Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Mergers

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Mar 10, 2017


Law Firm Merger – Are We a Suitable Candidate

Question: 

Our firm is a two partner firm in Columbus, Ohio. We have two staff members. There are no other attorneys in the firm. We have been in practice together for seventeen years. I am sixty two and my partner is in his fifties. My practice is limited to intellectual property and my partner’s practice is limited to medical malpractice defense. Recently, as a result of lack of coverage, our unwillingness to hire associate attorneys, and our frustrations with dealing with management issues we have decided that we would like to merge with a larger firm. However, we are concerned that our numbers may not be satisfactory. Our five year averages are as follows:

Since we split the pot evenly we each made $130,000 on average.

With these numbers are we a suitable candidate or are we just whistling in the wind? We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Obviously these are not great numbers. Depending on firm size and type of practice – most firms (small firms) are looking for revenue per lawyer in the range of $360,000 and up. Many firms are looking for books of business that will keep the candidate and an associate busy – $750,000 plus.

However, law firms are also looking for new sources of business (clients) and lawyer talent. There are firms out there that have the work and need help with the work and might be interested in your talent and skills as well as the clients that you could bring in. You may not be able to join the firm as an equity partner but may be able to join as a non-equity partner. (Depends on firm size) Due to the very different practice areas that each of you have you may not find opportunities in the same firm.

I encourage you to look around, start your search, and see what happens.

I have seen many situations similar to yours that have resulted in successful mergers and lateral or Of Counsel positions.

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

 

Aug 31, 2016


Law Firm Lateral Growth Strategy – One Plus One Equals Three

Question:

Our firm is a sixteen lawyer firm – eight partners and eight associates located in Memphis. We handle business transactional work and litigation for small to mid-size companies. However, for the past forty years our mainstay has been small community banks. With recent bank mergers and new banking regulations our banking business has dropped off significantly. We have reached a desperate stage and we must replace this business quickly or consider possible dissolution. We have talked with a possible lateral partner that has a $300,000 book of debtor bankruptcy business. Is adding a lateral partner a good strategy for us?

Response:

Lateral partner acquisition is a growth strategy being used by many firms today. However, many lateral hires are not successful as a growth strategy. In a recent survey conducted by Lexis-Nexis and ALM Legal Intelligence only 28 percent of the respondent law firms found lateral partner acquisition a "very effective" strategy for growth.

I suggest you start with the following two questions:

  1. Does the lateral candidate's book of business fit within your strategic plan? If you do not have a strategic plan develop one. A strategic plan can be a useful guide in keeping the firm focused on the right opportunities. It can help the firm clarify the type of work that it does not do.
  2. Does One Plus One Equal Three. This question should be asked when considering any lateral or merger candidate. In other words is there is business case? How will the addition of the lateral result in more business than either the firm or the lateral currently has separately? Does the lateral have enough business to keep himself or herself busy plus a couple of associates?

I would question whether debtor bankruptcy fits within the firm's overall business strategy. I also don't believe a $300,000 book of business satisfied the one plus one equals three rule.

A lateral strategy may be a good strategy for the firm. However, I believe you need to expand your search and it may be difficult to attract candidates given your present financial situation.

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

Aug 24, 2016


Law Firm Acquisition – Acquiring Another Practice

Question:

Our firm is a twelve lawyer firm in Austin, Texas. We have been approached by the owner of a three attorney firm in an adjacent city who has a complimentary practice consisting of institutional business clients. He is looking to retire within the next thirty days and he would like us to acquire his clients. We have reviewed his practice and we would be willing to take over his clients but not his personnel or other fixed assets. He has no interest in a merger or an lengthy relationship with us. It could add $800,000 per year to our practice. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

It sounds like a great opportunity if there are no conflicts, the clients actually transition, and the billing rates are in line. Start with conflicts checks. Then ask for five year's of financial statements and tax returns, internal financial reports, schedule of billing rates, client lists, copy of building and equipment leases, and malpractice applications. Assess the stability of the revenue stream, repetitive ongoing clients, client dependency, etc. Prepare a letter of intent with terms for acquiring the practice. I would lead with a down payment of say $25,000 and then a percentage of collected revenue for say five years at 20% and see how he responds. He will want more certainty and a fixed price. If you have to go with a fixed price to seal the deal structure it with an initial down payment, payments over three to five years with provisions for reduction in the purchase price if the clients and revenues don't materialize. Make sure there are no pending malpractice claims or other liability issues.

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

Aug 02, 2016


Law Firm Acquisition Due Diligence – What Should I Ask For

Question:

I am the managing partner of a five lawyer firm in Denton, Texas. We have the opportunity of acquiring a sole owner practice in a nearby city with a complimentary practice area. We have had one meeting and our firm is interested. We want to initially do a quick and dirty due diligence so see whether this firm is really a qualified opportunity. What sort of information should we ask for?

