Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Human Resources

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Aug 02, 2017


Associate Attorney Career Track in a Small Law Firm

Question: 

I am the owner of a five-attorney estate planning practice in Denver. I have four associate attorneys of which three have been with the firm for over twelve years. Last year an associate that had been with me for many years left the firm and started his own practice. I thought I was paying him well by virtue of a competitive salary and discretionary bonus in additional to other benefits. I do not want to lose other seasoned attorneys. What should I do to provide more incentives for them to stay with the firm?

Response: 

Our experience as well as research over the years by our firm and others has demonstrated that the following, in priority order, are the key drivers of associate attorney job satisfaction:

  1. Satisfaction with immediate manager or supervisor
  2. Opportunities for training
  3. Satisfaction with team and coworkers
  4. Opportunities for career growth
  5. Compensation
  6. Opportunities for promotion

While compensation often is considered the primary factor related to associate satisfaction, I often find that opportunities for career growth and promotion play a significant role. Associates do leave law firms for less money for career growth and promotion opportunities in other firms or in some cases starting their own firm.

A key tool that law firm’s should be using for managing attorneys is a well-defined career path/track. The critical components of a career track include well-defined levels, roles and responsibilities at each level, promotion criteria, and compensation plans for each level. Typically these are outlined and documents in a career advancement program policy document. For example:

  1. Levels. Each attorney level within the firm (partner, non-Equity partner, principal, senior associate, associate) should carry a specific and clear title.
  2. Roles and Responsibilities. For each level, the typical roles and responsibilities should be clearly documented including client service work as well as business development and administrative responsibilities.
  3. Promotion Criteria. For each level in the firm, the criteria for promotion to that level should be outlined in the career track or career advancement program policy document. These criteria are often tied to competencies (knowledge, capabilities, and experience of the attorney), tenure as well as other factors.
  4. Compensation. A compensation plan should be developed for each level. (salary, bonus, benefits, and other perks)

I suggest that you give some thought to developing such a program. As you start with levels you will have to do some soul searching and confront the most burning issue – is partnership an option for associates in your firm – do I want partners –  and go from there.

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

 

 

 

 

Jul 11, 2017


Small Law Firm Retreat

Question:

Our law firm is a sixteen attorney Intellectual Property firm in Tampa, Florida. We have ten partners and six associates. I am a member of our three member executive committee and I have been given charge of looking into the pros and cons of having a firm retreat with all of our partners and associates. We have not had a retreat before and we would like your thoughts concerning the benefits that a small firm can receive from a retreat.

Response: 

Attorneys in group practice experience numerous issues as they grow and expand their practices. Management problems increase as the firm becomes larger. Senior partners often do not want to be involved in increased firm management responsibilities. If this is one of your firm’s issues, a retreat will provide an opportunity to deal with it before it gets serious and out of hand. Use a retreat to review how administrative responsibilities are being handled throughout the firm’s entire operation. Place on the retreat agenda topics such as strategic planning, succession planning, growth planning, client development, etc.  Consider whether your firm has the need to establish an office administrator position (if you do not have one) or whether the broadening of responsibilities of those on staff will provide the desired remedies. It is particularly important for small to medium-sized firms to clearly recognize at the retreat that the problems of growth are in part administrative and appropriate steps to deal with these problems early will prevent serious disruptions and internal conflicts later.

Many attorneys are reactors – they are trained to solve client problems – not management problems. Most attorneys find firm management distasteful and feel that their time is best spend doing billable work for clients. However, a firm’s success is in part dependent upon how well it is managed. The retreat can be used to educate firm members about the importance of these issues, even if the firm is a small firm. Retreats also benefit attorneys by helping them understand the management roles of other partners and other management positions in the firm as well as open up and improve communications.

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

Apr 04, 2017


Law Firm Retreats – Including Key Staff Members

Question: 

I am a partner in a forty-five lawyer firm in Memphis and a member on the firm’s executive committee. We are planning on having a two-day planning retreat in June of this year. We have had these retreats every year for the past six years. Past retreats have only included attorneys. This year we are considering including staff members. We would appreciate your thoughts as to whether this is a good idea.

