Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Human Resources

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Oct 10, 2019


Finding and Training in a New Estate Planning Attorney

Question: 

I am the owner of an estate planning firm in the Western Chicago suburbs. My practice is a specialized practice that focuses on estate planning, estate administration, estate litigation, and elder law. While I was a solo practitioner for many years approximately four years ago I brought in an associate that had three or four years experience with an other estate planning firm. Unfortunately, he just gave me his notice and advised that he was leaving to join another firm. We have too much work for me to handle by myself and I am going to need another attorney with estate planning experience. How do I go about finding this person. Any suggestions that you have will be appreciated.

Response: 

I have assisted several of my Chicagoland estate planning law firm clients as well as clients in other parts of the country and I can tell you that experienced estate planning/administration and elder law attorneys are like gold and hard to find. This was even the case during the 2008 recession when recent law school graduates and experienced attorneys with other skill sets were having difficult times finding jobs. Now, with the current job market, finding experienced estate planning/administration and elder law attorneys is even more difficult. Many of these attorneys tend to work in small firms, are loyal to their firms, and less mobile. They tend to stay put and often remain with one law firm for their entire careers.

I would start your search for an experienced attorney by:

  1. Putting the word out through your professional network. Ask around.
  2. Prepare an ad for the position
  3. Post the ad with www.indeed.com, ISBA.org Career Center, LinkedIn, local suburban bar associations, and local law schools.
  4. Have resumes come to you electronically.
  5. After initially reviewing resumes and narrowing down to candidates of interest use a telephone interview as your first interview and face to face for a subsequent interview if appropriate.

If after thirty days or so you are having no luck you might have to consider using a local headhunter or simply looking for a recent law graduate and investing the time to train a new attorney.  Several of my estate planning/administration and elder law clients are having to hire new law graduates and train them. Many have been quite satisfied with the results and now believe it is the best way to go. Recent law graduates start with a clean slate and do not bring in any baggage or bad practices or habits picked up in other law firms. They are often more loyal and stay with the firm longer.

A few suggestions concerning recent law school graduates:

  1. Look for candidates that took elective courses in estates/trusts/elder law.
  2. Look for candidates that had meaningful clerking experience with law firms specializing in estate planning/administration and elder law. Not running errands but meaningful experience.
  3. Develop a comprehensive training plan with specific timelines designed to get the attorney billable and productive as soon as possible in easier forms of work (possibly guardianship) and then gradually move the attorney into simple estate plans and more complex areas over time.
  4. Be patient – the process will take time – consider it an investment.
  5. It will take time for you to make money from the new associate. Be happy if you cover the cost of the associate in the first year.

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

Sep 19, 2019


Do You Have “Stars” in Your Partner Ranks?

Question: 

Our firm is a second generation insurance defense firm in Bakersfield, California. We have fourteen lawyers, nine of which are partners. While all of the partners are great trial lawyers, work hard, and bill the required lawyers none of our partners are good at business development, leadership, or management. Our business comes from the client that we inherited. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Response: 

Successful law firms need at least a few star partners in their ranks.

“People are our most important asset” is a standard phrase heard in business. A more accurate and honest statement in many industries might be” competent people are a necessary component of our success.” However, as important as the company’s people are, they are somewhat expendable. The reason is simple. In most businesses the company’s competitive advantage does not rely on the retention, motivation, and behavior of particular individuals. Instead, it turns on shelf space, brand strength, core position, distribution systems, price, technology, product design, location, or any number of other variables that can exist apart from individuals who created the product or service. So except in the long term, most companies profit does not necessarily correlate with their people assets.

This is not the case for law firms. A law firm’s success depends not just on its people assets but on stars. Who are an organization’s stars? They are the individuals who have the highest future value to the organization, the men and women critical jobs whose performance is central to the company success. In a law firm, if a star leaves, the firm and its clients notice the difference. If enough stars leave the firm’s financial performance suffers. In a law firm, partners for significant clients, practice areas and offices are its stars.

In law firms stars are typically partners, but not all partners are stars nor are all stars partners. What  what makes them law from stars is that they propel the business model along all three of its dimensions – building and enduring client relationships, performing up to their full potential in putting the firm first, and implementing strategic imperatives. Because they are so accomplished other members of the firm emulate their behavior.

You need to either develop or eventually recruit a few star partners that have the leadership, management, and client development skills that help the firm grow or stagnation will develop over time. I have seen make practices such as yours limp through second generation and dissolve in third generation.