Response:

I would initially ask for the following:

  1. Five years profit and loss statements and balance sheets and tax returns. (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015)
  2. Lawyer and staff headcount for each of those five years.
  3. Current hourly billing rates.
  4. Description of his mix of clients by dollars and by time expended – practice type and geography.
  5. Description of how the firm bills (hourly, flat rate, contingency)
  6. Copy of leases (space and equipment)
  7. Copy of malpractice insurance policy and last application.
  8. Salaries and benefits for attorneys and staff members.
This will give you a good idea of what you are dealing with and whether the opportunity is worth pursuing further. If you decide you want to pursue this opportunity you can ask for additional information as the discussions unfold.
 
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Apr 05, 2016


Law Firm Debt – Impact of Debt and Other Liabilities Upon Future Growth Options

Question:

I am a member of a three member management committee of a 16 lawyer firm located in Akron, Ohio. We have 10 partners and 6 associates. Several of our partners are in their 50s and 60s. Recently, we have had discussions with a couple of potential merger partners and laterals and in all cases they have backed out advising us that they were uncomfortable with our balance sheet. What can we do to better position ourselves. We desperately need to bring in new talent with books of business?

Response:

First there are the obvious balance sheet items – bank debt, large tapped out credit lines, equipment leases and other liabilities. Then there are the items that are not recorded on the balance sheet – namely unfunded partner retirement buyouts and long term real estate leases. These are often major deal breakers in mergers and scare away laterals. If you have bank and other debt on the balance sheet work at cleaning it up. More importantly if you have unfunded partner buyouts begin either rethinking the desirability of these programs or begin funding this liability now with a goal of the liability being totally funded over the next five to seven years. Then shift to a retirement program that is totally funded. Unfunded partner retirement programs are becoming a thing of the past.

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

 

Jan 26, 2016


Law Firm Merger – Initial High Level Summary Financials to Provide

Question: 

I am the managing member of an 14 attorney firm in Miami. We initiated discussions with a large firm in Boston concerning the possibility of our firm merging with their firm. We met with one of their partners recently at their offices and he presented our interest to his other partners. He has advised us that there is an interest in having us meet the other equity partners and taking discussions to the next level. He would like some initial financial information from us. We feel that we must provide them with some financial information at this point but unsure as to what to provide them with at this stage. I would like to hear your thoughts.

Response:

Law firms exploring possible merger partners often move to quickly to financials and I try to hold on providing financial information until after three get acquainted meetings. I like to see the initial focus on the people, culture, and general fit. Poor fit causes more merger failures than practice economics. However, in your situation the door has been opened and the large firm is going to want to see some initial financial information to "qualify" you and determine whether further discussions is worth their time investment.

I suggest that both firms sign a non-disclosure statement and that you initially provide them with the following high-level summary information in a spreadsheet in columns for the last five years of history. The per lawyer/equity partner calculations can be calculated in the spreadsheet based upon the headcount data inserted in the spreadsheet.

I would not provide any more data at this stage pertaining to clients or detailed financials. The next step will be for the other firm to share information with your firm.
 
Good luck!
 

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

Dec 08, 2015


Law Firm Merger – How Do Firms Handle Integration of Assets

Question:

I am the managing partner of our six attorney civil litigation firm in Lexington, Kentucky. We are in the early stages of merger discussions with a fourteen attorney firm in Lexington. My partners have asked me how other firms integrate their assets when the merger become effective.  We would appreciate your thoughts?

Response:

A variety of approaches are often taken in upstream mergers.

One approach is to transfer all of the assets and liabilities to the other firm and receive a credit to your capital accounts for the value of the contributed assets/liabilities with a check from the other firm if the value of the assets contributed exceed the required capital contribution based upon the ownership shares that you are being offered in the merged firm.

The more common approach that I see taken in upstream mergers is for the smaller firm to retain the firm cash accounts, accounts receivable, work in process, and sell the fixed assets (furniture and equipment) to the other firm for cash or receive a capital account credit for the value of the fixed assets contributed. If additional capital is required, each partner would write a check to the merged firm for their capital contributions. Your existing firm would be responsible billing out old work in process and collecting old receivables and when the income is received these funds would be deposited in your existing bank accounts and entered in your old books. You firm would also be responsible for accounts payable and other liabilities that exit prior to the merger.

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

 

 

Oct 27, 2015


Law Firm Succession/Transition/Exit Planning – Two Phase Deal Arrangement for Sole Owners

Question:

I am the solo owner of a five attorney estate planning firm in Los Angeles consisting of myself and four associates. I am approaching retirement and looking at my exit options. Since there are no heirs apparent in the firm I am looking to sell the practice. However, the potential buyer that I have been speaking with is nervous and concerned about client defections, proper transition, etc. Also, I would like to continue to practice for a few years and don't want to run afoul of the rules of professional conduct. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

You might want to consider a two-phased approach. Merge with the other firm, continue to work for a few years, work on transitioning relationships, retire and sell your interests, and continue to work as an Of Counsel after that if you so desire.

