Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Compensation

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Oct 10, 2018


Law Firm Merger as an Exit Strategy for Sole Owners

Question: 

I am the owner of a small general practice firm in Novato, California. I have three associates working in the firm, three legal assistants, and one office manager/bookkeeper. I started my practice thirty-five years ago right out of law school. I am sixty years old and wanting to retire within the next five years. None of my associates have the ability or the desire to take over the firm. I believe that my best option is to sell my practice to another practitioner or join another firm through merger or other arrangement. I would appreciate your ideas regarding merging with another firm and how I would be compensated and receive payment for the goodwill value of my firm.

Response: 

Merger or an of counsel arrangement are approaches that many sole owner firms are taking when there is no one on board that is capable or willing to buyout your interest. Often merger or of counsel arrangements look very similar in how they are structured. Typically, the owner joining another firm:

Employees that the new firm has accepted would join the new firm and receive compensation and benefits spelled out in the merger or Of Counsel agreement.

How the arrangement will be structured and how compensation/buy-out will be structured will depend upon the size of the other firm. I assume that you will be looking at a firm similar to your size or a little larger (1-20 attorneys). If this is the case and if the arrangement is structured as a merger you would more than likely be classified as a non-equity partner and not an equity partner. While the other firm could pay you in the same manner that other non-equity partners are paid, often a special compensation arrangement is developed where you are paid a percentage of your collections and if you are lucky a referral fee arrangement for your client origination’s for two or three years after your retirement – typically twenty percent. In many cases if will be difficult to get a goodwill value payment and impossible in mergers or Of Counsel arrangements with large firms.

Another option would be an outright sale to another sole owner or small firm for a fixed price for the goodwill value of your firm and any assets the firm desires to acquire. More than likely this would be with an initial down payment and payments over a three to five-year period. Typically, practice sale agreements have provisions whereby the purchase price can be reduced if revenues fall below a certain level.

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

Sep 26, 2018


Associate Attorney Compensation – Five Approaches

Question: 

I am the owner of a six-attorney firm in the western suburbs of Chicago. There are five full-time associate attorneys working with the firm. Two have been with the firm over fifteen years, two over ten years, and one seven years. All are being paid salaries in excess of $100,000 per year and none are even close to generating $300,000 or more in working attorney fee collections per year. Their billable hours are dismal as well. While I have a 1200 annual billable hour expectation none are meeting that expectation. My income is suffering as a result. In addition to salaries they sometimes receive a discretionary bonus. I am at my wits end. What are your thoughts?

Response: 

First of all I think that a 1200 annual billable hour expectation is too low and should be more like 1600 annual billable hours. For years the national average annual billable hours reported in surveys has been 1750 and this was the expectation for many firms for many years and still is for many firms. In the past few years, due to lack of work and other factors, some firms have lowered the annual expectation minimum to 1600. Litigation firms, especially insurance defense firms, currently have minimal expectations ranging from 1800 to 2000 hours. Firms that represent individual clients such as general practice firms, family law firms, and estate planning/administration firms currently have minimal expectations ranging from 1400-1600.

It looks like you are not enforcing the 1200 annual billable hour expectation that you have. However, you need to look into your situation and determine the reasons. It could be that they are not putting in the work because the firm does not have enough work for them to do. Look into the following possible causes of their low billable hours and take corrective action:

An approach that many firms are taking is to incorporate performance bonuses such as the following to motivate additional production. Usually these are on top of a base salary. Here are some examples:

  1. Base salary plus 5% of base salary if the billable hour expectation of 1600 is attained, discretionary bonus, and a 15% client origination bonus for bringing a client to the firm. The bonus is for the first year only.
  2. Base salary plus $50.00 per billable hour actually billed to clients that exceeds 1750 annual billable hours. 10% bonus on the collected revenue from other timekeepers that work is delegated to.
  3. Base salary plus 20% bonus for collected working attorney fees in excess of three times salary during the year. For example, an associate that is paid $100,000 would have an working attorney collection expectation of $300,000. If the associate had collections of $400,000 he or she would receive a bonus of $20,000. The associate also is entitled to receive a client origination bonus of 10% for business brought to the firm.
  4. Base salary, 1200 annual billable hour minimum expectation, quarterly production bonus of 40% of working attorney collected fees less salary paid for the quarter, and 20% client origination bonus for work done by others in the firm.
  5. Base salary plus 1/3 of hourly billing rate for hours billed to clients that exceed 1800 annual hours billed to clients.

