Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Partnership

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Feb 21, 2017


Law Firm Equity Partnership/Admission Requirements

Question: 

Our firm is a sixteen-attorney business law firm in Cleveland, Ohio – six equity partners and ten associates. We the equity partners have been discussing putting in place an associate attorney career advancement program and outlining equity partner admission requirements. Can you share your thoughts on what we should be considering and how we should get started.

Response: 

You might want to consider developing a competency model. Rather than using a timeline – how long an associate has been with the firm – base career advancement to senior associate, non-equity partner, and equity partner upon achievement of competencies at various levels. These include:

Examples of core competencies might be legal excellence, client orientation, leadership, career commitment, etc.

In addition to competencies typically required to be  a Level Three attorney equity membership has additional requirements and obligations. For example:

  1. Equity owners will be sharing in the risk and reward of ownership and will invest their time and capital in the firm. They will have a firm-first orientation and they will share the vision and core values of other equity owners in the firm.
  2. Equity owners must add value to the firm. They must not just be good worker bees – they must pay for themselves, cover their cost and their share of the firm overhead, and generate enough work to keep other attorneys busy.
  3. Equity owners must be client finder, minders, and grinders.
  4. Equity owners must act like owners of small businesses.
  5. Equity owners must contribute to management and marketing of the firm.
  6. Equity owners must mentor younger attorneys.
  7. Equity owners must follow firm policies, system, and procedures – no lone rangers.
  8. Equity owners should contribute capital and sign for the office lease, firm credit line, and share in other financial obligations of the firm.
  9. Finally, future equity owners must be good marriage partners considering the other equity partners in the firm.

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

 

 

Jan 17, 2017


Law Firm Structure – Sole Owner vs Having Partners

Question:

I am the owner of an eight attorney insurance defense firm in San Antonio, Texas. I have been practicing fifteen years. I am forty-five years old. Many of my peers in firms my size are in partnerships. Is my situation unusual? Should I consider having partners?

Response:

Years ago I would have said that a firm such as yours would be a partnership or other organizational form with multiple equity owners. This has changed. I am working with more firms your size and larger with sole owners and no other equity owners. One such firm has twenty-five lawyers and seventy-five support staff.

I am assuming that this has worked well for you. You have the benefit of financial leverage and not having to share the pie with other equity owners. You call the shots and don’t have to share decision making with others. You probably are earning a nice income.

At your present age there is nothing wrong with continuing this for awhile. However, eventually you will have to consider your succession strategy, how you will exit the practice, and to whom you will pass the baton. The other issue is a career advancement strategy for your existing associates. Some may expect to eventually have an ownership stake in the firm. Your associates need to progress in their careers – not just as technicians – but also as business men and women and managers.

Don’t wait to long to begin this process. However, resist the temptation to make everyone an equity owner. In a insurance defense firm with eight attorneys I would try to maintain a ratio of four associates to each equity owner – thus no more than two – maybe three equity owners.

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

 

May 17, 2016


Law Firm Equity Partner Capital Contribution

Question:

I am the sole owner of a twenty-five attorney litigation boutique firm in Los Angeles. I am the only equity partner with nine non-equity partners and fifteen associates. I am concerned that if I don't provide a path to equity partnership some of my senior talent many gradually defect to other firms or split off to create their own law firms. I also believe that providing a path to equity partner for deserving non-equity partners is the right thing to do. Therefore, I am planning on admitting two non- equity members this year. Should I require capital contributions?

Response:

I believe that all new partners should be expected to contribute capital and have some "skin in the game." Whenever a firm admits a new partner, the firm should require the new partner to contribute capital. Increasingly, a partner's capital requirement should bear a relationship to the partner's share of profits. You may want to allow new partners a reasonable period of time to fund their capital accounts – say one or two years via a capital note or help them arrange favorable terms at your bank to finance their capital accounts. Usually capital accounts are tied to working capital needed to operate the firm and the percentage of ownership/income that each partner will have.

While capital contributions are all over the board ranging from zero to $100,000 in firm's your size I often see capital contributions ranging from $25,000 to $50,000. 

