Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Compensation

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Mar 30, 2016


Law Firm Compensation for TIme Spent by Partners Managing The Firm

Question:

Firm has three partners, two associates, and 2 staff members. We are a new firm and just started in practice a year ago. We are equal partners and we allocate compensation equally based upon these ownership interests. We believe the system has worked well for us but we been considering whether one person should handle all the management duties and if so how that person should be compensated. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

First I would identify the duties and hours involved and make sure the duties are managing partner level duties and not office manager level duties that should be handled by staff. Delegate or consider hiring an office manager for duties than can be delegated. For duties that can't be delegated I would suggest you that a look at the hours that will be required and determine a  fixed additional compensation amount based on expected hours and the partner's standard billing rate. The partner's compensation would be his/her fixed additional compensation amount plus his/her allocation based upon ownership interest.

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

 

Jan 20, 2016


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Setting Up an Eat What You Kill System

Question:

I am a solo practitioner in Orlando, Florida with two secretaries and I am planning on merging my practice with another attorney in the same office location. He has three staff members. We have both been on our own for twenty years and have enjoyed our independence. We have decided that we want to setup an eat-what-you kill type of compensation sytem. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

While I am not found of such systems as they lead to separate silos – separate firms within a firm - there are situations where they are appropriate. In some situations, the approach is to simply allocate revenue and use the percentage of fee revenue collected to determine a partners interest in the profit for the year. A determination must be made as to what the firm means by revenue collected for each attorney – working attorney allocated dollars, originated attorney dollars, or responsible attorney dollars, or a weighting of all of these. This only works if each consumes overhead at the same level.

If you are not consuming overhead at the same level some form of cost allocation must be made and included in the mix. Direct overhead items such as bar dues, auto expenses, CLE seminars, etc. could be allocated directly to each partner with each sharing equally in the rest of the indirect overhead. Then a net figure would be calculated to determine each partner's compensation based upon their share of the profit.

If you want to really get detailed your can setup a separate profit center for each of you in your accounting system, allocate all revenue and expenses using an agreed to allocation formula, Click here for sample allocation guidelines and then have the ability of generating a separate profit and loss statement for each of you. If you are using QuickBooks Pro you can setup classes to accomplish this. Your compensation would be the profit from your profit and loss statement. 

Good luck with your merger.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 01, 2015


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Arrangement When Buying a Senior Partner’s Interest

Question:

I am the owner of a solo practice family law firm in Jackson, Mississippi. I  have been in practice four years. I have been approached by a senior solo attorney that has a well established family law practice that generates $800,000 annually and is looking to sell his practice. We envision a merger where I would make an initial payment upon merging my firm with his and then buyout his interest over a five year period. We have agreed on a fixed price for his ownership interest. However, we are not sure how to handle compensation. He wants to continue to work for another five to seven years. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Your approach will depend upon how you are going to structure your initial ownership percentages and whether the other attorney plans on continuing to work fulltime or whether he plans on scaling back. Are you going in with a minority interest and then acquiring additional interest as you make the agreed payments?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Base compensation totally on ownership interests. As you acquire additional interest your compensation would increase.
  2. Agree to a base salary for each of you and then allocate excess firm profits after your salaries based on ownership interest percentages.
  3. Create two profit pools. One pool would be 70% of total profit called performance profit pool and the other pool would be 30% of total profit. The 70% pool would be allocated to each partner based upon individual performance as determined by a weighted average of each partner's origination/working attorney collected fee receipts. The 30% pool would be allocated to each partner in accordance with ownership interest percentages.
  4. Create two profit centers (one for each partner) and allocate income and expenses to each profit center. Each partner's compensation would be based upon their individual profit center.
There are as many different approaches are there are law firms.
 
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Aug 25, 2015


Law Firm Associate Compensation – Incentives

Question:  

I am the owner of a seven attorney litigation boutique firm in New York City. I am the only equity owner and the other six attorneys are associates. Currently all of the associates are paid a straight salary with raises given every year. I am considering freezing their salaries at current levels and putting in place an incentive bonus for individual revenue generation above a certain number. I am concerned that this approach might create an eat-what-you-kill mentality and destroy teamwork in the firm. Do you have any thoughts?