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

Aug 01, 2019


Care and Feeding Associate Attorneys

Question:

I am the owner of a law firm in Chicago suburbs that specializes in estate planning. I started the firm twelve years ago. Over the years the firm has grown from just myself as a solo to a firm with myself and six associate attorneys. Prior to starting the firm I worked in several other firms as an associate and as a partner. I felt I was not being compensated for my hard work so I started by own firm. I have always worked hard and in addition to managing the firm and bringing in all the clients I bill 1700 billable hours a year. My associates are a disappointment. They work the bare minimum, some are lazy, and none are even billing 1400 hours a year. Some are not even billing 1200 hours a year. I have tried bonus systems based on production of fees collected and they have had no effect. In my old firms this was not the case, everyone worked hard and was self motivated. I am at a loss and I don’t know how to motivate these associates. I would appreciate any thoughts that you have regarding what I should do?

Response: 

I suspect that you, as a founder, expect the same sort of work ethic and drive that you, as well as others, in your prior firms had over the years. Welcome you the new generation of workers and the era of work-life balance. This is not to say this generation of workers is lazy – their priorities in life are different and work is not the only priority in their lives as it may have been in yours. They may not also not have the drive and self motivation that you had and require direction. You can’t simply put them on autopilot – they require care and feeding in the form of:

Often a little care and feeding will go a long way to changing performance and often accomplishes more that formulaic bonus systems. Here is a prior blog on how to go about this. 

I agree that 1200 billable hours is unsatisfactory and you should be expecting 1600 for your type of practice.  Expectations need to be established, if they aren’t, and consequences for non-compliance. I think bonus systems such as yours are fine but often do not accomplish desired results without some care and feeding. If you are unwilling to do some care and feeding your other option is to fire your worst offenders and try to replace them with self-motivated associates that have a documented track record of performance. Getting the right people on the bus can be more productive than care and feeding beyond a certain point.

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

 

 

Jun 05, 2019


Law Firm Partnership Tiers – Different Qualifications For Equity and Non-Equity Partners

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a six lawyer firm in Nashville, Tennessee. There are two partners in the firm, myself and another partner, and we have four associate attorneys. Two of our associates have been with firm for over ten years. We are trying to put in place a career progression policy for them and we are thinking about having a non-equity and equity tier which would serve as a prerequisite to equity partnership. What are the differences between the expectations and requirements for non-equity and equity partner?

Response: 

The main difference between an equity partner and non-equity or income partner is that the equity partners assumes a higher degree of capability in a lot of areas, not just good lawyering. Equity partners are expected to develop business, to manage large client relationships, and to have a level of commitment that allows them to do all of that and maintain a very full practice load at the same time. Non-equity or income partners are generally lawyers that are excellent lawyers in his or her field but doesn’t satisfy the other requirements required of equity partners. In addition, equity partners usually invest capital in the firm and assume the risks of the office lease, credit line, and other liabilities. Non-equity partners usually have guaranteed salaries and equity partners do not.

Here are a few of the typical hurdles that are required to move up to equity partner:

The primary difference is non-equity partners focus is on lawyering and the focus of equity partners is on lawyering and being a businessperson as well – practicing law and managing a business.

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

 

May 22, 2019


Conflict Between Law Firm Partners and Non Productive Partners

Question: 

I am a partner in an fourteen attorney firm in Dallas, Texas. There are seven partners in the firm. We started the firm together twenty years ago. Over the years the firm has been very successful and each of the seven partners have had a great relationship. However, over the last five years some of the partners are no longer contributing like they were and relationships have become strained. We are equal partners and our compensation is based upon our ownership interest – so we are paid equally. I am concerned that if we don’t resolve this problem the firm may split apart in the future. You advise and thoughts will be appreciated.

Response: 

There are many reasons that difficulties may arise between partners in a law firm. One of the major factors is that working together effectively is a very difficult skill to acquire. Most individuals join a firm without realizing all that is involved. Professionals, especially, frequently do not understand that being an associate, colleague, and partner require a different set of skills than just being talented in one’s field. Many partners often only have a general idea of what the firm expects of them and only limited interest in how the firm itself operates, as distinguished from what they are professionally prepared to do. Most lawyers are highly motivated to use their expertise on client work, not on spending time in organizing or running a firm or partnership, even though doing so would help the firm operate more successfully and efficiently.

The first step would be, if you have not already, to sit down as a group and discuss the problem, establish agreed to performance expectations for the partners, document in writing, and have each partner sign the document. See if this makes a difference. If no improvement is made then the under performing partners should be confronted and some form of action taken. You may have to redesign your compensation system and possibly ask problem partners to leave.