For Example. A sole proprietor was generating $500,000 in annual revenues with one full-time senior attorney, a full-time paralegal, and a clerical person while netting 40%, including perks and benefits. This owner wanted to work three more years full time and several more years in a part-time role thereafter. The firm interested in acquiring the practice was a three-partner firm generating $2.2 million a year working with similar clients, under a similar culture and fee range.

Phase One consisted of a merger with the retiring owner agreeing to retire in three years and sell his ownership interests for an agreed amount. At its inception, the two practices were combined. The successor firm provided the practice with the same amount of labor required in the past through a combination of retaining and replacing staff, as both were deemed necessary by the parties. The successor firm took over most of the administration, and the deal was announced to the public as a merger. 

The transitioning owner was able to come and go reasonably as he saw fit, run his practice through the successor firm’s infrastructure, and retain significant autonomy and control. Because he historically generated a 40% margin, the successor firm agreed to assume all the operating costs of the practice and pay 40% of gross collections from the transitioning owner’s original clients as compensation. Phase One was set to terminate on the first of the following events: (1) the end of three years; (2) the death or disability of the transitioning owner; or (3) the election of the transitioning owner.

Phase Two was the buyout of the retiring partner's ownership interest, and it was set up in a traditional fashion. Phase Two kicked in at the end of Phase One. By deferring the buyout until the full-time compensation ceased, the transitioning owner could extend the period for his full-time compensation, and the successor wasn’t being asked to pay for the practice and full-time compensation at the same time."

Many firms have taken this approach and we have found that it increases the likelihood of successful client transitions, reduces the risk of client defections, and increases the value for the retiring owner.

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

Apr 28, 2015


Law Firm Merger – Finding Merger Candidates

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 14 attorney firm in Los Angeles. We are primarily a transactional practice and we are considering looking for a litigation firm to merge with our firm. I would appreciate your thoughts on locating merger candidates.

Response:

For larger firms that have a talent or book of business void or solo practitioner and sole owners’ merger is often an appropriate strategy and approach. It all comes down to the finding the right firm, the right culture, and the right fit. The search process can take time as we.Here are some suggestions to help get the search process started.

  1. Using the Internet and Google, start by thinking about possible target law firm candidates;
  2. Prepare a merger candidate short list based upon firms that your firm has worked with or have had contact; 
  3. Prepare a merger candidate short list based upon firms that your firm is aware of but have not worked with nor had any contact – cold leads;
  4. Decide on an initial contact strategy for each target firm and who in your firm will initiate contact;
  5. Begin contacting target firm and setting up initial meetings;
  6. Maintain and constant and consistent flow with prospective merger candidates rather than fits-and-starts;
  7. Work toward a specified target goal and maintain a timeline to avoid project drift;
  8. If your firm is unable to maintain a constant and consistent flow consider outside assistance;and
  9. If your firm is unable to identify suitable target candidates, consider some advertising vehicles such as Craigslist, Law Schools, Bar Association, Legal Publishers, Monster.com, Local Newspapers – print and online, and legal recruiting firms. 

My experience has been that for small law firms the most successful approach for locating merger candidates has been developing the short list and looking in their own backyard. However, other approaches, including advertising, have worked as well. If the firm decides to use advertising, the firm may want to keep from divulging the firm name too early in the process.

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

 


 

 

 

Mar 12, 2015


Law Firm Merger Preliminaries

Question:

Our firm is a 17 attorney firm in Dayton, Ohio. Several of our founding partners are retiring and we have been contemplating exploring a merger with another law firm but are not sure where to start. I would appreciate your ideas.

Response:

Start by determining your merger objectives. Why do you want to merge? What do you hope to achieve? Is merger compatible with your strategic plan? What size of firm are you considering?

Once you are sure that merger exploration – in general – makes sense – you should insure that your house is in order. In other words – can anything be done to enhance the value and/or marketability of your firm? For example:

  1. Do you have a business or strategic plan? If not – how will you convince a potential merger partner that you have a plan for the future and know where you are going? Maybe now is a good time to work on that plan. 
  2. Work on and clean up your financials. Improve the financial performance of your practice. Eliminate deadwood. Write-off uncollectable A/R and WIP. 
  3. Avoid entering into long term commitments that might make your firm undesirable to another firm. (new long term leases, risky client matters/cases, loans, admission of new partners, unfunded partner buyouts/retirements, etc. 
  4. Enhance firm image where you can. 
  5. Develop a first class firm profile.

Next, develop a merger marketing plan and begin working the plan. Try to generate enough leads that you can explore merger with several firms rather than engaging in "random merger talks" which often result in isolated merger offers with you having no framework for comparison.

Use an outside consulting firm if you need help organizing, identifying candidates, and managing the process.

Once you have merger candidates identified – the real work begins.

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

 

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