Response: 

I concur with an approach that ties compensation to individual performance such as working attorney collected fee generation up to a point. You are right that this could create more of an individualistic attitude and may spur internal competition which may not be all bad. However, since there are other aspects of firm contribution other than working attorney collections you might want to add a goal bonus component that outlines specific goals that are important to the firm and specifies specific dollars or percentage of salary for each goal with a maximum attainable per year. These goals must be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and on an agreed timeline. 

A goal bonus component will reward other non-financial contributions and serve as the glue that will minimize the potential for creating an eat-what-you-kill environment.  

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

Jul 28, 2015


Law Firm Compensation – Client Origination Guidelines

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a 25 attorney firm in Charleston, South Carolina. Our practice is limited to insurance defense. We have eight equity partners and four income partners, and five associates. Our firm is in second generation and virtually all of our clients were originated by first generation partners that are no longer here – they have since retired. Our compensation system focuses totally on working attorney dollars. I believe that we must begin to stress the importance of origination of new clients and factor that into the equation. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Origination of new client business is important in any firm. Many insurance defense firm are too dependent on four or five insurance companies and need to diversity their client portfolio. Origination should be at least a factor in compensation systems – whether treated objectively or subjectively. There are pitfalls and you will need to establish specific rules, guidelines, and a policing committee. 

Here is an example of origination guidelines that some law firms have implemented:

  1. Firm Employee or Employee Referral. Whenever the firm is employed by one of its non-lawyer employees or by a client referred by such employee, the client should be considered a firm client and no origination attribution aware should be made.
  2. Employee of Existing Client. When an employee of an existing client (other than a principal) becomes a client of the firm, the presumption will be made that the employee is a client of the attorney to whom the employer is attributed. There may be extenuating circumstances calling for a different result, and these circumstances should be brought to the attention of the Attribution/Compensation Committee.
  3. Martindale and Similar Lawyer Lists. Referrals generated by Martindale and other such lawyer lists should always be considered clients of the firm.
  4. Clients Resulting from Prior Clients. In the case of a client attracted to the firm by reason of a lawyer's prior representation of another client, the new client shall be presumed to be the client of the lawyer to whom the existing client is attributed unless the new client was demonstrably attracted by the lawyer representing the existing client.
  5. Direct Referral by Existing Client. In the case of a referral by an existing client of Lawyer A to Lawyer C (by reason of Lawyer C's particular expertise), the client shall nevertheless, in most instances, be deemed to be the attributed client of Lawyer A.
  6. In-Town Referrals. Referrals by lawyers in (name of city) resulting from conflicts of interests should be considered firm clients. However, some referrals to our firm are made by other lawyers who have recognized the particular expertise of one of the lawyers in the firm. All in-town referrals should be first referred to the Attribution/Compensation Committee prior to any attribution being made.
  7. Out-of-Town Referrals. In Most instances, out-of-town referrals (other than from lawyer lists) are the result of friendships and professional associations between lawyers. The attribution should properly be awarded to the lawyer to whom the referral is made.
  8. Paralegals. All dollar amounts resulting from the work performed by paralegals shall be attributed entirely to the attorney to whom the client is attributed.
  9. Contingent Fee Cases. Upon receipt of the firm's share of amounts payable under a contingent fee contract, the originating attorney should be attributed ___% of the fee and the remaining ___% should be spread among the lawyers in proportion to their hours of service on the case, taking into consideration their respective hourly rates.
  10. Joint Referrals. The affected lawyers should meet in an attempt to resolve their respective sharing. If, however, the matter is not resolved, it should be referred to the Attribution/Compensation Committee for a binding decision.
  11. Retiring Partners. The clients of retiring partners are presumed to be firm clients.
  12. Attribution/Compensation Committee. All origination attributions should be reviewed by the Attribution/Compensation Committee in the same fashion that it reviews new clients. Independent inquiry should be made of new clients where there may be some question as of the appropriateness of attribution.

