Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Financial Management

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Oct 03, 2018


Small Law Firm Financial Performance Indicators

Question: 

I am the owner of an estate planning firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I have five associates and four paralegals working in the firm. More of my time is spent on managing the practice and marketing than on servicing clients. I am trying to develop financial goals for the firm but I am clueless as to what financial indicators or ratios I should be looking at and what constitutes good or bad performance. Anything that you are willing to share would be appreciated.

Response: 

Here are what I believe to be key financial indicators/ratios and performance for a firm of your size and type:

I like to see profit margin – owner compensation – salary if paid as w-2 wages plus profit in the range of 35% – 45%.

Performance can vary by type of practice.

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

Aug 29, 2018


Law Firm Effective Rate Improvement

Question:

I am a partner with a sixteen-attorney firm in downstate Illinois and a member on our three person management committee. My responsibility on the committee in overseeing the firm’s finances and supervision of the firm administrator pertaining to accounting and finance. In reviewing our financial reports I have noted that our effective billing rates (realization rates) are not what they should be. We are reluctant to raise rates to our clients. What other steps can we take to improve our effective rates?

Response:

The most direct way to improve rate performance is to simply increase rates at an amount at least equal to inflation and to do so often (at least once a year). Without regard to whether this can be done, there are several other important techniques such as:

  1. Managing the client intake process
  2. Tailoring rates and billing policies to specific clients and matters
  3. Managing rate and billing adjustments
  4. Billing often and keeping the client informed
  5. Tying partner reward structure to rate performance
  6. Reporting rates achieved

Managing the client intake processes is probably the most important technique for improving rate performance. Intake management means:

Here are some ways to accomplish this:

  1. Effective preacceptance interviews
  2. Credit checking or prior payment history review
  3. Up-front discussions and arrangements
  4. Liberal use of retainers and advances for costs
  5. Early conflict of interest checks 
  6. Use engagement letters; and
  7. Management review of significant new clients or matters except accepted.

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

 

May 30, 2018


Outsourcing Appellate Work

Question: 

Our firm is a six attorney insurance defense firm in Kansas City. For the last few years our associate attorney costs have gotten out of control and in some cases revenues generated by particular attorneys are not even close to where they should be considering their costs. We have one associate attorney that we are paying a base salary that only does appellate brief work. He does not like litigation and does a poor job doing our bread and butter litigation work. We simply don’t have enough appeals to keep him busy. We are paying him a base salary of $100,000 a year. Last year his working attorney fees collected were $110,000. I welcome your thoughts.

Response: 

Obviously, you are losing money on him. An associate being paid $100,000 per year should be generating $300,000+ if you are looking to make any margin from him. Overall you should be making 25%-30% profit from your associates. Margin from associates is critical in an insurance defense firm. You are not even covering his direct cost alone any indirect overhead cost.

I believe you cannot justify this position and should consider eliminating this position and outsourcing your appellate work . Many insurance defense and other litigation firms that I work with are outsourcing appellate work to other law firms that provide this service for other law firms. There are also solo practitioners and freelance attorneys with appellate expertise that are working as contract lawyers for law firms doing appellate work. Another option is a legal process outsourcing firm.

It is imperative that you conduct proper due diligence and really check out the background, experience, and appellate track record of the firm or individual attorney that you are considering. Your short list should only include firms or attorneys that have a proven track record of appellate wins. Talk with some other law firms that are doing this.

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

May 22, 2018


Law Firm Financial Management – Using Credit Line to Purchase Equipment

Question: 

I am the financial partner with our sixteen attorney firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. The firm has had a rough couple of years. We had several partners leave the firm and they took several corporate clients with them. Unfortunately, this was ongoing consistent retainer and time bill work. While we still have some retainer and time bill corporate work, a much larger mix of our work is now contingency fee work. As a result we have had some cash flow challenges and for the first three months of this year there was no money to pay partner draws. We have a credit line with the bank of $125,000 that we have not used. We only use our credit line for long-term equipment purchases. We would appreciate any suggestions that you have.

Response: 

A line of credit is designed to be used for financing short-term working capital needs – not long-term financing needs such as fixed asset acquisitions. I would use either leases or long-term bank loans for equipment and other fixed asset financing secured by those assets. This leaves your your credit line available for short-term financing needs. While I hate to see a firm use a credit line to pay partner draws, often there is no other choice in law firms that are not adequately capitalized, especially contingency fee firms.  Partners have to eat too. Contingency fee practices can have wide cash flow swings and often have to use their credit lines to temporarily fund payroll and partner draws.

