Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Compensation

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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

 

 

Nov 04, 2014


Law Firm Attorney Compensation in a Contingency Fee Firm

Question:
 
Our firm is a five attorney personal injury plaintiff law firm located in San Francisco. We have 2 equity partners, one non-equity partner and two associates. One hundred percent of our fees are contingency fees. Our attorneys work on some cases together. We do not keep time sheets.

The two equity partners are compensated based upon their ownership interests and this has worked well. We are looking to improve our compensation for the non-equity partner and the two associates. Currently they are paid salaries and a percentage of firm collected fee revenue over a certain threshold. We feel that they have not been profitable and we have been overpaying them. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Personally I think that a percentage of firm revenue or profit should generally be reserved for equity partners or shareholders. There should be a reason for them to want to become equity partners. I would tie the majority of their compensation to individual performance – client origination revenue, working attorney production revenue, and responsible attorney revenue, and case profitability - being the primary factors. Develop specific guidelines for client origination (rules for the credit – direct effort of the attorney versus the brand of the firm). Since you don't keep time sheets you will have to develop some method for allocating the working attorney credit when attorneys work together on cases – subjective determination of value and contribution to the case, etc. Without timesheets it will also difficult to determine profit at the matter/case level. Decide how you want to weigh origination, working attorney, responsible attorney and case profitability and then use these to determine a compensation percentage to be used for overall compensation or bonus.

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

 

May 20, 2014


Law Firm Compensation – Bringing in an Associate with a Small Book of Business

Question:

I am the sole owner of a law firm in Walnut Creek, California. I have three associates and five staff members in the firm. I am looking to hire another associate. The associate I am considering has been out on his own for five years – no office and no employees. He would bring around 30 active matters with him. I was thinking of paying him a salary with a discretionary bonus based upon performance. Fees originated and generated would be a major component of the performance determination that would impact future salary increases, bonuses, and eligibility for partnership. However, I believe that I must do something with regard to the business that he brings with him. I would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions:

Response:

I agree with your general approach with regard to his compensation. Payments for originations for associates gives me pause.  However, I believe you have to treat business that he brings with him differently. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Create a list of the pending matters that he will bring with him. The list should list the A/R and WIP for time bill matters. For flat fee matters whether the fee has been collected and spent, whether there will be any more fee, the amount of work that remains to be completed (percent), and the estimated hours required to complete the work. For contingency fee work – a list of the expected fee - low and high – for matters in progress.
  2. He should get 100% of A/R and unbilled WIP earned but not billed or paid before he joins the firm. 20% of the work done after he is with your firm.
  3. I would pay him 20% of the fees earned (prorated) for flat fee matters while the matter is with your firm if a fee will be due and paid. If not – your firm should be entitled to an offset for the overhead servicing his work for which there will be no fee forth coming.
  4. Once the matters on the list are concluded any future work that he originates would be "firm accounts".

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

Apr 22, 2014


Law Firm Financial Management – Higher Profit – Lower Partner Compensation

Question:

Our firm is a 7 attorney firm in Evansville, Indiana – four partners and three associates. I am one of the partners in the firm. Each month we are provided with a profit and loss statement, a billable hours report, fees received reports broken by lawyer, and accounts receiveable reports by lawyer. In 2014 our fee collections are up significantly over 2013 – our expenses are lower – profits are up – yet the money is not there for partner draws and we are having to draw less than we did in 2013? What do you think is happening?

Response:

A couple of reports that are missing from your list - a balance sheet and a statement of cash flows. Even if you are on cash-based accounting not all cash disbursements flow through the profit and loss statement which is the report that reports profit/loss. For the following types of cash disbursements flow through the balance sheet and are not considered expenses:

So while the profit and loss statement may be showing a higher level of profit there could have been other uses of cash that are not reflected on the profit and loss statement. Take a look at the balance sheet and the statement of cash flows reports.

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

Mar 25, 2014


Law Firm Associate and Non-Equity Partner Compensation: Is There a Cap or Ceiling?