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

 

 

 

Jul 01, 2015


Law Firm Ownership – Acquiring a Founding Partner’s Interest

Question:

I am a senior associate in a eight attorney elder law firm in Miami. There is one owner (founder) and seven associates including myself. The owner has approached me with a proposal to over time buy out his interests. I am the only senior associate in the firm and the only associate that he has approached concerning selling his interests. Specifically his proposal is as follows:

  1. Pay him $825.00 for the practice over five years.
  2. After five years I will own 100% of the shares.
  3. My compensation arrangement will remain the same (salary plus formula percentage incentive bonus based upon my responsible attorney collections) until I have acquired 100 percent interest of the firm.
  4. The owner wants to work in the firm indefinitely after his interest are acquired as an employee or Of Counsel.

I don't know how to respond to this proposal and would appreciate your thoughts? Is it fair? Does it make sense?

Response:

It makes sense for him. Seriously, you are going to need much more information that this proposal. To get started you need to ask for and review the following:

  1. Profit and Loss statements and Balance Sheets for the past five years.
  2. Tax returns or Schedule C for the past five years.
  3. A report showing the current accrual based assets – mainly unbilled work in process and accounts receivable. There are often the largest assets that a firm has and it is not on a typical cash-based profit and loss statement.
  4. A list showing any off-balance sheet liabilities.
  5. Copies of the office lease and other leases to determine lease liabilities.

From these documents you can get a feel for the cash-based net equity, the accrual-based net equity after considering work in process and accounts receivable and unrecorded liabilities.

Two numbers that may be even more important is the average fee revenue generated over the past five years and the average compensation (net profit plus compensation – W2 and K1 earnings) that the owner has been earning over the past five years.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. One to one and a half times the owner's average earnings for the past five years is typical. So from this guideline you can evaluate the appropriateness of the $825,000.
  2. What assets are included? Will he exclude any assets?
  3. Will you be able to acquire minority interests over the five years as you pay towards the payout? I will insist on such.
  4. If you do acquire minority interests as you go will there be a profit pie for you to share in or will the owner increase his compensation, personal perks he passes through the firm, cut down on his working time, etc.? You should get a handle on compensation as well.
  5. I would not have the owner's employment open ended after you acquire 100% interest. Have some protection in case he fails to produce or has physical or mental problems that affects his performance. Suggest an Of Counsel agreement that gets reviewed and renewed annually.
  6. Consider whether there is a transition that insures that the clients and referral sources stay with you after he retires. If he has not groomed you, involved you in relationships with clients and referral sources, had you giving seminars, and plugged you into referral sources future business could drop off dramatically. This should be factored into the value.
  7. Weigh the cost-benefit of starting your practice v.s. purchasing his practice. 

Good luck!

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

Jun 02, 2015


Law Firm Partner Compensation and Client Origination Credit

Question:

Our firm is an 8 attorney general practice law firm located in Kansas City, Missouri. Five of the attorneys are equity partners and the other three are associates. The two founding partners are the only ones in the firm that bring in clients – the other partners are just workers. Currently the partners are paid based upon their collections for cases/matters to which they are assigned. They are also credited for work that others do on their assigned matters as well. We are concerned that in a general practice firm such as ours, everyone must be bringing in clients and we are considering changing our compensation system to factor in credit for client origination – bringing in clients. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

All law firms need a mix of finders, minders, and grinders. Finders (client originators) are needed to provide sufficient work to keep the workers busy. Minders (responsible matter attorneys) are needed to manage the portfolio of client work. Grinders (working attorneys) are needed to service and produce client services.  While there are exceptions, in most firms partners must hit on all three of these cylinders. In other words, most of the partners must do well at finding, minding, and grinding. Partners may perform some of these roles better than others, however overall they should be competently performing each of the roles. Very few firms can afford the luxury of having several senior partners only bringing in business without being required to maintain personal production levels as well. Partner compensation research concludes that the most a law firm can afford to pay a rainmaker – over and above his or her own billable hours (fee collections) is the marginal profit derived from the associates the rainmaker can keep busy, regardless of how many partners he or she occupies. The most valuable partners are those who offer a balance of skills: worker, delegator, supervisor, and rainmaker.

Since origination of new clients is the lifeblood of any firm it is a key factor that should be recognized in any compensation system. The exact weight that it is given will depend upon the firm and how dependent it is upon constant client replacement, only a few institutional clients, turnover of clients, leverage ratio, etc. A firm that has a well diversified base of institutional long time clients will typically weigh client origination much lower than a firm that has to constantly replace individual clients.

