Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Compensation

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Sep 29, 2021


Finding and Hiring Law Firm Associate Attorneys During These COVID Pandemic Times

Question: 

I am the sole owner of an estate planning firm in Chicago Suburbs. I have three other associates in the firm. Our volume of business has expanded rapidly during the last six months and we desperately need one to two more associates on board. I have been looking for three months and have been unsuccessful. I have had some leads but when I made offers they were not accepted. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Response: 

These are tough times for attracting and retaining talent in all businesses. Law firms are having difficulty hiring lawyers as well as staff. Many of my law firm clients are telling me that finding clients is no longer their primary concern – their top strategic concern is now finding, hiring, and retaining lawyer and staff talent.

During these times it is imperative that law firms get creative and think outside of the box. Flexibility is key. Here are a few things that some of my clients have done that has resulted in successful attorney hires:

  1. Paid for sponsoring with Indeed ad placements.
  2. Took out a paid ad with their state bar association.
  3. Used a recruiter.
  4. Increased starting salary/bonuses.
  5. Added medical insurance as a benefit.
  6. Paid a signing bonus.
  7. Provided reimbursement for moving/relocation costs.
  8. Implemented a permanent remote work policy allowing all personnel to work at home a certain number of days per week.
  9. Increased number of vacation/personal time off days.
  10. Added 401k plan.

Successful law firms must attract both clients and talent in order to be successful. All businesses are suffering and having a hard time attracting and retaining attorneys and staff. This also means that other law firms are desperate and may try to steal you lawyers and staff with better pay or other incentives. You need to review all of your benefits and policies as well as compensation to make sure that you are more that just competitive – you need to be on the cutting edge and ahead of the pack. Employees now expect more flexibility, remote work, etc. than ever before.

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

Aug 25, 2021


Law Firm Associate Compensation – Bonuses Based on Hours or Dollars?

Question:

Our firm is an eight-lawyer insurance defense firm in Chicago. We represent insurance companies across the ChicagoLand  area representing their insured’s in personal injury cases. Our clients are billed by the hour and we have a wide range of hourly rates based upon the client, type of matter, who is working on the case, etc. We have three equity partners and five associates working in the firm. Currently all of the associates are paid a straight salary and a discretionary bonus. We are having issues with our associates not putting in the billable hours that we need them to be putting in. We would like to put in a bonus system to motivate them to increase their billable hours. Should we focus on hours or collected dollars? Your suggestions would be most welcomed.

Response: 

Both approaches – hours and collected fees are used in many law firms and I prefer collected fees when they are workable for the firm. Usually the focus is on working attorney fee collections but can also include a client origination and sometimes a responsible attorney (delegation component). However, in insurance defense firms this is often not workable due to the wide range of hourly rates and the potential unfairness for associates that are assigned to lower hourly rate client matters. Most insurance defense firms that I have worked with either pay associates a salary plus discretionary bonus or salary plus a bonus based upon adjusted billable hours that are actually billed to clients after a certain billable hour threshold is reached. For example:

Many firms breakdown the expectation in to a quarterly or monthly expectation and pay bonuses on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Make sure that your associates don’t game and milk hours. Advise them that the bonuses will be based on hours after write-downs or adjustments. In other words hours that are approved by the billing partner and are billed to clients.

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

Mar 10, 2021


Law Firm Non-Equity Partner Compensation

Question:

Our firm is a sixteen attorney full-service law firm in Denver, Colorado that works exclusively with small businesses. We have six equity partners five non-equity partners, and five associates. Three of our equity partners serve on the firm’s compensation committee of which I am one of the members. Our committee makes compensation recommendations to the partnership for equity partners, non-equity partners, and associates. Since forming the non-equity partner tier a few years ago we have not changed our method of compensating non-equity partners which has been salary and discretionary bonus. We are wondering what factors we should be considering and what some of the best practices are concerning non-equity partners. Your thoughts would sure be helpful.

Response: 

Non-equity partners’ salaries are generally based on a baseline of a predetermined billable hours multiplied by their general billing rates, plus an estimated overhead factor and incentives. The bonus threshold is generally based upon their billings and collections.

Below is a list of the factors that are considered in most firms when allocating salary increases and bonuses to the non-equity partners:

A goal should be for equity partners to earn 25 to 30 percent or more profit margin on work provided to the non-equity partners.