Some firms have lowered base salaries when incorporating new performance bonus systems when the current expectation is far below expectation. Other firms are terminating under-performing associates.

Many firms are finding that many associates in small firms that have salaries of $100,000 or more are content and are not motivated by the bonuses available to put in the time to earn the bonuses. Work life balance is more important that earning additional income. The bonus systems work better for associates that are still hungry or have lower base salaries.

Firms that have had the most success in getting associates past the “entitlement mentality” are those that incorporate goal setting, accountability, and individual twice a month coaching meetings with associates in addition to the performance bonuses.

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

 

Jun 20, 2018


Associate Attorney Compensation and Motivation

Question: 

Our firm is based in Springfield, Illinois. We have four partners and four associates. We are a general practice firm. All of our associates have been with the firm over ten years and each of them are receiving $100,000 base salaries plus discretionary bonuses. Our associates are excellent attorneys however none of them bring in any business  and their production numbers are low. Annual billable hours are below 1200 and working attorney fee collections are below $300,000. We have not given raises or bonuses for the last several years. We are losing money on some of our associates and not even covering our overhead alone making any profit from our associates. We are at a loss as what to do. Please share any thoughts or ideas that you might have.

Response: 

It would be interesting to know whether you set production goals such as billable hours or working attorney fee collection goals for your associates and if and how they are enforced. Billable hours should be in the range of 1600-1750 per year and fee collections should be $300,000+ for associates being paid $100,000 per year. It sounds like production goals either don’t exist or are not enforced.

I suggest that you look in to the cause or causes of your associates low production. Here are a few questions you should ask yourselves concerning the cause of your associates low production:

  1. Does the firm have enough work for the associates?
  2. Are the associates working enough hours? What is their work/billable hours ratio? Goal 70%.
  3. Are the associates clear as to their goals – billable hours/fee collections.
  4. Do associates have time management issues?
  5. Do associates have time keeping issues?
  6. Are there consequences for poor production?

I suggest that you meet with each of your associates, address the above questions, and determine what is going on. It could be one or all of the above. If the firm does not have enough work for the associates you need to determine if partners are delegating sufficient work, whether business is down at the firm (short-term vs long-term), and whether the firm may have too many associates for the work that is available. If there is simply not enough work, has not been enough work for some time, and it is projected that the firm’s workload will be the same for the foreseeable future the firm will need to consider eliminating an associate’s position or reducing the work hours, and compensation, of one or more associates. If the work is there and associates are just not working and putting in the hours you need to insure that goals and consequences for non-performance are in place – you might want to consider changes your compensation system. If associates are having problems with time management or timekeeping conduct some training sessions and coaching.

Some firms have changed their systems whereby associates are paid a base salary plus a bonus for billable hours or collected fees over a predetermined threshold. However, incentive bonus work better when salaries are kept low. Often when salaries reach $100,000 or more additional bonuses may not motivate attorneys that are not hungry for more, are comfortable, and their priority is work-life balance.

While you must get associate compensation right in order to acquire and retain top associate talent as well as reward performance and reinforce desired behaviors, the starting point is hiring and retaining the right people to begin with.

Research from a classic business study that was highlighted in the popular business book “Good to Great” (Collins, 2001) authored by Jim Collins found that the method of compensation was largely irrelevant as a causal variable for high and sustained levels of performance. Other research also bears out that performance and motivational alignment are impacted by intrinsic and other factors other than just extrinsic factors such as compensation or methods of compensation. Over the years I have seen too many partners leave lucrative situations in law firms to join other firms for less compensation or to start their own firms to suggest that it is only about the money or compensation package.

Your compensation system should not be designed to get the right behaviors from the wrong people, but to get the right people on the bus in the first place, and to keep them there. Your compensation system should support that effort.

James Cotterman, Altman & Weil, Inc., (Cotterman, 2004) contents that there are two groups of employees for whom compensation is not an effective management tool. The intrinsically motivated (6% to 16% of partners perhaps) do not need compensation as an incentive. The struggling performers (another 6% to 16%) will not react favorably to a compensation system that rewards positive behavior.