There are only three ways to increase a firm's working capital to cover cash flow requirements and fund growth:

1. Have partners put more money in
2. Have partners take less money out
3. Borrow

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

 

 

Mar 22, 2016


Law Firm Partner Retirement Buyouts – How to Keep from Breaking the Bank

Question:

Our firm is a 14 lawyer firm in the Boston suburbs with 4 founding partners and 10 associates. Two of the partners are in their 50s and two are in their 60s. Several years ago we adopted a retirement buyout plan for the founding partners where each partner upon retirement is paid the balance of his cash-based capital account and a multiple of one times an average of his last three years earnings paid out over a five year period. I am concerned that when partners begin to retire the retirement payouts will place undue stress on operating funds and the firm's ability to continue to be successful. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

If nothing else you should consider a cap that places a limit on how much can be paid out in a single year where aggregate payments to all retired partners in any one year are capped at 10 percent or less of distributable net income. Any obligations that cannot be paid in one year as a result of the cap would be rolled forward to the next year also subject to the same cap.

Unfunded plans can present problems down the road if they become unaffordable for the next generation of attorneys as they have to be funded out of future earnings. You should look into ways to fund your partner's retirements as much as possible through 401k and other retirements plans, life insurance policies (on each of the partners that can fund the buyout in the event of death or where paid up cash values can be used upon retirement to apply toward buyouts, and sinking funds (Rabbi Trusts, etc.) where funds have been set aside out of current earnings.

We all have been witnessing what is happening with governmental unfunded pension programs. The same thing is happening with law firms that have unfunded retirement programs as baby boomers are retiring in record numbers.

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

Feb 23, 2016


Law Firm Partner Capital Contributions – How Much?

Question:

Our firm is an 18 attorney firm in Chicago that was formed by the existing four equity partners ten years ago. We have four equity partners (founders), eight income (non-equity partners), and six associates. The income partners are not required to contribute capital. We are considering admitting a couple of the income partners as equity partners and also approaching possible laterals. What should we require in the form of buy-in or capital contribution?

Response:

While capital contributions are all over the board ranging from zero to $100,000 in firm's your size I often see capital contributions ranging from $25,000 to $50,000. All depends upon the number of ownership shares being offered. I am seeing firm's requiring more as many firms are resisting the temptation to take on bank debt to finance their short-term working capital requirements. Citibank's Private Law Firm Group reports that between 2004 and 2007 capital contributions averaged 20 to 25 percent of a partner's income. Citibank's recent survey reports that partners are now contributing an average of 30 to 35 percent of their earnings. Thus, a newly admitted partner that will be earning $150,000 upon admission would be expected to contribute $45,000. Contributed capital is returned when a partner leaves the firm in full upon withdrawal or more commonly according to an incremental installment payment schedule.

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

Jan 06, 2016


Law Firm Managment – Do Your Non-Equity Partners and Associates Really Want to be Equity Partners?

Question:

I am a member of our firm's executive committee. We are an 18 attorney firm in Baltimore with four equity partners, five non equity partners, and nine associates. Recently we asked one of our non-equity partners to join the equity ranks and he said no. We were shocked and taken by surprise. Is this a common occurrence? We would like to hear your thoughts.

Response:

This is becoming a more common occurrence and this is causing havoc with growth, succession and transition plans. Many law firms are seeing a growing sense of disillusionment from young lawyers that may not want to be an equity partner. While they want to be lawyers they do not want to take the financial and other business risks nor make the other work commitments such as working nights, weekends, and the 24-hour commitment that has historically been the requirements for equity partners in law firms. Work-life balance has become a priority for more younger lawyers.

I believe that you should through performance reviews, survey questionnaires, and other tools gather information sooner than later to get a feel for where your non-equity partners and associates stand as far as attitudes toward business and financial risk, desirability of being an equity owner, and willingness to invest capital and time in the firm. This will give you a feel for your mix. If it looks like you have too many worker bees – revamp your recruiting strategy – new attorneys or laterals – accordingly and look for attorneys that have an interest and the mindset that it takes to be an equity owner.

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

 

 

 

Jul 22, 2015


Law Firm Dissolution – New Firm Startup – Steps to Be Taken

Last week a firm advised that their law firm was splitting up via a dissolution and forming two new law firms. I outlined some of the steps that would need to be taken to dissolve the firm.