The firm should ensure that a profit-margin opportunity is not totally given away by virtue of the salary and bonus calculations that overemphasize billable hours and billings rather than collections.  Consideration must be given to firm overhead and profit margins.

If the work performed by the non-equity partner was originated by that attorney, it is reasonable that some portion of the fee generated be paid as a commission for originating that work. Originating the work and doing the work yourself is a common scenario. It is not unusual to see firms pay a 10 to 15 percent commission for that work.

If the work is originated by the non-equity partner but billed and handled by someone else, the commission should be lower (approximately half the normal commission or less).

All of these origination commissions should be built upon the expectation that the work is billed and collected at reasonable rates. There is little justification for paying for origination for work that is not profitable.

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

 

 

Feb 10, 2021


Law Firm Partnership – Non Performing Partners

Question: 

Our firm is a litigation defense firm in the Chicago suburbs.  Four of us started the firm twenty years ago and we have since grown to a sixteen attorney firm consisting of eight equity partners and eight associates. The other four partners were initially associates and later admitted after they had been here for five to seven years. The other four partners bring in very little business and their production is dismal compared to the four founders. Our associates working attorney receipts are larger than a couple of our equity partners. Our compensation is a equal salary for all partners with remaining profits allocated to each partner based upon their ownership percentage which are 15% for each of the four founding equity partners and 10% for each of the other equity partners. They was no buy-in for the newer partners. Profits have been flat for several years and partner compensation as well. We would like to hear any thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

It sounds like partners are left to their own and are not accountable to other partners in the firm. Successful firms your size have performance expectations and guidelines for all attorneys in the firm with consequences for non compliance.

Many firms your size use a compensation committee to determine partner compensation and performance peer reviews – – both written and face to face interviews are conducted with each partner in the firm. Partner performance reviews are often avoided like the plague by many firms. They are time consuming and it is hard to give candid feedback to colleagues. However, without partner performance reviews neither the partners nor the firm will reach full potential. When partner performance reviews are used not only to review performance but to set measurable goals this data can be incorporated into the compensation system and provide additional hard data for providing a true measure of partner contribution and value.

You may have to consider changing your partner compensation system or changing nonperforming partners status to non-equity partners or associates.

You must muster up the courage to confront underperforming partners but before you do that you have to determine what the baseline performance expectations are for the firm, communicate them, and put in place consequences for non-compliance.

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

 

 

Feb 02, 2021


Law Firm Compensation – Changing System to Incorporate Client Origination

Question: 

Our firm is a small insurance defense/corporate litigation firm in Los Angeles, California. We have six partners and 7 associates. Our partner compensation system is primarily based upon working attorney collections with no incentives or rewards for bring in clients – client origination. We have been thinking of including client origination as a new metric in our system. We would like to know your thoughts regarding client origination and partner compensation.

Response:

Here are my thoughts in general.

Pros and Cons of Origination Credit

Client or matter origination credit is a touchy subject. Some firm-first or team-based firms refuse to track it at all for fear that it will open a can of worms and will be divisive. At a recent bar association presentation, the presenter and managing partner of a firm stated, “one of the quickest ways to split up a law firm is to incorporate client origination into the partner compensation system” Other firms track origination credit and use it as a factor in subjective compensation systems but do not compensate origination directly or in the form of numerically determining partner compensation percentages. Many firm’s that use formulaic or eat-what-you-kill systems do not include client origination and only include working attorney and/or responsible (billing) attorney collections. Other eat-what-you-kill firms do incorporate client origination.

Personally, I believe that a law firm should track and recognize the importance of origination  and use that knowledge to determine attorney career advancement to the different tiers (non-equity partner, managing partner of an office, and equity partner) and to differentiate different levels of income among lawyers without pursuing a formulaic or commission approach to compensation. While I believe that origination should be tracked, recognized, and rewarded, it has not been my experience that a change in the compensation system will make rainmakers out of service partners or associates.

Tracking of Origination Fee Credits

There should be an expectation that an individual’s business origination efforts and results will improve over time. Fees collected should be the controlling metric used in determining origination. Origination should be tracked at the matter level as opposed to the client level. This provides greater flexibility to share origination credits. Tracking origination should not require a formal scorekeeping system. According to recent surveys less than half of the law firms grant formal origination credits.