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 16 attorney insurance defense law firm in Kansas City. We have two equity partners, four non-equity partners, and ten associates. Only the two equity partners bring in client business. Since our clients are insurance companies most of our work is new business from existing clients. Unlike other firms doing insurance defense work our billing rates are low and we have to put in a lot of billable hours and maintain a high ratio of associates and non-equity partners to equity partners.

In the past our associates stayed for a while and left after several years. As a result about the time they reached the higher compensation levels they left and we replaced them with lower cost associates. In the last few years – with the economy and the oversupply of lawyers – they are staying much longer. While we – the equity partners – want to be fair and are willing to share – we are concerned about our reducing profit margins and at what point an associate or non-equity partner's compensation is "maxed out." We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Law firms of all types of practice are experiencing this dilemma. The problem is even more evident in insurance defense firms where much of the work is routine discovery work that can be handled as well by an attorney with two years' experience as by an attorney with ten years' experience at lower cost. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Use the formula – 3 times salary as a general guide to determine where you are regarding working attorney fee production from each of your attorneys. If you are paying an associate or non-equity partner $100,000 a year salary you should be collecting $300,000. The goal is that 1/3 of each fee dollar goes to association of the attorney, 1/3 to overhead, and 1/3 to profit – this a 30% profit margin.
  2. Dig into your financials and determine your contribution to profit from each of your attorneys. Allocate all direct expenses and indirect overhead and calculate profit margin. Click here for an illustration on how to allocate overhead
  3. Profit margin should be between 25%-30%.
  4. Use the margin to establish a theoretical salary limit in absence of other contributions such as management, client origination, additional business from existing clients, etc.
  5. Cap salaries with the exception of periodic cost of living adjustments.
  6. Use a client or referral commission bonus, production/hours bonus, and bonus pools to reward exceptional performance.

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

Jan 28, 2014


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Separate Silos – Profit Sharing

Question:

Our firm is a 9 attorney firm in Orlando, Florida. We have three equity partners and six associates. Currently partners are compensated in accordance with their ownership interest percentages which are 35%, 35%, and 30% respectively for the newest partner. There is growing discontent with this arrangement. We have already evaluated several alternative approaches to compensation and do not believe that they would work for us. Two of the partners share common goals for the firm, have compatible practices and clients, and use almost all of the associate attorney's time and other firm resources. The other partner has a transactional practice (the other two of us are litigators) and operates more as a lone ranger and a separate silo. We are considering creating two profit pies for each of these two silos. I would appreciate your thoughts concerning such an approach.

Response:

I don't run into this approach as much as I did 30+ years ago. In essence this is the profit (or silo) approach to partner compensation. This approach is typically found in firms that believe that the cost of production and consumption of firm resources are disproportionate. Usually there is strong competition in these firms. Small personal injury plaintiff firms are sometimes structured in this fashion.

Using the separate silo (profit center) approach fees and costs (overhead) are allocated to each partner (or partner group or silo) profit center and profit determined for each profit center resulting in separate compensation pies for each profit center. Then each partner draws his or her profit center pie or participates in a sharing arrangement with other partners that are members of the profit center in accordance with an agreement of other partners in the profit center or silo.

The devil lies in the details and the trick is to develop a fair and balanced allocation formula that can be used to allocate fee revenues and costs to the silo or profit center.

Silo, lone ranger, or pure profit center approaches usually results in separate firms operating with a firm (a confederation), each sharing overhead in various proportions. Such firms are usually divisive and the form of organization does not encourage specialization or sharing of work. More often than not there are frequent disagreements over fee and overhead allocations.

Often this approach is the next stop to separate firms – separate books – space sharing arrangement.

Thirty years ago I worked in such a firm – the firm is no longer in business.

So proceed with caution – develop written allocation guidelines and test run the numbers before jumping off the cliff.

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

 

 

Jan 20, 2014


Law Firm Associate Compensation – Incentives for Improving Production

Question:

I am the managing partner for a 18 attorney insurance defense firm in Atlanta. We have 6 partners and 12 associates. Most of our associates are seasoned associates and have 10 years plus experience. We are presently paying them a salary plus discretionary bonus. We are having problems with six of the associates not reaching performance goals. (1800 minimum billable hours per year.) While we have some attorneys billing 2400+ hours per year – these six are not – some are billing 1400 hours. What sort of incentive should we be thinking about to improve their performance?