Response: 

A firm invites all key staff to a retreat when they can play a major role in identifying problems and developing solutions. A firm retreat is an excellent forum if the partners or management have determined that individuals at different levels within the firm are having communication problems – for example – where communication is inadequate between:

Having these individuals participate in solving their own communication problems at the retreat usually produces better results than those obtained when the partners hand down orders that may not deal with the real issues. Staff participation can help identify problems and can involve more firm members after the retreat in the implementation of solutions – improved buyin.

As a rule, it is very productive to include individuals from nonprofessional or non management levels at a retreat when they are eager to be involved in problem solving efforts on a day to day basis.

A retreat solely for partners at the senior level is conducted to review firm progress and to deal specifically with financial, compensation, conflict between partners, growth planning, business development, or unique problems with staff members.

Some firm hold separate meetings for each level of staff in addition to combined meetings with attorneys.

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

Mar 21, 2017


Retaining Valued Associate Attorneys – Conducting Exit Interviews

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen attorney law firm in San Diego, California. We handle business transactions and litigation for business firms in the area. I am a member of the firm’s three-member executive committee. We have been experiencing associate attorney turnover for the past two years and don’t know whether it is due to more opportunities in the job market as the economy has improved or whether we have internal issues. We would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Response:

I suggest that in the future you conduct structured face-to-face exit interviews when associates resign their positions. You may want to even interview associates by phone that recently resigned and left the firm. Exit interviews can provide an opportunity to find out how you can retain your valued associates. Departing lawyers that are willing to be open regarding their experience with your firm can provide valuable feedback and information as to how your firm is viewed by your associates, why your associates are leaving, and what the firm can do to resolve issues and improve retention.

I suggest that you conduct either face-to-face or telephone interviews or as a last resort written confidential voluntary questionnaire. Questions might include:

  1. What influenced your decision to join the firm?
  2. Has the firm met your expectations? Describe?
  3. Were your work assignments aligned with your personal and professional goals and interests?
  4. Did you find your work assignments interesting and challenging?
  5. Were there particular individuals who had a substantial impact on the quality of your experience here? How did they impact your experience?
  6. Did you receive timely and quality feedback regarding your performance?
  7. What experiences did you find the most positive?
  8. Least positive?
  9. Is there anything that the firm could have done to improve your experience here?
  10. Were you satisfied with your compensation and benefits?
  11. Why did you decide to leave the firm?
  12. What factors influenced your choice of the new firm that you joined?
  13. Other issues or recommendations that you feel would be helpful for the firm to know.

After you have solicited feedback via exit interviews it is critical that you look into any issues reported, determine whether there is merit, and take appropriate actions that can be taken to resolve issues and improve retention.

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

Jan 31, 2017


Law Firm Administrator Competencies – Searching for a First-Time Legal Administrator

Question:

Our firm is a twelve attorney business litigation firm in Springfield, Illinois. I am a member of our three member management committee and I have been charged with helping the firm find and hire our first legal administrator. This will be our first experience. While we have a bookkeeper that handles our billing and accounting the rest of the firm’s management matters are handled by the management committee. We believe that we have reached a size where we need help with managing the day-to-day operations of the firm. What sort of skill set and type of person should we be looking for?

Response:

The starting point is to have some heart to heart discussions internally to make sure all the partners are on the same page regarding the role the firm is looking for an administrator to play? Is the firm willing to delegate authority with responsibility and let the administrator really manage the business side of the practice (a true administrator) or is the firm looking for more of a lower level office manager? This will dictate the skill set and type of person that you should be looking for. I suggest that you develop a job description for the position listing not only the duties but the authority levels as well and have every partner in the firm sign off on it.

An excellent resource in the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) which is the professional trade association for legal administrators. They have published a document listing 56 competencies in the following five categories:

Click here to download the above document.

ALA also has some helpful areas on their website for a law firm looking for an administrator including articles on evaluating your firm’s needs, the candidate search process, and defining the role of the administrator.

Many firms burn through their first administrator quickly and end up having to try again with another person or two. First time failure if often the result of not determining up front and having the partners agree regarding the role, expectations, and authority level of the administrator.

Do your homework and you will increase the change of success with your first administrator.