Duration of Origination Credits

Origination policies can cause hoarding of client relationships and matters, creation of origination credit annuities, and divisive internal competition. To mitigate this tendency firms often limit the duration of the credit and sunset the origination credit after so many years – often five years. One option is to grant the origination credit on all matters opened for a new client for the first three or five years that the client is with the firm and after that time origination credit for new matters of a client would be credited to the firm, responsible, or billing attorney.

Origination Guidelines/Protocols

It is important that the firm establish written guidelines and protocols for allocating business origination credits whether the firm is using origination directly or indirectly in compensation.

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

 

Dec 16, 2020


Law Firm Equity Partner Buy-ins and Buy-outs – Pros and Cons

Question: 

Our firm is an insurance defense firm based in Denver, Colorado. The firm was founded in 2015 by two founding partners and we have grown to a firm of twelve attorneys – two founding equity partners, three non-equity partners and seven associates. Non-equity partners are included in firm management and the non-equity partners serve as members on the management committee. Non-equity members are compensated in the same manner as are equity partners – salary and bonuses determined by three year moving average ratios of weighted working attorney and originating attorney collections. Partner ownership interest does not factor into equity partner compensation. The firm does not have a partnership agreement. The firm is currently considering admitting qualified non-equity partners as equity partners. We are considering having a requirement that new equity partners purchase their shares via a buy-in tied to a firm valuation that includes a goodwill value.  Our initial discussion with the equity partner candidates that we are considering has not been positive. They feel there should be no buy-in and they don’t see any benefit to being an equity partner. We would like you thoughts and opinions on this matter.

Response: 

I can see where there is little distinction in your firm between equity and non-equity partners. I encourage firms when creating a non-equity tier to resist the temptation of giving away the farm and not retaining some incentives for non-equity partners to want to become equity partners. Typically, I suggest that there be a different compensation structure for equity partners than non-equity partners so that there is a compensation component for bearing the risk of ownership for equity partners. Often I suggest that non-equity partners come under a different compensation structure than associates, be given a few additional perks, and be included in partner meetings to a degree but not having a vote.

Approaches to buy-ins and buy-outs are all over the place in law firms. Here are a few of the common approaches:

  1. Naked in and naked out – given shares or percentage interest. No buy-in at all. A new equity partner is given a percentage interest or shares with no buy-in whatsoever. When the partner leaves the firm for whatever reason he or she  is paid their share of earnings to date and that is it. No buy-out for their interest.
  2. Naked in and naked out with cash-based capital contribution. A new equity partner is given a percentage interest or shares with a capital contribution in alignment with their percentage interest. When the partner leaves the firm for whatever reason he or she is paid their share of earnings to date and their capital account.
  3. Naked in and naked out with cash-based plus WIP and AR buy-in. A new equity partner is given a percentage interest or shares with a capital contribution and a buy-in the unbilled work in process and accounts receivable in alignment with their percentage interest. When the partner leaves the firm for whatever reason he or she is paid their share of earnings to date and their cash-based capital account plus their interest in accounts receivable and unbilled work in process.
  4. Purchased shares based on a valuation at the time the shares are purchased and sold. A new equity partner is sold a percentage interest or shares based on a valuation at the time of purchase. When a partner or shareholder leaves the firm for what ever reason he or she is paid their shares of earnings to date and their shares are purchased based upon a valuation of the firm at that time. These valuations often include a goodwill value. Sometimes the purchase price is discounted for sweat equity – time that a equity partner candidate that has been with the firm, etc.
  5. Founder Benefit. New equity partners are given a percentage interest or shares with no buy-in or a cash-based capital contribution in alignment with their percentage interest and paid their share of earnings to date and their cash-based capital account, if any, when they leave the firm. However, original founders, in addition to being paid their share of earnings to date and their capital account, are also paid a founder benefit often in the form of a multiple of the average earnings for the past three years.

The spectrum of law firm valuation and withdrawal entitlement theory can be characterized by two polar positions. The first considers the firm as a means to generate income (i.e., compensation), with modest, if any, value beyond the cash basis capital account. This is the dominant view currently in the profession and has resulted in the vast majority of firms valuing only the cash basis balance sheet for internal withdrawal rights. The second considers the firm as an investment, much like most other commercial endeavors.