This week I will discuss some of the typical steps that will need to be taken to start the new law firms. Some of these steps include:

ESTABLISH NEW LEGAL ENTITY 

  1. File articles or other documents for entity formation. (LLC, LLP, PC, etc.) 
  2. Obtain FEIN Number
  3. Open new bank accounts
  4. Establish line of credit with bank
  5. Draft operating agreement/partnership/shareholder agreement
  6. Agree on approach to partner compensation
  7. Draft a business and marketing plan for the firm.
  8. Obtain any required business permits.
  9. Obtain office space, if moving, and negotiate lease – or negotiate new lease with landlord of present space.

IT & SYSTEMS 

  1. Decide on equipment and software being retained
  2. Decide on billing and accounting system data conversion strategy.
  3. Decide on MS Exchange Server conversion strategy.
  4. Decide of document management system conversion strategy.
  5. Purchase new software that may be required as a result of licensing.
  6. Install, configure, and populate billing and accounting software.
  7. Obtain new internet domain name and e-mail addresses

NOTIFICATIONS 

  1. Notify courts
  2. Notify bar associations
  3. Notify all vendors
  4. Notify post office
  5. Notify insurance carriers
  6. Obtain malpractice insurance with tail coverage
  7. Notify Yellow Pages and other directories
  8. Notify phone company. 
  9. Obtain new phone number if needed
  10. Notify tax authorities
  11. Notify Westlaw/Lexis, etc.

HUMAN RESOURCES 

  1. Employee meetings
  2. Setup payroll system – in house or outsourced
  3. Deal with medical insurance transfer
  4. Deal with 401k and other benefit plan transfer
  5. Update employee handbook
  6. Update administrative policies and procedures manual

FACILITIES 

  1. Decide on whether the firm if staying in current space or moving. If staying, decide on how much space is excess
  2. If staying, decide on what space the firm will occupy and what space will be sub-leased or turned back to the landlord if possible
  3. Negotiate lease with the landlord
  4. Office signage
  5. Decide whether any space improvements are needed.
  6. Decide on internal move date and who will be in what locations (if staying)

CLIENT RELATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT

  1. Notify clients of dissolution – joint letter – both firms – in accordance with rules of professional responsibility
  2. Meet with clients
  3. Develop new sources of clients

PUBLIC RELATIONS AND MARKETING 

  1. Public relations campaign
  2. Business identity plan (branding, logo development, etc.)
  3. Create marketing collateral materials (letterhead, brochures, business cards, etc.)
  4. Create and launch new website
  5. Open house or some event

The tasks involved in launching a new firm are numerous, specific to each individual firm, and this is just a starting list. You can use this list as a starting point to develop your own project plan. Suggest that you create a central project plan to get everyone handling various tasks on the same page. The plan should include tasks, specific responsibilities and start and target completion dates.

Good luck with your new firm!

 

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

 

 

Jul 14, 2015


Law Firm Dissolution – Steps To Be Taken

Question:

I am the managing partner in a 14 attorney firm in Seattle. Our partnership has voted to dissolve the firm effective the September 1,2015. Two new firms will be formed. Eight attorneys will be going to one firm and six to another firm. What steps do we need to think about in managing this project?

Response:

You actually have two projects to manage. The dissolution project and the new firm start-up project for the firm that you will be joining. The other firm will also have a new firm start-up project as well. I will address in this blog some of the dissolution steps and I will address some of the new firm start-up steps in next week's post.

Dissolution Steps

  1. Create a master project plan.
  2. Identify who will be in control of the wind down. Firm or representatives from both sides.
  3. Contact the firm's accounting firm.
  4. Identify a spokesperson to address associates and staff.
  5. Identify a spokesperson to handle the press and other outside sources.
  6. Notify associates and staff.
  7. Create a checklist of ongoing obligations and responsibilities.
  8. Create a list of memberships and special arrangements.
  9. Notify insurance carriers.
  10. Notify clients by letter of the dissolution.
  11. Determine compensation for those that manage the wind down.
  12. Follow-up on outstanding delinquent accounts receivable.
  13. Develop a dissolution agreement and have signed by all partners.
  14. Identify who will have control of the files – paper and electronic.
  15. Determine last day of operations.
  16. Determine how and when the final work in process will be billed and by who.
  17. Address the office lease obligation.
  18. Address the equipment and other lease obligations.
  19. Determine the value of all firm assets as of the last day of firm operations.
  20. Identify contingency fee matters and negotiate a separate agreement regarding how to pay all involved when the cases are settled.

These are just a few of the many steps that are involved. Next week I will post Part I – Steps to be Taken to start-up your new firm.

