Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Financial Management

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Aug 10, 2010

Personal Injury Law Firm Profitability


We are a 5 attorney (all partners) personal injury plaintiff law firm in Central Illinois. We are all working hard, are extremely busy, but we don't seem to be seeing the results of our hard work in our earnings and compensation. We are making hefty marketing investments – in fact we are spending around 6% of revenue on marketing. What are your recommendations on how we can improve our profitability?


It is hard for me to comment specifically with the limited information that you have provided. There are numerous variables that need to be examined. However, in general terms:

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

Jul 15, 2010

Getting Control of the Financial Side of Your Law Practice


I am a partner in a 14 attorney firm. Our bookkeeper has been with us for 20 years. We have a time and billing system, a separate bookkeeping system, and a separate database for clients, and something else for trust accounting. The other partners and myself do not know the name of the software that we are using, don't know how to access the software, and we have to ask the bookkeeper for any financial information that we require. We feel like "hostages". She gets offended when we ask questions. When we do receive information we don't know how to read or interpret much of the information. How can we get control of our firm back?


It is imperative that owners and partners in a law firm have access to financial information on a timely basis, understand the information, and use the information in a proactive way to manage the practice. We suggest:

The owner (or an appointed partner(s) in larger firms) obtain detailed training on the accounting software system(s) along side the bookkeeper when the system is implemented. In addition to general operation of the software, special training should also be obtained on intepretation and use of the management reports.

In your current situation – this may be a good time to consider upgrading your system and at that time obtain training on the new system, review the roles of all parties, and current procedures.

Insure that you have accounting controls in place and appropriate segregation of accounting duties.

Outline your expectations and requirements of the bookkeeper, meet with her/him, and communicate appropriately.

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


  • Jun 23, 2010

    Law Firm Cost Cutting Strategies


    Our firm is a 20 attorney defense firm in the Southwest. We are having a hard year and are looking for cost cutting ideas and strategies.


    I am often asked to help law firms design and implement profitability improvement programs. In most of my engagements the real problem is insufficient gross income and lack of sufficient investment (spending and time) on marketing and initiatives designed to stimulate client and revenue growth. For most firms increasing revenues is the most effective way of impacting the bottom line. However, we do find that there is waste and unnecessary overhead that eats away at profits and a cost control program is also recommended and implemented. During recessionary times such as we are currently facing – drastic cost control are often the only option. Reducing overhead can immediately and effectively improve a firm’s bottom line.


    The first step in an expense control program is to identify those areas where potential savings exist. Review your profit and loss statement. Resist the temptation to arbitrarily cutting costs which could cut the muscle with the fat and result in revenue loss as well. You have to spend money to make money – so if cost cutting is the appropriate strategy – cut the right costs. Think strategically about cost reduction.


    After you have identified areas where savings can be made prioritize and develop specific strategies and implement action plans to achieve the savings.

    Here are a few ideas:

    STRATEGY #1:  Reduce Headcount


    This is the largest area for potential savings. Downsizing is a strategy that has been used by many firms this past year. However, it can have long term negative consequences for revenue and talent management. Consider all levels – non-productive partners, associates, paralegals, and staff. Be prudent and sensitive in implementation.

    STRATEGY #2:  Reduce Compensation

    Obviously one way is to cut salaries – a strategy to be used as a last resort. A better approach is to reduce fixed salary (paying people for showing up) and add a variable pay component which will allow employees to earn additional compensation in the form of bonus for results achieved. Another approach is to freeze salary increases.

    STRATEGY #3:  Benefits

    A major area for cost savings – especially health insurance. Determine which programs are most important to employees. Do your best to protect those and reduce or eliminate programs that are less important. Consider offering more than one health insurance plan. Pay the premium for the lowest cost plan and provide options for employees to “opt up” to the better plans by paying the additional premiums. Consider increasing deductibles and requiring employees to pay a portion of the base premiums.

    STRATEGY #4:  Outsource

    Examine potential for outsourcing – from copy services – IT management – to your legal team.

    STRATEGY #5:  Occupancy

    Review your lease invoices and question increases and escalators for which you have been charged. Consider renegotiating your lease and ask for a lower rate. Reduce excess space either through a renegotiated lease or through sub-leasing.

    STRATEGY #6:  Telephone Service

    Scrutinize your bills and examine rate tariffs as well as items that have been tagged to your bill by third parties. Negotiate and ask refunds for any discrepancies or abuse found. We have seen firms receive thousands of dollars in refunds.

    STRATEGY #7:  Virtual Office

    Do you need an office at all. Many solos are working out of virtual and home offices or a combination of same. Some larger firms are reducing the size of their primary expensive downtown offices by having some attorneys work from home offices or other locations.

    STRATEGY #8:  Marketing

    Many firms actually need to spend more money on marketing. However, this does not mean that it should be wasted on sacred cows. Review marketing investments, eliminate feel good items, and insure that they are producing results. Reallocate funds.