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

Apr 17, 2018


Subjective Law Firm Partner Compensation Systems

Question: 

I am a partner in a twelve attorney commercial litigation law firm in Palm Beach, Florida. There are five partners in the firm. We are contemplating merging with another firm in the area of similar size. We have done our due diligence and have come across a possible non-starter – the compensation system. Our compensation system is totally objective – formula-based very close to an eat-what-you-kill system. The other firm has operated under a subjective system and they are pushing for the firm to operate under this type of system. We would appreciate your thoughts and enlightenment concerning subjective-based systems.

Response:

Subjective-based systems are the most commonly used approach to setting partner compensation, especially in larger firms. More and more firms your size and larger are moving to subjective systems as a result of the failure of other systems to account for the full range of contributions that partners make to the law firm. Subjective systems can take on a variety of forms but the central theme of such systems is that they rely on a subjective assessment of partner performance, without reference to specific weighting of factors or a set formula. This is not to say that subjective systems lack structure or predictability, or that they don’t consider objective financial data. Successful subjective compensation systems include these elements and more.

Subjective compensation systems vary widely. Here are some of the most common elements found in subjective systems:

In additional to subjective compensation systems some firms used hybrid systems that employs objective (formula) and subjective components.

Subjective systems are not for all firms. They will fail with out strong, trusted, leadership. In very small firms it is difficult to structure a compensation decision making body.

It sounds like your firm and the firm you are thinking of merging with may come from two very different cultures. Subjective systems work well for firms that are “firm first” firms but not for lone ranger firms that often operate under eat-what-you-kill systems. If you firm is not a long ranger firm and your are in fact a “firm first” firm or aspire to be such you may be able to adapt to a subjective system. However, you may need a post-merger phase-in period. Another comprise approach might be a hybrid system.

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

 

 

Apr 04, 2018


Associate Attorney Motivation

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen attorney firm in Chicago. There are nine partners and five associate attorneys in the firm. Our practice is limited to insurance defense. I am one of the founders and senior partners in the firm and have been practicing for 35 years. We are having problems getting our associates to produce at the levels that we need for the firm to be profitable. We have a 1800 annual billable hour requirement and several of our associates aren’t even close. We have a bonus system that pays associates a bonus based upon billable hours exceeding 1800 billable hours. What are we doing wrong?

Response:

It often takes more than setting up a bonus system and then leaving it on autopilot. I am finding that the intrinsic reward of doing a good job and meeting the expectations of the firm’s partners are as important as the bonus system. In client law firms that have had similar problems we have found that by supplementing the bonus system with monthly reviews and coaching sessions with associates not meeting their targets has made the difference. Here is an outline of the process:

  1. Review you monthly billing/hours reports for all associates each month.
  2. Identify those are below targets and expectations.
  3. Meet with those associates that are below targets and expectations.
  4. Discuss why there are having problems meeting expectations. Lack of work, not working enough hours, poor time management habits, or poor timekeeping habits.
  5. Identify solutions to the above problems.
  6. Monitor and follow-up.
  7. Continue to meet every month until such time as the associate is meeting targets and expectations.

The bonus rewards those that want to push beyond the 1800 billable hours but does nothing to solve the problem of those not meeting the 1800 billable hour expectation.

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

 

Feb 14, 2018


Compensation Ideas for Law Firm Staff – Goal Bonuses

Question: 

I am the firm administrator with a ten attorney firm in Long Beach, California. I really enjoyed reading your blog – Law Firm Compensation – Bonuses for Staff, dated December 27, 2016.  

I really like your approach of tying bonuses to measurable outcomes. Have you used other approaches other than percentage of salary? Can you give additional examples of specific goals that would be appropriate for a bookkeeper, office manager, or firm administrator?

Response: 

Research and experience tells us that employment expect the following five things from management:

  1. Mutual agreement as to what is expected.
  2. The opportunity to exercise his or her ability.
  3. Feedback on his or her performance.
  4. Direction when needed.
  5. Reward – compensation in equal measure to his or her contribution to the firm.

The problem with staff employee is quantifying and measuring performance so that bonuses are not “Santa Clause” bonuses. A bonus system tied to measurable goals/objectives can, as outlined in my earlier blog, eliminate the problem of bonuses being considered by employees as an entitlement.