Click here for our blog on succession

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

 

 

Jul 01, 2015


Law Firm Ownership – Acquiring a Founding Partner’s Interest

Question:

I am a senior associate in a eight attorney elder law firm in Miami. There is one owner (founder) and seven associates including myself. The owner has approached me with a proposal to over time buy out his interests. I am the only senior associate in the firm and the only associate that he has approached concerning selling his interests. Specifically his proposal is as follows:

  1. Pay him $825.00 for the practice over five years.
  2. After five years I will own 100% of the shares.
  3. My compensation arrangement will remain the same (salary plus formula percentage incentive bonus based upon my responsible attorney collections) until I have acquired 100 percent interest of the firm.
  4. The owner wants to work in the firm indefinitely after his interest are acquired as an employee or Of Counsel.

I don't know how to respond to this proposal and would appreciate your thoughts? Is it fair? Does it make sense?

Response:

It makes sense for him. Seriously, you are going to need much more information that this proposal. To get started you need to ask for and review the following:

  1. Profit and Loss statements and Balance Sheets for the past five years.
  2. Tax returns or Schedule C for the past five years.
  3. A report showing the current accrual based assets – mainly unbilled work in process and accounts receivable. There are often the largest assets that a firm has and it is not on a typical cash-based profit and loss statement.
  4. A list showing any off-balance sheet liabilities.
  5. Copies of the office lease and other leases to determine lease liabilities.

From these documents you can get a feel for the cash-based net equity, the accrual-based net equity after considering work in process and accounts receivable and unrecorded liabilities.

Two numbers that may be even more important is the average fee revenue generated over the past five years and the average compensation (net profit plus compensation – W2 and K1 earnings) that the owner has been earning over the past five years.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. One to one and a half times the owner's average earnings for the past five years is typical. So from this guideline you can evaluate the appropriateness of the $825,000.
  2. What assets are included? Will he exclude any assets?
  3. Will you be able to acquire minority interests over the five years as you pay towards the payout? I will insist on such.
  4. If you do acquire minority interests as you go will there be a profit pie for you to share in or will the owner increase his compensation, personal perks he passes through the firm, cut down on his working time, etc.? You should get a handle on compensation as well.
  5. I would not have the owner's employment open ended after you acquire 100% interest. Have some protection in case he fails to produce or has physical or mental problems that affects his performance. Suggest an Of Counsel agreement that gets reviewed and renewed annually.
  6. Consider whether there is a transition that insures that the clients and referral sources stay with you after he retires. If he has not groomed you, involved you in relationships with clients and referral sources, had you giving seminars, and plugged you into referral sources future business could drop off dramatically. This should be factored into the value.
  7. Weigh the cost-benefit of starting your practice v.s. purchasing his practice. 

Good luck!

Click here for our blog on succession

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

Jul 08, 2014


Law Firm Partnership – Client Origination Expectations for New Associate Attorney

Question:

I am the sole owner of a four attorney general practice firm in Rockford, Illinois. I am 58 and realize that in the next few years I will need to begin implementing a succession and exit strategy by probably bringing in a partner. Two of the associates have no interest in partnership. However, the newest associate hired, who had his own practice for several years, does have such an interest even though he was recently hired. He is off to a good start as far as his production. However, I believe that he must be able to originate and bring in client business as well. So far his energy and focus has been totally on performing legal work. I want to get him started on the right track in order that I can make him a partner in a few years. Please provide any thoughts that you may have.

Response:

I agree that in a practice such as yours that client origination is important. I suggest that you start by laying out and discussing with him your expectations. In other words what will it take for him to become a partner – production, quality of legal work, billings, client satisfaction, and origination of new client business? Be specific and set specific goals for him and your expectations for him but also your timeline for partnership consideration. I would suggest five years. Personally, I believe his client origination goal at the five year point should be between $300,000 and $500,000 or higher. Establish baby step goals for origination – say $50,000 after year one, $100,000 after year two, $200,000 after year three, $300,000 after year four, $400,000 after year five. This will require that you track origination fee dollars in your billing/accounting system. Specific guidelines and rules regarding the attribution of origination credit should be developed. In other words an attorney should not receive origination because a client calls as a result of the firm's brand, advertising, etc. and he is passed the call because he is the only attorney in the office to take the call.

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

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