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

 

May 02, 2018


Law Firm Overhead and Profit Margins

Question: 

I am an attorney in New Orleans that has been a lawyer for ten years. I practiced with a small firm for eight years as an associate and then opened my own firm two years ago. I primarily work from home supplemented with a virtual pay-as-you-go office. I do not have any staff employees. I have been approached by a fourteen-attorney firm that would like me to join their firm as an income partner. Their offer includes a salary which I feel is low and a bonus based upon a percentage after covering my salary, other direct costs, and indirect firm overhead. The overhead allocations seem extremely high to me. In my practice I am bringing in around $100,000 in gross fees and my overhead averages $10,000-$15,000 per year. My profit margin is around 90%. I feel like I am better off building up my practice rather than accepting their offer. What are typical overhead and profit margins for law firms?

Response: 

We have to be careful how we define overhead. Overhead is generally to be considered all law firm expenses less attorney salaries and sometimes less paralegal salaries. The overhead ratio would then be the overhead divided by firm revenues. Profit margin is  expressed in terms of owner (partner, shareholder, etc.) earnings. In other words what is going into the owner’s pockets in terms of salary, share of profit, etc. Owner earnings is firm revenue less all firm expenses including associate and paralegal salaries but not including owner salary or compensation. The profit margin is total expenses (excluding owner compensation) divided by firm revenues.

A desirable profit margin range for law firms is thirty-five to forty-five percent.  Some firms are able to attain fifty percent. Profit margins depend upon the type of law practice, leverage ratios (associates to partners), how well the firm is managed, etc. I have some very successful firms with profit margins as low as twenty percent but the partner earnings are very high.

Your current overhead and profit margin is not sustainable in the long-term. While you have low overhead and a high profit margin you also have low earnings. You are only earning $85,000. You will soon reach a point where in order to increase your revenues you will have to hire people, acquire office space, and buy phone systems and other equipment. When this occurs you will be in a similar situation as to the law firm you are talking with.

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

Dec 20, 2017


Law Firm Associate Billable Hours – Estate Planning and Probate Firm

Question: 

Our firm is a six attorney estate planning/probate firm in Mesa, Arizona. There are three partners and three associates in the firm. We have had associates for the last eight years and have never made money from our associates. Last year we decided to implement a billable hour expectation of 1800 hours for the associates. A year later no one is even close. Only one associate will even reach 1500 hours. Is our expectation reasonable? You insight is appreciated.

Response: 

The national norms for all practices is in the 1700 range for associates. Litigation firms range from 1800-2000 hours and up with most firms having a 1800 or 2000 minimum billable hour requirement.

I believe that 1800 billable hours is high for a small estate planning/probate firm if the attorneys are only expected to work forty hours a week and the firm does not charge for initial consultations or intake interviews. Many of the estate planning/probate law firm’s that I am working with are struggling to get to 1500 billable hours – many associates and partners alike are under 1400 hours. I believe that an estate planning/probate practice should be able to expect 1600 billable hours.

I think that a forty hour work week expectation for attorneys is part of the problem. Most professionals service providers (attorneys, CPA’s,  management consultants, etc.) work more like fifty hours – not forty. It is hard to be a successful professional with a forty hour a week attitude. In addition to billable hours non-billable time has to be spent on client development, continuing professional education (CLE for attorneys), and firm administration.

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

Oct 11, 2017


Law Firm Capitalization – Should There Be a Buy-In?

Question: 

I am a partner in a firm in Los Angeles. We have nine attorneys – four partners and five associates. We are a young firm in that we have only been in business for four years. The four partners started the firm together, we are equal partners, and we split the profits equally. When we started the firm we each made equal capital contributions. We do not have a partnership agreement. We are thinking about bringing in two associates as equity partners and are trying to think through the mechanics and one of our questions is whether there should be a buy-in and if so how should we determine it. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Law firms have different viewpoints on this subject. I have worked with some larger firms that are in second generation or later that do not require a capital contribution at all. They use end of the year distribution hold backs and credit lines to fund their working capital requirements. Other firms do require capital contributions upon being admitted as a partner and additional contributions over time when additional capital is needed or when partners acquire additional capital interests.