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

Oct 04, 2016


Law Firm Client Business Development – Motivating Lawyers to Develop New Client Business

Question:

I am the managing partner of an eighteen attorney firm in New Orleans. We have six equity founding partners, four non-equity partners, and eight associates. We represent institutional clients. Four of the six equity partners are in their sixties and two are in their late fifties. The six equity partners are concerned about the future of the firm as they approach retirement. If they retired today the firm would cease to exist – the non-equity partners would not be able to retain our existing clients and acquire new clients. We have not been successful at motivating our non-equity partners to develop and bring in new clients. We have harped on this for years and encouraged all attorneys to develop business. We implemented a component of our non-equity partner and associate compensation system to compensate them for new client origination. Unfortunately, we have not been able to motivate our non-equity partners and associates to develop new sources of business. Our non-equity partners and associates have a nine to five work ethic and an entitlement mentality. Would you share your thoughts?

Response:

Often law firms hire associates simply to bill hours and perform legal work. Then years later they are asked to develop clients. Many are unprepared and at a loss as where and how to start. I believe that if you want attorneys to develop clients you have to hire attorneys that have the personality, ability, and you have to get them started on business development in their early years.

To turn your non-equity partners and associates into rainmakers at this stage will be difficult but not impossible. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Insure that your compensation system reinforces and rewards business development  results. However, don't be surprised that even if your system rewards business development behavior does not change.
  2. Extrinsic motivators such as compensation often are not as impactful with professionals as intrinsic motivation that involves engaging in a behavior because it is personally and professionally rewarding – performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for external reward. Many law firms are requiring attorneys to submit annual personal business goal driven plans that are incorporated into annual performance reviews. I have found that these plans as or more powerful than compensation in developing new behaviors such as client development when an attorney is uncomfortable with such behaviors.
  3. Integrate the compensation system with personal goal plan achievement.
  4. Implement an equity partner admission program (partner track) that outlines requirements for admission. Make business development goal attainment a component. Make it clear that to become an equity partner you must be a rainmaker.
  5. Provide business development training and coaching for attorneys willing to participate.
  6. Have serious discussions with non-equity partners and terminate those that are not meeting production and client development goals.
  7. Consider hiring lateral attorneys with books of business or merging with another firm.

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

 

 

 

 

Jun 22, 2016


Law Firm Associate Satisfaction and Retention

Question:

I am the owner of a twenty attorney litigation firm in Seattle. The nineteen associates are all in the same tier or category and are paid a salary plus bonus. Their time with the firm ranges from one to fifteen years. I enjoy sole ownership but I realize that to continue to grow and prosper I must make some changes. I have recently lost several associates that I would have liked to have stayed with the firm. I am also getting stressed having all of the management responsibility since I currently make all of the decisions. Several associates have told me that the morale is low. I welcome your thoughts.

Response:

Compensation and benefits is one determinant as to whether associates are satisfied with employment at a firm. However, compensation and benefits is not enough to motivate and retain top performers. Law firms must help their associates invest in their careers and motivate and help them develop competencies and skills to enhance their productivity. With the downsizing, push for 2000+ annual billable hour push, etc., associates are skeptical about their futures and feel they have no power or ability to influence their careers. Associates want:

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Share more information about the firm where you can – its plans for the future, where it is heading, it's strategic plan, etc.
  2. Improve and open up communications with associates.
  3. If there are other tiers such as senior associate, non-equity partner, equity partner – prepare and share with your associates documents that outline what it means to be a member in each tier and what performance and other factors are required to advance to each tier.
  4. Improve your review process and incorporate goal setting with each associate.
  5. Consider a management advisory committee or other committees where associates can participate in firm management.

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

Jun 15, 2016


Law Firm Performance Management – Managing Performance Reviews

Question:

Our firm is a 15 attorney firm in Kansas City, Missouri. I am a member of the management committee and our committee is charged with the responsibility of determining partner, associate, and staff compensation. Several years ago we switched to a competency based goal driven system for partners, associates, and staff. The system requires self-evaluations, peer evaluations for partners and associates, and self-evaluations. This requires extensive performance reviews, tracking, scheduling, and documentation. We are using Excel spreadsheets and MS Word documents and having a hard time managing all of this. Do you have any ideas?