    STRATEGY #9:  Supplies and Other Purchases

    Eliminate waste and unnecessary expenses. Consolidate with fewer vendors and solicit discounts for exclusive relationships.

    STRATEGY #10:  Develop a Budget and Financial Plan

    If you don’t have one – develop a budget and financial plan and work the plan.

    Good luck!


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

    Dec 26, 2009

    Dialing For Dollars: Tips For Collecting From Your Clients

    Q.     These economic times have been challenging for our firm at best. A major problem for us is collecting our client receivables. Do you have any suggestions?  


    A.     Regardless of whether economic times are good or bad cash flow is always a matter of prime concern for law firms. With it taking in general 3-4 months to convert client work to cash anything the firm can do to speed up the collection cycle is always desirable. Here are a few ideas:      

      1. Do everything you can to keep receivables from going out to 90 days. Receivables aged one month are 93.2% collectable; three or more months are 72.3% collectable, and one year or more are 28.4% collectable. 
      2. Call – don't waste time with mailing follow-up letters. 
      3. Treat collection calls as an extension of client service. Calls should be treated as client service calls – not collection calls.
      4. Caller should be someone other than the attorney who did the work for the client, qualified staff member or outsourced Accounts Receivable Account Manager.
      5. Calls should be made by a trained Accounts Receivable Account Manager with client-friendly people skills.
      6. Calls should be made on each account as soon as it reaches the due date.
      7. Accept credit cards and offer it as a payment option.
      8. Discount bills when necessary if it will expedite payment and engineer payment plans.
      9. Diary, calendar, and follow-up.
      10. Consider outsourcing to an Accounts Receivable Account Manager – not a collection firm.

        Consider our firm for outsourcing this effort.

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


    Nov 08, 2009

    Profitability Improvement Ideas

    Question: What are some ideas that our eight attorney should be doing to improve profitability?


    Use the RULES formula to focus your effort.

    R = Realization rate or effective rate per hour.
    U = Utilization – billable hours or case production hours.
    L = Leverage – ratio of partners to other timekeepers.
    E = Expenses – overhead.
    S = Speed – collection cycle – converting work to bills and bills to cash.

    Profitable law firms have an appropriate mix of each of these profitability levers. Compare against internal and external benchmarks and determine which of the levers require attention. Usually expenses is not the primary problem – in fact many firms should be spending more in the form of investment. Usually the primary focus should be on improving:

    Many firms need to increase case/matter volume through better client development and marketing to be able to obtain higher leverage ratios.

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

    Oct 02, 2009

    Pipeline Management


    I have recently read several law firm management articles that have referred to "Pipeline Management". What exactly does this mean and what is the implication for law firm management?


    Pipeline management is a term used in the management consulting profession to refer to the process by which you continually evaluate your active opportunities (prospective clients to booked clients) for their balance of QUALITY and QUANTITY. The goal is to continually stay on top of the overall health which is a full pipeline. Pipeline management allows client relatiionship managers to more accurately forecast fee revenues, better staff and manage client engagements, and close more client business.

    I often also refer to Pipeline managment in law firms in the context of using financial dashboards by which the individual charged with financial management responsibilities is continuously aware of significant changes in the firm's Pipeline (from prospects to cash): 

    By comparing these dashboad statistics to a prior month, quarter, or year – you are able to avoid financial surprises down the road.

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

    Sep 28, 2009

    The Primary Financial Problem For Most Small Law Firms

    Question: Our firm, a seven attorney personal injury firm in the southwest, seems like we can never get to the next level financially. Do you find that excessive overhead (expense) is the major problem for law firms?


    Not really. In fact, in many cases I find that law firms should be making larger investments in their future and spending more money. Often investments in marketing, talent, and technology are insufficent in many firms. The problem in most firms is insufficient leveraged fee revenue. In other words – many small firms practitioners – only think in terms of whether they have adequate work to keep themselves busy – they do not think in terms of being a net exporter of work so they can keep themselves busy plus two or three other attorneys and or paralegals. A well leveraged practice is what takes you financially to the next level. In reality – more marketing is needed – to create a sufficient volume of work to support this leverage. Once this is accomplished – attorneys must learn how to manage and supervise others – and the compensation system must shift emphasis from personal working collections to responsible (billing attorney) collections.

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

    Sep 01, 2009

    Staying Ahead on Retainers


    I do a good job of collecting initial retainers before doing work for my family law and criminal clients. But then I fall behind on retainer replenishments. Do you have any thoughts or ideas?


    This is a common problem I hear from clients in all practice areas. Here are a few suggestions:

    The key here is assigning someone the daily responsibility of monitoring retainers, having a good time and billing system, and using the managment reports from the system to stay on top of retainer useage.

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

    Oct 01, 2008

    Surviving in the Present Economy

    Question: We are a 12 attorney firm located in the mid-west. We are concerned about the impact that the economy is having on our practice and the current business environment. Our business is down and we are unsure what we should be doing financially to evaluate and improve performance – and survive.