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

May 15, 2019


Challenges in Law Firms that are Family Businesses

Question: 

I am a partner in a husband/wife owned law firm in Seattle, Washington. We have four other associate lawyers in the firm. One of these lawyers is our son and the other is the daughter of my wife’s (who is my partner) brother. We have four staff members of which one is also a family member. We are a general practice firm and we have been in operation for ten years. While the firm has done well over the years we have had our challenges. Office problems seen to follow us home and both staff employees and non-family attorneys are alienated. We have been experiencing turnover of both staff and attorneys. What should we being doing different?

Response: 

I have seen family practices go both ways – successful and not so successful due to the conflict and drama that can exit in family practices if they are not setup and managed properly.  A few of the challenges and issues that can arise in family owned law firms include:

Family practices must first start by recognizing that there are three social systems at play – the family, the law firm business, and overlap of the two. Unless boundaries and rules are established there will be conflict and tension. Family roles and roles in the law firm should be be developed. Here are a few guidelines that family practices should consider adopting:

  1. Develop family and law firm charters – sort of like job descriptions – that outlines roles and responsibilities in the family and the law firm.
  2. Establish criteria for who in the family can join the firm.
  3. Determine education and experience requirements for joining the firm.
  4. Determine how titles of family members in the law firm will be determined.
  5. Determine how job performance will be evaluated.
  6. Determine consequences for inadequate performance.
  7. Determine how compensation will be determined.
  8. Leave law firm business at the law firm – don’t bring it home.

Here is a link to an earlier blog in re children of partners who are attorneys working in law firms.

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

 

Mar 26, 2019


Hiring Lawyers that are Children of Law Firm Partners

Question: 

I am an associate attorney in a nine-attorney firm in Orlando, Florida. There are five partners and four associates in the firm. I have been with the firm four years and I am the senior associate. I am concerned about my future. Recently one of the partners announced that he was bring his son, who recently graduated from law school, into the firm as an associate. Other partners have children in law school. I am concerned about my future. I have hopes of becoming a partner in the firm in the next few years. I am afraid that with partner children in the firm this may not happen. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Response: 

Many firms have brought children and other family members into the firm and have had excellent results. Others have not. In general, I believe that law firms do a better job at this than do other business firms.  I believe that if the firm lays the proper foundation and goes about it correctly children of partners and existing associates can coexist. Here are suggestions that I suggest for law firms:

  1. Recognize that for the family members there will be a family system, law firm, and an overlapping of these systems. This can be fertile ground for conflict if clear boundaries between the family role and the firm (business) role are not clear. Establish clear boundaries. Family dynamics and business dynamics seldom mix. A firm’s objective should be to draw the clearest possible distinction between the two and make sure that everyone understands that the firm (business) is the firm and the family is the family.
  2. Children should not be brought into the firm unless they want to be involved and satisfy the firm’s  standard hiring criteria for lawyers. I believe that before partners children join the law firm it is a good idea for them to work for another firm or organization. When they do join the firm, they can bring with them that experience, a supply of new ideas, a network of contacts, and a number of other benefits acquired.
  3. The firm must make it clear to partner’s children that they must “earn their stripes” and come up through the ranks in the same fashion as other associates in the firm. No special privileges. Make it clear that they must earn the respect of other attorneys and staff in the firm.
  4. The firm should put the associates and staff at ease. Make it clear that children of partners are expected to “earn their stripes” and they will not be promoted to partner over other associates on family status alone.
  5. The firm should clearly define the role of all parties.
  6. The partners should monitor their own behavior. They should not take sides – either between their children if they join the firm or between other partner’s children and other employees in the firm.
  7. The firm should be careful with compensation and other rewards. Compensation should be based on performance and results and consistent and competitive with other law firms of similar size and type.
  8. Communicate, communicate, communicate – your intentions, roles, etc. before and after partner’s children join the firm.

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

Mar 13, 2019


Law Firm Attorneys Overuse of Email and Text Messaging

Question: 

I am the owner of a four-attorney firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. The firm has three associate attorneys plus three paralegals and three other staff members. One of my attorneys recently advised me that he wanted to do more work remotely. The next day I emailed him my thoughts and advised him that I would not let him work remotely. He then emailed me that he was giving me his two weeks notice. What should I have done differently?

Response: 

You should have met with him personally and discussed the matter face to face. Email has its uses but I find it is often overused and used in situations where it should not be.

Note the following scale of communication media and richness.

1. Face to face
2. Telephone
3. Email and texts

Face to face is the richest form of communications and should be used for sensitive communications such as performance reviews and other such discussions concerning performance, praise, training and mentoring, etc. It should have been used in the situation you discussed in your question.

Telephone is the second richest form of communications and should be used for less sensitive communications or for face to face situations discussed above when a face to face meeting is physically not possible.

Email, text, and other written communications should be used for routine communications such as assignment of projects and tasks, work instructions, etc.