Other approaches that some of my law firm clients have used is to develop a limited laundry list of goals with a specific dollar amount tied to each goal for specific positions such a bookkeeper, firm administrator, etc. Typically, there is a cap on how much can be earned per year – 5% – 10% of salary. At the beginning of each year the employee selects the goals that they plan on working on for the upcoming year, obtains approval from his or her supervisor, and both parties sign off on a goal plan for the year. The goals must be SMART goals. Bonuses are paid as goals are completed.

Here are some additional examples:

Bookkeeper 

  1. Reduce accounts receivable over 90 days by 25%
  2. Write and implement an accounting manual by December 31 of this year.

Firm Administrator 

  1. Manage the firm within the approved expense budget for the year.
  2. Reduce staff turnover during the year by 25% below an average of the past three years turnover history.
  3. Reduce headhunting fees for staff by 40% below an average of the past three years.
  4. Write and implement an Employee Handbook by December 31 of this year.
  5. Implement a new time and billing system by December 31 of this year within time and cost budget.

The key to the goals is that they are important to the firm and are measurable.

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

Jan 17, 2018


Attorney and Staff Performance Compensation

Question: 

I am the firm administrator for a twenty-two attorney firm, twelve partners and ten associates, in downtown Chicago. I have been with the firm for seven years. The firm pays the associates and staff a base salary plus a end of year discretionary bonus which is the same for all staff and associate attorneys. The firm does not do performance reviews and honestly I believe the raises are simply an annual cost of living adjustment and the bonus at the end of year a gift. Many of our associates and staff have been here for many years and salaries are getting out of control. We would welcome your thoughts.

Response: 

There are two basic compensation philosophies, which should be seen at opposite ends of a continuum. At one end is the entitlement philosophy and at the other end is the performance-orientated philosophy.

Entitlement Orientation

The entitlement philosophy can be seen in many firms that traditionally have given automatic increases to their employees every year. Further, most of those employees receive the same or nearly the same percentage increase each year. Firm’s and employees that subscribe to the entitlement philosophy believe that employees who have worked another year are entitled to a raise in base pay, and that all incentives and benefit programs should continue and be increased, regardless of changing economic conditions. Commonly, in firms following the entitlement philosophy, pay increases are referred to as cost-of-living raises, whether or not they are tied specifically to economic indicators. Following an entitlement philosophy ultimately means that as employees continue their employment lives, firm cost increase, regardless of employee performance or other firm competitive pressures. The firm acts as Santa Clause at the end of the year, passing out bonus checks that generally do not vary from year to year. Therefore, employees “expect” to receive the bonuses as another form of entitlement.

Performance Orientation 

When a performance orientated philosophy is followed, no one is guaranteed compensation just for adding another year to firm service. Instead, pay and incentives are based on performance differences among employees. Employees who perform well get larger compensation increases; those who do not perform satisfactory receive little or no increase in compensation. Thus, employees who perform satisfactory should keep up or advance in relationship to their peers in the labor market, whereas poor or marginal performers should fall behind. Bonuses are paid based on individual, practice group, or firm performance results.

Few law firm are totally performance-orientated in all facets of their compensation systems for staff and attorneys. However, more and more firms are breaking the entitlement mode and associate and staff compensation systems are being redesigned for that are performance focused. Santa Clause bonuses are being discarded and replaced with measurable performance bonuses. Salary increases are being tied to increases in skills, competencies, and overall performance based upon performance reviews.

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

 

 

Dec 06, 2017


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Dealing with an Overpaid Partner

Question: 

I am a founding partner of a two partner firm in Springfield, Illinois. We are finishing up our third year since we started the firm. We have six associates and our practice focuses on health law. My partner and I each have a fifty percent interest in the firm and our compensation is based on our ownership percentages. We split firm profits fifty-fifty. Ever since starting the firm I have been bringing in substantially more fees that my partner. This year I will bring in sixty-five percent of firm fees. I am getting frustrated and feel that our compensation system is not fair, not working, and needs to be changed. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

It sounds like you are referring to origination of client business and referencing fees resulting from business that you brought into the firm. Most firms do not consider fee origination as the only partner compensation variable. Working attorney fee collections as well as other contributions such as firm management, mentoring and developing associates, developing firm systems, etc. are also considered when determining partner compensation. Many firms actually give more weight (credit) to working attorney production that to origination while others may give no credit at all.