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

 

Apr 14, 2015


Law Firm Associate Compensation – Bonus Tied to Performance

Question:

I am a partner in a 14 attorney firm in San Francisco and I serve on our associate compensation committee. Presently associate compensation is based on a salary and discretionary bonus. I would like to see a stronger tie to performance. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

I believe that salary should be the primary element in your compensation system for associates. However, you might want to pay a performance bonus for working attorney fees in excess of a certain threshold – say three times salary. So, if you are paying an associate $100,000 you might pay a bonus of 20% for fees collected in excess $300,000 ($75,000 per quarter) and pay the bonuses quarterly. In order to reward other contributions you might want to tie additional bonus to accomplishment of specific strategic goals agreed to in advance each year by you and each associate. For example:

Thus, a maximum of 10% of salary could be received by the associate in goal bonus ($10,000 for a $100,000 associate) and $20,000 could be received if $400,000 in fees were collected – for a total of $30,000 in bonuses.

The goals should be require some degree of stretch and should be result orientated rather than activity orientated. Chair on a bar association committee is a result – attending bar associate meetings without being notices is an activity.

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

 

Mar 24, 2015


Law Firm Of Counsel Compensation/Adequate Profit Margin

Question:

I am the managing partner in an eight attorney firm in Phoenix. We are contemplating bringing in a senior lawyer as an Of Counsel that wants to gradually wind down his practice. We are thinking of paying him using an eat-what-he-kills approach whereby he would be paid 40% for his personal production (collected working attorney receipts) and 20% for bringing in the client (origination). Thus, if he brought in the client and did all of the work he would get 60% of the fee. What are your thoughts?

Response:

The approach is fine and I know several law firms that use this approach and these percentages. My concern is with the percentages. Don't forget the overhead. Lets say that he collects $300,000 and that he brought in the business and did all of the work. He would get 60% of $300,000 or $180,000 and the firm would get 40% of $300,000 or $120,000. Typical overhead per lawyer is $100,000 per year or higher. If the overhead is $100,000 there would only be $20,000 profit contribution or 6.6% margin. I believe the firm should make a margin of 25%-30% from associates and Of Counsels.

Examine your overhead. I would suggest 35% on working attorney receipts and 15% for client origination.

You may believe that the overhead consumed is far less that the firm's average overhead per lawyer and that a contribution cost allocation approach allocating only variable/direct costs is more appropriate. However, there are often other costs and I find that many law firms cut themselves short, only cover their overhead, and make very little or no profit margin.

Look over your overhead and determine the profit margin that you desire and go from there.

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

 

 

 

Nov 25, 2014


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Individual vs. Firm Based

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 9 attorney firm in Cincinnati. We have four equity partners and five associates. Partners are compensated on the basis of their ownership shares which are currently 25% each. In the past the system worked well – but now we are having problems. The two senior partners are working and contributing less and are taking out half of the compensation which is causing dissatisfaction and division within the firm. We have been discussing alternative approaches. Should we consider a system total focused on individual partner performance and production – an eat-what-you kill if you will?

Response:

I agree that personal production and performance should have a relationship and a tie to compensation. However, a move to a total eat-what-you-kill system might be a drastic first-step move. Eat-what-you-kill approaches can often destroy teamwork in firms that desire to be team-based firms. For firms that want to be lone ranger firms eat-what-you-kill is fine.

Since I don't know what you have done so far it is hard to identify the first step. Sometimes all that is needed is a frank and open discussion and a realignment of percentages tied to recent performance. In other cases is might be appropriate to have different percentages for compensation (participating compensation percentages) based upon say a three years rolling performance average/ratio. One approach would be to use this instead of ownership percentages for allocating profit to the partners. Another approach might be to create two profit pools – say 70% of firm profit and allocate this profit to the partners based upon participating percentages and 30% of firm profit and allocate this profit to the partners based upon ownership percentages.

Obviously there are many of approaches that you can take. This approach moves closer to individual performance but retains firm participation as well.

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

 

 

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