Response:

The incentive is to get to continue their employment, maintain a full work schedule, progress to partnership, and to receive future pay raises and bonuses.

I know of some insurance defense firms that pay a billable hour bonus above a certain level. However, this approach often causes other problems such as milking hours in client files and overbilling often resulting in client dissatisfaction and potential loss of key clients. In addition other factors are also important – quality of work, results obtained, teamwork, client relationships (minding) etc. that are often not considered and left out of the equation. Before charging off on such an incentive approach I would first see if you can determine the reasons behind the low hours of the six associates. Do they have enough work? Do they put in enough hours? Are they good time managers and good time keepers? If they have enough work – then meet with each of them – lay out the expectation of 1800 hours and consequences for non-achievement. If they have issues with time management or time keeping impress upon them the importance of improving these skills – in the meantime they may have to simply put in the extra time to get in the hours.

Suggested consequences:

  1. For those not meeting expectations. Manage and coach them in real time- but be firm about your expectations. You are paying them a salary for a certain level of expectations. If there is not enough work reduce their working hours and compensation. Consider production in future salary reviews and bonuses. Don't pay them an incentive bonus to perform the work you are already paying them to do.
  2. For those exceeding expectations. Reward them with a discretionary bonus. But when advising them of the bonus advise them specifically what it is for and that is it a variable bonus and award for specific performance exceeding expectation. 

Often motivation is more about getting the right people on the bus than incentive programs. See article on the topic below.

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

Nov 26, 2013


Law Firm Non-Equity Partners – Compensation and Perks

Question:

Our law firm is a New Orleans 14 attorney firm that focuses its practice on business representation in both litigation and transactional matters. We have four equity partners. The other ten attorneys are associates. We have been discussing implementing a non-equity partnership tier and how we should handle compensation and other perks. We would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions.

Response:

I believe that the non-equity partnership tier should be meaningful and distinctive – both internally and externally. Consider the following:

  1. List non-equity partners as partners on the firm's website and other firm marketing collateral material. If you feel you must make a distinction list the equity members as managing partners.
  2. Allow non-equity partners to attend some partner meetings and have input as non-voting partners into management decisions.
  3. Allow one non-equity partner to be elected to the Executive Committee as a non-voting partner.
  4. Allow non-equity partners to serve on firm committees.
  5. Pay dues to a Country or other similar club for the non-equity partner.
  6. Tie a portion of the non-equity partner's compensation to a bonus based upon firm performance.

While you want to create incentives – status and economic – for the non-equity partnership tier be careful that you don't diminish the desire for future equity partnership.

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

Oct 01, 2013


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Origination Credit in a Two Partner Firm

Question:

Our firm is a 8 attorney firm in Fort Worth, Texas. We have two partners – myself and my partner. Our approach to compensation has been based upon our ownership interest percentages which have been adjusted over time based upon working attorney (personal) collections. We have been discussing implementing a formula using working attorney collections and also bringing client origination credit into the equation has well – weighing each equally. Our ownership percentages would be adjusted based upon the fee credit ratio between the two of us. I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Response:

My first thought is whether you are trying to build a firm-first firm or a group of separate practitioners. How will you incorporate other factors such as firm management, business development, mentoring and training associates, etc? If both of you are making roughly equal contributions in these areas your approach might have merit but be careful that you do not head down the path of separate practices – and become a lone ranger firm. My other concern is with client origination – this often gets tricky. With only two partners you don't have anyone to serve in the capacity of attribution police when and if there are disagreements as to origination credit. (attribution committee) So you will have to be able to discuss this subject openly and hopefully upfront. Share origination credit when appropriate, allocate to firm when it appears that a client came to the firm based upon firm brand or name recognition, and consider a 5 year sunset provision whereby the credit reverts to firm or responsible attorneys.

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

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