I have many firm clients that are in their firm generation with original founders that have been in practice for twenty years and these firms have substantial institutional goodwill. Some of these firms sell shares to equity partner candidates based upon a firm valuation including a goodwill value. Other such firms take one of the other approaches. Often the problem with this approach is affordability.

Personally, I believe there should be some skin in the game for a non-equity partner to become an equity partner or shareholder. In your situation you are a young firm and acquiring and retaining lawyer talent should be your primary objective. Therefore, rather than selling shares I believe that you might want to  consider approach number two – naked in – naked out with a cash-based capital contribution that is affordable. If cash is a problem for the candidate have them pay what they can with the remainder payable on a capital (promissory) note paid over a one to three year period. Then have the partnership agreement provide for a founder benefit for the two founders as discussed above (say 1.5 multiple) upon retirement.

Do all that you can to fund partner retirements through 401k plans and other vehicles.

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

 

Jun 04, 2020


Law Firm Administrator Compensation

Question: 

I am a member of a three member management committee in a sixteen lawyer boutique litigation firm in downtown Chicago. The firm has been in business for over forty years. We have sixteen lawyers in the firm of which ten are equity partners and six are associates. The original founders are retired and we are in second generation.

Until five years ago all partners were involved in all aspects of firm management. At that time we made the decision to put in place a three-member management committee that was charged to handle certain aspects of firm management with the full partnership only participating in major decisions. We hired a firm administrator to handle the day to day administrative responsibilities. Our administrator reports  to the management committee. This structure has worked very well for us. We are currently paying our administrator a base salary and a discretionary bonus. After five years of salary increases our administrator is making more than our associates. Is our present approach to compensating our administrator the best approach or should we be looking at a different method of compensation?

Response: 

Base salary with discretionary bonus is the most common approach that I find being used to compensate firm administrators. The problem with discretionary bonuses is that many law firms don’t tie these bonuses to measurable performance and as a result they become expected and end up being an entitlement. However, I have worked with many firms where we have put in place alternative bonus systems that have either replaced or supplemented discretionary bonuses. This has allowed firms to put more emphasis on performance as opposed to continuing large salary increases for just showing up. While administrators still receive salary increases they are at a lower rate of increase, performance bonuses take on a larger role, a larger percentage of the compensation is variable rather than fixed, and administrator performance is aligned with firm goals.

A few approaches that firms have taken:

These approaches are just a few examples. The key is to align your administrator’s performance with firm goals and pay for performance.

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

 

 

 

 

Jan 08, 2020


Law Firm Partner Compensation and Performance Reviews

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen partner firm in the northern suburbs of Chicago with ten partners and four associates. We are a general practice firm with different partners focusing on specific practice areas. Our partner’s compensation is determined by a three member compensation committee.  The compensation committee uses a combination of quantitative data based upon working attorney fee collections and client fee originations and makes a subjective determination regarding other contributions that a partner has made to the firm. The problem that we have is the compensation committee does not have a way to effectively measure the other contributions that are being considered subjectively. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Your problem is a common problem. While it is easy to measure working attorney, responsible attorney, and originating attorney fee collections, billable hours, realization rates, and other hard measures of short-term financial performance, (it is hard to capture the subtler aspects of partners’ contributions such as mentoring new lawyers, firm management, idea development) and its virtually impossible to measure the long-term present value of each partner’s work and contribution.

The key is to make the subjective considerations more measurable. Many firms are supplementing the easily measured economic contributions per partner with additional measurements to determine the actual value per partner and incorporating into their compensation systems. Some firms:

Partner performance reviews are often avoided like the plague by many firms. They are time consuming and it is hard to give candid feedback to colleagues. However, without partner performance reviews neither the partners nor the firm will reach full potential. When partner performance reviews are used not only to review performance but to set measurable goals this data can be incorporated into the compensation system and provide additional hard data for providing a true measure of partner contribution and value.