Response:

With 15 attorneys you probably have close to 30 people in the firm. I would look into performance management software (performance appraisal software) to management the process. Typical features of performance management/appraisal software, depending on the vendor, include:

Some vendors offer cloud-based solutions and others offer install software solutions.

Just a few of the vendors include:

Some of these solutions can be pricey – so look into a solution is right-sized for your firm. I have firm's your size using solutions that are costing around $3000.00 per year.

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

 

Jan 12, 2016


Retaining Key Law Firm Talent Through Remote/Virtual Work Arrangements

Question:

I am the owner of a five attorney firm in Austin, Texas. My accounting/office manager has just advised me that she is resigning her position as a result of her husband's job being relocated to another city on the west coast. She is the best employee that I have had the pleasure of working with and I am not sure where to start regarding finding her replacement. She will be hard to replace – – not just her skills – but her manner, relationship with me and other members in the firm, clients, etc. She is truly a class act. I would appreciate any thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

Maybe you don't have to lose her. Why not consider a remote/virtual arrangement. I know – it sounds crazy but I have several law firm clients that were in similar situations and decided rather that lose a key employee to have them work remotely.

The first situation occurred several years ago in Chicago. The firm was going to lose a key paralegal that had been with the firm for fifteen years when her husband was relocated to Washington state. The firm was already paperless and had an excellent computer system that facilitated remote communication. The missing link was the telephone system and how to handle client calls coming in for the paralegal. The firm installed a VOIP phone system that could seamlessly transfer a call as if the paralegal were down the hall. An office was setup in the paralegal's home in Washington state, procedures and protocols put in place, and other practices such as joining her in via Skype on the weekly firm meetings. The arrangement has worked out exceptionally well for five years.

The second situation occurred six months ago in Chicago. The firms accounting manager's husband was transferred to Florida and she tendered her resignation. The owner asked me to help him find a replacement and I asked what he thought about a remote arrangement. We discussed how the various accounting tasks would be handled and coordinated remotely from running pre-bills, making bank deposits, recording client payments, billing, paying bills vendor bills, etc. and he decided to give it a try. A virtual private network was installed, her home office was outfitted, and procedures, protocols, and checks and balances put in place. The arrangement has worked out well. Four months after the arrangement was implemented the firm merged with another firm and now has two office locations and the accounting manager is effectively handling the billing and accounting for both offices from her Miami Florida remote location. The owner is very happy with the arrangement.

So, before you accept her resignation and begin looking for a replacement – you might want to consider a remote/virtual arrangement.

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

 

Nov 03, 2015


Law Firm Administrator – New and Struggling

Question:

I am a new administrator in a 17 attorney law firm in the greater Boston area. I am the firm's first administrator and this is the first law firm that I have worked for as a firm administrator. I been on the job for six months and I am struggling. I don't know whether I am living up to the expectations of the partners and I feel like I am lost. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

While administrators have made great strides in terms of role and acceptance during the past decade, administrators in firms of all sizes still remain frustrated with:

– Poor, slow, and ineffective decision making
– Ineffective firm leadership and governance
– Internal politics and infighting
– Micromanaging
– Management by committee
– Lack of influence and ability to effect change

Being the first administrator for a law firm is tough. In additional to proving yourself to your partners you will have the additional task of justifying the position itself. After a few months when the honeymoon is over some partners will start questioning whether the position is necessary and worth the expense. Don't assume that the partners really thought through what their expectations were for the position prior to hiring you. Don't wait for them to manage you – you must take a proactive role – initiate discussions regarding expectations and identify priorities, projects, etc. Look for low hanging fruit when you can enhance revenue or reduce costs in the short term and track any results achieved.

Few things are as important to an administrator’s future as that person’s ability to influence the decision-making process and effect change.  Skills and competencies are important but so are results. In order to transcend to the next level and enhance their value to their law firms, administrators must help their firms actually effect positive changes and improvements and improve performance. This requires selling ideas to partners in the firm and having them accept and actually implemented. To succeed administrators must achieve three outcomes:

- Provide new solutions or methods
– The firm must achieve measurable improvement in its results by adopting the solutions
– The firm must be able to sustain the improvements over time.

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

 

 

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