    According to Thomson West PeerMonitor Index the first quarter of 2008 marked the lowest point in nine quarters. Demand for legal services is shrinking, the billable hours growth rate has been declining since the second quarter of 2007, and productivity has been shrinking since late 2006. Trends are casting 2008 to be a challenging year for law firms.

    Management of cash flow is critical. Here are our suggestions of how to examine where you are based upon receipts and your pipeline of future collections:

    1.  Monthly BillingsAre you budgeting your fee billings? Are your billing and collections on track? Are your individual attorneys and other producers meeting their revenue goals? Why not?
    2. Collections and ReceiptsAre your collections in alignment with your cash requirements for firm expenses, client advances, loan repayments, and attorney draws. Remember – the total expenses listed on the income statement does not represent all of your cash requirements. Balance sheet accounts such as partner draws, client advances, purchase of assets (equipment), and payments on loans, also involve uses of cash and must be taken into consideration. Typically, there is a lag of three months between the time of when you incur expenses and do work for a client and receive payment. Be aware of potential cash deficits.
    3. CostsHow are your actual expenses/costs tracking against your budget? Are you within your budget? If not – why? Investigate reasons. If over budget should you cut costs or is there a way to increase revenue? Sometimes you have to spend money in order to make money. What costs should be cut – and which should not? Be careful cutting marketing/client development investments.
    4. Accounts ReceivableAre they increasing or decreasing? What percent are they of your annual billings? Fifteen percent is high – five percent is within the range of acceptability. Uncollected accounts can sink the firm – stay on top of them with an effective management system. Deal with collection problems early – formulate a client acceptance/credit policy – get retainers up front – reject problem clients from the onset.
    5. Work in ProgressIs your work in progress increasing or decreasing? Why? Investigate reasons.This represents future receivables and future receipts. Are you on target? Bill immediately anytime during the month if work is completed – don’t wait until the end of the month? Bill monthly and cut-off bills by the 25th of the month so they are in the client’s hands by the 28th or 29th of the month.
    6. Unbilled Client AdvancesGet money from clients up front to cover these expenses or bill them immediately upon disbusement (if total client advance balance reached $100.00) regardless of the billing cycle established for the client’s fee billing. One exception may be contingency cases.
    7. Realization RateThe realization rate is the percentage of fees collected from the billable work of the firm’s timekeepers. Low realization rates indicates that attorneys are not effectively utilizing firm resources. Realization rates should be no lower than appropriately 90 to 95 percent.
    8. Lawyer – Client – Area of Law – MetricsExamine collections, accounts receivable, work in progress, unbilled client advances, unearned retainers, by lawyer, client, and area of law. Spot problems and deal with issues immediately.
    9. Producers Time ReportsAll producers (lawyers, paralegals, and staff) should keep time on billable and non-billable time and should enter into the computer system daily. Weekly time reports should be produced weekly and reviewed by firm management to insure that goals are being met for billable and non-billable time. Each producer should be provided with a copy of their own report weekly as well. Firm management should spot problem areas and identify reasons – i.e. – not putting in the time, lack of resources to delegate work, poor time managment or time keeping habits and practices.
    10. Trust Account BalancesReview this report weekly. If funds can be applied to work performed – transfer funds over to the firm’s operating bank account. Notify clients that need to replentish their retainers.John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

    Jun 29, 2007

    Skill Requirements for Office Managers/Bookkeepers in Small Law Firms

    We are often asked about skill requirements for office managers/bookkeepers in small law firms. (Six attorney and under firms) Many law firms in the six attorney and under size have shared with us their frustration in staffing the billing and accounting function. Often their investment in computerized billing and accounting systems fails to yield desired results due to poor accounting and management skills. Many small law firms assume that legal secretaries also have requisite accounting and management skills. Our experience has been that often this is not the case. Training, skills, and work behaviors are often different. Bookkeepers/accountants and secretaries are different animals. Many small firms are better off creating a accounting/bookkeeping position and staffing the position with a qualified bookkeeper/accountant. For many firms under six attorneys that have fully automated the billing and accounting function and have distributed time entry, this is not a full time position. In such instances many firms have either recruited a part-time bookkeeper/accountant solely for the accounting function or have created a combined position of office manager/bookkeeper. This justified a full-time position. Look for the following skills when evaluating candidates. Professional training in bookkeeping and accounting fundamentals as well as management principles.

  • A basic bookkeeping class should be a minimum requirement.
  • While a college degree should not be a requirement for the small firm, some college courses in accounting and management is desirable.
  • Two years+ prior experience in a bookkeeping/accounting position in a professional services firm such as law, accounting, consulting, etc.
  • Prior experience in a law firm bookkeeping/accounting position is desirable.
  • Experience with computers and accounting software as well as spreadsheets. On hands experience with the accounting software that the law firm uses is a plus. However, this is often not possible.
  • Prior office management experience in a law or other professional services firm if this is to be a combined position.
  • Detail orientated
  • Professional and able to deal with multiple demands, multiple masters, and the politics of a law office.
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