Smaller firms tend to require new partners/shareholders to pay for their interest in the firm. The buy-in can provide additional capital for the firm or can be used to compensate the existing partners/shareholders for their investment and sweat equity in creating the law firm or in growing it to its present size. One approach that some firms use it to include in the partnership/shareholder agreement the formula for determining the value of the firm, to which the new partner’s/shareholder’s percentage interest can be applied. This could include non cash-based assets such as accounts receivable, unbilled work in process, and goodwill. Another approach is to base the buy-in or capital contribution upon a the cash-based capital based upon the number of ownership shares a partner receives. Most firms allow for a buy-in over several years. Firms that do have a buy-in provision also typically provide for a payment to partners/shareholders upon departure for the value of their capital account. In recent years, an increasing number of large firms have adopted a free buy-in. Under that approach, there are no payments to departing partners/shareholders.

I believe that you should require at least a capital buy-in based upon the cash-based capital on the books and the number of ownership offered. This assumes that the partners still have capital accounts on the books. I also think you might consider them buying into the accounts receivable and unbilled work in process as well or be excluded from participating in compensation from those receipts. You should also get a partnership agreement in place as well.

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

 

Sep 05, 2017


Law Firm Key Financial Goals/Metrics

Question: 

I am a newly elected managing partner of a fourteen lawyer firm in San Diego. While I was elected to this position I feel handicapped since I don’t have a financial background. What metrics/measurements should I be looking at?

Response: 

Here are a few metrics that you might want to consider:

Once firm goals, financial and non-financial are formulated, either run reports that are available from your system or develop special Excel reports than measure goal accomplishment.

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

Jun 28, 2017


Law Firm Accounting/Finance Position

Question:

Four of my partners and I have just split off from a large law firm in Phoenix, Arizona and have started a litigation boutique firm with five associates. As we staff our nine attorney firm we are planning on hiring someone to handle our accounting and manage our finances. What type of position should we create and what level of experience should we be looking for?

Response:

The size and skill of a law firm’s financial function usually varies directly with the size of the firm. Larger firms with a larger volume and more complex transactions require more sophisticated systems, procedures, and controls, and personnel with the knowledge and experience to operate effectively and efficiently in a more complex environment. The title for a law firm’s Chief Financial Officer will usually vary with the skill required for the position. Typical titles include:

In a small firm such as your firm, where financial activities are typically uncomplicated and volume is relatively modest, an Accounting Manager ordinarily oversees the Finance Function. The Accounting Manager is often a Bookkeeper/Billing Collections Clerk who handles the accounting, payroll, billing, and collections.

Some firm’s your size hire an experienced firm administrator to handle the Accounting Manager functions as well as managing other aspects of the firm such as human resources, IT, facilities, marketing, etc.

I suggest that you hire a experienced firm administrator or full-charge bookkeeper.

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

 

Jun 06, 2017


Law Firm Collections/Retainer Management – Using a Retainer Follow-up Report

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a nine attorney general practice firm in the Chicago suburbs. We practice in the areas of estate planning/administration and family law. While our estate planning and uncontested family law work is done on a flat fee basis our estate administration and contested family law work is time billed. We collect initial retainers for these matters but we fail to insure that the retainers are replenished. We are having accounts receivable collection problems as a result. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

This is a common problem that I see in firms doing estate administration and especially family law. The best way of managing your accounts receivable is to have less in outstanding accounts receivable in the first place. You do this by staying on top of your retainer balances compared to your work in process and ask the client for additional retainer before the work in process exceeds the retainer balance. In order to stay on top of retainer replenishment you need to develop what I call a retainer replenishment report and have someone assigned to reviewing the report daily and advising responsible attorneys to contact the client when work in process has hit a certain threshold (percentage of retainer used). Some firm’s present the report at a weekly attorney meeting and determinations are made regarding additional retainers to request. Other firms assign the responsibility to the firm administrator to automatically bill for the additional retainer. It is also important to insure that ongoing work is managed in a way that an excessive amount of work is not committed to a matter until the additional retainer replenishment is received.

A retainer replenishment report is not a standard report in many billing systems. You may have to create a custom report in your billing system using a report writer or in a worst case drop a accounts receivable report to an Excel file and add in some columns for the other information.

Here are the suggested data fields/columns for such a report:

Responsible attorney
Client/Matter name
Retainer Balance (typically this would be the balance in the trust account)
Unbilled WIP Fees
Unbilled Cost
Total Unbilled WIP
75% Retainer Threshold
Amount Over/Under Retainer
Additional Retainer Requested
Total Amount Retainer to Bill (Amount WIP over retainer plus additional retainer requested)

Many family law firms have advised me that after learning the hard way they are now doing a good job at this and advising me that they have minimal accounts receivable issues.

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

 

 

 

 

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