I think you need to keep in mind overall contributions of each partner – not just client origination. Pull working attorney statistics and include these in your analysis as well as firm overhead consumed. Consider other contributions that each of you have and are making and see where the data takes you. Don’t look at just one year – look at the data over the long term – say three year trends. If you still feel that the compensation arrangement is no longer fair, you and your partner need to sit down and have a heart to heart discussion.

The best approach may be to simply realign your compensation percentages after you have come to terms with the compensation factors that you consider important to the firm and the metrics you are going to use going forward.

If you and your partner can’t sit down and have such a discussion consider getting outside help.

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

Sep 20, 2017


Compensating Your First Associate Attorney in a Law Firm

Question:

I am the owner of a law practice in Belleville, Illinois. My practice focuses on real estate, estate planning and administration, and bankruptcy. I have three legal assistants. While I have been in practice for ten years, I have never hired an associate. I have a busy practice and now is the time. I have identified a candidate with six years experience that I want to hire. He has business that he can bring with him. He has been working with a larger firm as an associate and has been paid a straight salary. My next step is to make him an offer but I am struggling with how to pay him. I would like to hear your thoughts.

Response:

Some small firms put associates on an eat-what-you kill system based upon fee revenue collected from clients they bring in and fee collections from other matters they are assigned. They are they paid a percentage – ranging for thirty to forty percent when the fees are paid. However, in most firms associates are paid a salary and possibly a bonus based upon performance. Bonuses may be discretionary or formulaic based upon performance factors such as billable hours, working attorney collected fees, client origination collected fees, goal attainment, signed engagements, etc. Personally, I think a salary plus and discretionary bonus is the best approach for new associates.

However, in your case with an associate that is more seasoned and that has a book of business I think you should consider a salary with a formulaic bonus based upon his working attorney fee collections and client originations. Here are the mechanics:

I would also set a minimum performance expectation of $240,000 for the salary that is being paid.

You could also include non-billable goal attainment bonus as well but you can always add that later.

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

Aug 22, 2017


Measuring Law Partners’ Performance

Question: 

I am a partner in a twelve attorney firm in Houston. The firm has five partners and seven associates. We are a first generation firm and we, the partners, have never practiced in other law firms. Currently, the partners have equal ownership interests and are compensated equally. We are experiencing issues with the present method of partner compensation and we are giving some thought to considering other approaches. One of the issues that we are trying to get our heads around is how to measure each partners’ performance – value – and overall contribution to the firm. Do you have any suggestions?

Response: 

The first step in a partner’s compensation plan is to develop a system for measuring each partner’s performance. Measuring performance involves selecting the appropriate: (1) performance measurement factors, (2) performance measurement programs, and (3) performance measurement reports.

Performance Measurement Factors 

Each firm must decide on its own particular basis for rewarding quality performance by its partners. Factors must be selected against which each partner’s performance can be measured. Then the firm must decide how much weight to assign to each performance factor. The performance factors commonly used to measure partner performance include: (1) professional competency, (2) business development, (3) productivity, and (4) profitability.

Professional Competence 

A partner’s professional competence is usually the most important factor in measuring partner performance and is the most difficult to measure because it cannot be easily quantified and it has to be determined subjectively. In addition to technical proficiency professional competence also includes leadership ability, associate mentoring and development, management contribution, and other contributions made to the firm.

Business Development 

In many firms a partner’s ability to generate new business is an important performance factor in measuring partner performance. Client origination can be measured in terms of fees generated from new clients and fees generated from new business for existing clients.

Productivity 

A partner’s productivity can be measured by determining a partner’s: (1) chargeable hours related to client matters and (2) nonchargeable hours related to those firm matters which the firm has recognized an important partner responsibilities. Another approach is measuring billed or collected fees. Another measure of a partner’s productivity is his or her pyramid of responsibility – the number of associates chargeable hours or collected fees for which the partner is responsible.

Profitability

A partner’s profitability can be measured using three factors: (1) fees billed to clients, (2) realization of fees billed and (3) speed of collection of fees billed. Other measures include collected, effective rate per hour, etc.

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

 

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