other words he did not want to have the responsibility alone and be an equity owner by himself.

I suggest that you talk with your people and see where they really stand. Help them to begin developing client development skills. Depending on you and the other partner's retirement timeline – 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 you hire. The desire for ownership of a business if often in a person's blood. Don't 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.

Click here for our blog on career management

Click here for our articles on other topics

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC 

 

Aug 08, 2012


Law Firm Owners and Partners – What is Your Primary Focus – Business Person or Lawyer?

Question:

I am an attorney in Chicago. I am the sole owner of an estate planning practice consisting of 4 other attorneys, 4 paralegals, and 2 administrative support staff members. We have reached a size where I am having problems handling and balancing the demands of serving my clients and managing my firm. It seems I am working day and night and have no time for anything but work. I am frustrated and it is driving my crazy? I would appreciate any thoughts that you may have.

Response:

You are not alone. This is a common problem in law and other professional service firms. I have similar problems in my own firm – it is very difficult to serve two masters – serving your clients and managing your firm. Eventually you have to pick one – client service (doing legal work) or managing and running your business – as the area that receives your primary focus. This is not to say that you should not do both – but you select the primary area that you are going to focus on and get help with the other area.

A question that I typically ask my new law firm clients – what do you want to be or do – be a business person or a lawyer. The answer to the question often provides a hint to how you should structure your firm. If you want to be more of a business person – hire legal talent to help with serving clients and performing legal work and spend more time working on your firm rather than in it. If you want to be more of a lawyer and do legal work and serve clients hire a legal administrator or business manager (this is more than an office manager) to manage and run your firm.

I have more and more owners of small law firms that are managing their law businesses and not practicing law. I believe the appropriate direction is what makes you happy and what type of work you enjoy doing. You practice should support and fulfill your personal goals, what you want out of life and what makes you happy. If that is managing – then manage. If that is doing legal work – do legal work.

Two great books on this subject are – The E-Myth Revisited and The E-Myth Attorney – available on Amazon. The theme of both of these books is:

Small business owners often spend too much time being the technician (i.e. lawyering) and not enough time managing and innovating.

Think about where you want place the priority of your focus – working on firm (business) or in it.

Click here for articles on other topics

Click here for our archive blog on strategies

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

Nov 17, 2010


Frustrations of a Law Firm Administrator

Question:

I am a law firm administrator with a 27 attorney firm in the southwest. This is my first law firm experience. I have been in my position for 8 months and am frustrated. Could you share your thoughts:

Response:

During the past decade the roles of legal administrators have expanded dramatically. Today legal administrators can be found in firms with less than ten attorneys. In larger firms, as well as many smaller firms, roles have shifted from day-to-day administration to firm wide leadership. A few large firm administrators are functioning as true CEOs. Large firm administrators are devoting more of their time and attention to strategic vs. administrative matters. Recent studies suggest that, in firms with more than 50 attorneys,there is an an uplifting of the role of principal administrators. Roles that have grown dramatically in recent years are strategic planning and practice management. Administrator’s roles in large law firms are no longer restricted to administrative matters. They are expanding and they include partner compensation, associate management, client and matter intake, lateral recruiting, and change management.

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

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 articles on other topics

Click here for our blog postings on partnership and governance

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

    Subscribe to our Blog