Sensitive and difficult communications should be communicated through a rich medium such as face-to-face meetings and routine communications through a lean medium such as a memo.

Media richness is determined by the speed the media provides, the variety of communications channels on which it works, the extent of personal interactions allowed, and the richness of language it accommodates. As tasks become more ambiguous, you should increase the richness of the
media that you use.

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

Feb 12, 2019


Law Firm Communications – Tools that Can be Used to Improve Communications

Question:

Our firm is a sixteen attorney personal injury insurance defense firm located in Dallas, Texas. I am a member on our three-person management committee. We have been experiencing associate attorney and staff turnover. Recently, we had all employees complete confidential surveys concerning their thoughts and feedback concerning the firm. One theme that was central to all was that the firm has poor communications with employees. I would like to hear your thoughts on what we need to do to improve.

Response: 

Obviously, more specifics would be helpful. Communication is a broad topic. Are they talking about mentoring, training, updates of what is going on in the firm, etc? However, here a a few best practices to think about:

  1. Find ways to improve communications with members, associates and staff.
  2. Use the appropriate communications vehicle for the task at hand. (Face-to-face, voice mail, e-mail, memo, etc.)
  3. When a few employees are not following policies, or causing difficulties – resist the temptation to send out a blanket e-mail to all – and have the courage to counsel and discipline the individual offender. The will improve the overall morale and attitude of others in the firm.
  4.  Hiring
    1. Terminate marginal people.
    2. Develop procedures to ensure that the firm is hiring from a pool of qualified
    3. Formulate formal hiring and firing policies.
    4. Insure that hiring’s and firings are documented in accordance with the firm policies.
  5. Updated employee handbook.
  6. Training
    1. More formal training and mentoring programs should be designed for staff and associates alike. In addition to typical legal and office topics, other topics should include skill training in:
      1. English language (staff)
      2. Communications
      3. Law firm economics generally (associates)
      4. Management
      5. Time management
      6. Time Keeping
      7. Marketing
      8. Client service
      9. Speaking and writing
  7. Communications and Policies
    1. Communications can always be improved, and the appropriate channels used for the appropriate situation. (e.g. individual face-to-face, staff meetings, telephone call, memo or email.)
    2. The firm should insure that it is delegating as much as it should. In particular,
      partner time spent on administrivia.
    3. People with growth potential should be placed where they have the greatest potential to grow.
    4. The staff should know what they are trying to accomplish.
  8. Employee handbooks should insure that the following policies are included:
    1. Relations with clients
    2. Objectivity
    3. Confidentiality
    4. Investments and other financial dealings with clients
    5. Outside work
    6. Overtime or bonus
    7. Salary review
    8. Insurance coverage
    9. Sick leave
    10. Continuing education and tuition reimbursements
    11. Time off to attend various training and professional functions
    12. Dues for professional and other organizations
    13. Allowable expenses and reimbursement procedures
    14. Involvement in civic and other community organizations
    15. Speeches, articles and books
  9. Staff members should be made aware of the firm policies and changes in policy.
  10. The firm should develop a procedure for feedback from the associates and staff to use to improve the knowledge and skills of all staff. (Internal survey, suggestion box, and other tools)
  11. The firm should conduct regularly scheduled frequent meetings.
  12. Attorney and staff errors should be handled in a way to improve performance and maintain respect for the firm. Not placing blame.

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

 

Nov 28, 2018


Associate Attorney Mentoring and Giving Feedback

Question:

I am the owner of an elder law firm in Jackson Mississippi. There are three associate attorneys working in the firm that have been with me under five years. All three were hired directly out of law school. While I try to mentor and train each of the associates as needed in “real time” I also conduct annual performance reviews with each associate and provide them with a written performance evaluation. I am getting frustrated as it seems that the feedback that I provide them does not stick and they continue to make the same errors and mistakes. I welcome any thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

You may need more frequent discussions that are scheduled. I have some law firm client owners  that have an ongoing scheduled meeting with each associate twice a month. You may also want to examine how you actually provide feedback to your associates. Often owners beat around the bush and don’t really provide meaningful feedback.

Giving meaningful feedback contributes an essential component to effective associate management. Whether you give feedback informally, midway through the work or at the end, or formally through a scheduled  evaluation process, it gives you a powerful management tool, assisting individuals in professional development, teaching those you manage to work more effectively, and giving recognition and showing appreciation when deserved.

Effective feedback should be:

Praise you associates when deserved. Praise provides an effective motivator for most associates and should include:

Provide constructive criticism when deserved. It should include the items listed above and you should give it:

Use the following outline when giving constructive feedback:

Try to implement some of these ideas and go from there.

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

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