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

Nov 12, 2019


Partner Compensation in Law Firms – Objective vs Subjective Approaches

Question: 

Our firm is at a crossroads concerning partner compensation. We are a twelve lawyer firm in Richmond, Virginia with nine partners and three associates. We are in our second generation of partners as the original founders have retired over the years. We do not have a managing partner or management committee – management decisions are made by all the partners. Our compensation is based upon compensation participating percentages set at the beginning of each year based upon the recommendation of a rotating member compensation committee recommendation which must be approved by the full partnership. These percentages are then used to allocate each partner’s share of firm profit. Monthly draws are taken against projected allocations and the calculations are trued up each quarter and at the end of the year. There is nothing in writing and it is unclear what is taken into consideration by the compensation committee. However, in general the primary metric is individual working attorney production collections. Supposedly, other metrics and subjective factors are taken into consideration but no one knows what they are. The majority of the partners have been relatively happy with the system but a few are not due to the vagueness of the system. I am wondering whether we should move more to a formulaic approach. What are your thoughts?

Response:

The trend in compensation, particularly in larger firms, is toward subjective or hybrid approaches and a movement away from strictly formulaic – eat-what-you-kill – objective systems. These systems are fine in “lone ranger” firms but often are unsuccessful in firms that are or want to be “firm first” or “team based” firms. The unhappiest partners that I see are in some of the firms with eat-what-you-kill objective systems. It sounds like your system has worked fairly well and a majority of the partners have been satisfied with the system. However, it may not be reinforcing the behaviors that you would like to instill in your partners if the only metric used, or is perceived as the only metric being used, is working attorney collections. Your firm is very partner top heavy and I would not be surprised if your utilization of paralegals as effective billable revenue producers is minimal. You are encouraging personal production period. What about delegation, new business origination, leadership, contribution to firm management, mentoring and training of associates, etc? Subjective or hybrid approaches often do a better job of dealing with overall contribution to the firm if they are setup properly.

I would suggest you fine tune your existing system. Consider the following:

  1. Put your system in writing. Outline the performance factors that are considered and the general importance or weights of each. This includes objective or directly measurable factors and the more subjective or harder to measure factors.
  2. Make more of the intangible or subjective factors measurable by requiring that a personal plan be submitted by each partner and reviewed with and approved by the compensation committee. This plan should contain specific measurable goals and objectives that are specific, measurable, attainable, rewarded in the compensation system, and on a specific completion timeline.
  3. Require that the compensation committee conduct personal partner interviews each and every year prior to their deliberations on compensation. This interviews should be mandatory. Self evaluations with related narrative should be provided by the partner being interviewed prior to the interview and the approved plans should form the basis for the discussion and reviews.
  4. The full partnership should either approve – up or down the compensation committee recommendation – not be allowed to pick apart or modify. If the partnership does not approve the committee’s recommendation the committee starts over and submits another recommendation. There should be a provision for what happens if a decision cannot be make – for example used last year’s percentages, etc.
  5. There should be an appeal process if a partner has a complaint with regard to the decision concerning his or her compensation.
  6. Consider extraordinary bonus pool for exceptional performance rewards.

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

Oct 23, 2019


Associate Attorney Compensation – Incentives Beyond Billable Hours and Working Attorney Collections

Question: 

I am the owner of a five attorney firm, myself and four associates, in Bakersfield, California. While we are a general practice firm, much of our practice is focused on commercial real estate, estate planning/probate, and corporate/business law. All of the associates have been with the firm over five years. The associates are paid a salary plus a bonus based upon their individual working attorney collections that exceed a quarterly threshold. While there have not been any complaints with this system I am not sure that it is the best system and that I am providing the right set of incentives. I would appreciate your thoughts and any ideas that you may have.

Response: 

Many firms use a system such as your system. However, other firms add more factors into the equation. A system that focuses on billable hours or individual working attorney fee collections often creates a firm of lone ranger attorneys that:

You might want to consider additing a component that recognizes delegation to paralegals and other attorneys (responsible attorney collections) and client origination (originating attorney collections). Some firms rather than rewarding client origination directly pay a bonus for handling new client intakes and successfully closing new business in the form of a flat dollar bonus after designated thresholds. You could also pay flat dollar bonuses for contribution to firm and business development – not time or activity – but for specific results such a having articles published, implementing a document assembly system, or writing a procedures manual. If you wish to avoid a formula approach simply use a discretionary bonus to reward firm these other factors and firm contributions. However, be clear about the factors that are be rewarded and the importance/weight of each.

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

 

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