Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Profit Improvement

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Feb 21, 2018


Law Firm Staff Work Distribution Analysis

Question: 

I am a new firm administrator with a thirty-five attorney litigation firm in Los Angeles, California. In my accounting department I have seven staff members handling a variety of tasks. My partners are concerning that we are inefficient and over staffed. I am having a hard time finding where to start so to get a handle on  this issue. Please provide any information that you are willing to share.

Response: 

There are questions that you must ask yourself in order to analyze the work distribution of your accounting department. Such questions as the following will help you in knowing what to look for:

  1. What activities take the most time?
  2. Is there any misdirected effort?
  3. Are skills being used properly?
  4. Are you staff doing too many unrelated tasks?
  5. Are tasks spread too thinly?
  6. Is work distributed evenly?
  7. Are the right people on the bus?

Before you can analyze your accounting department you must be able to see clearly, in one place, all the activities of your accounting department and the contribution of each employee on each activity. A work distribution chart is the easiest and best way to arrange these facts in simple form. A properly made work distribution chart will help you determine if the largest time of your staff is devoted to the major function of your department. (Operations list down the left rows and staff names listed across the columns) It may indicate that more time is being devoted to other functions than is necessary. A function or task may require a more detailed study, as might be indicated where total hours seem unreasonable. You may discover that your accounting department is spending too much time on relatively unimportant or unnecessary work. Misdirected effort appears on the work distribution chart when staff are involved in tasks not contribution directly to the mission of the accounting department.

Here is an overview of the process:

  1. Have each staff member prepare a task list.
    1. List specific and clear activities for a specific time period with time listed for each activity.
    2. Task lists should cover a complete cycle of work. (Weekly, Monthly, etc.)
  2. Determine operations performed
    1. Prepare an operations list grouping related or same kind of tasks (operations).
    2. Check operations list against breakdown of department mission.
  3. Complete the work distribution chart
    1. Complete heading.
    2. List operations.
    3. Enter staff names in a column of the chart.
    4. Enter tasks, time, and work count for each operation.
    5. Total the columns and rows.
  4. Examine the present work distribution
    1. What operations take the most time?
    2. Are they essential?
    3. Is there misdirected effort?
    4. Are skills used properly?
    5. Are you staff doing too many unrelated tasks?
    6. Are tasks spread too thinly?
    7. Is work distributed equitably?
    8. Is the department overstaffed?
    9. Are the right people on the bus?
  5. Improve work distribution
    1. Consider eliminations, additions, and rearrangement of tasks and operations.
    2. Prepare a proposed work distribution chart.
    3. Discuss proposed changes with your partners.
    4. Put proposed changes into effect.

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

 

 

Jan 04, 2018


Law Firm 2018 Initiatives and Goals

Question: 

Our firm is an eighteen attorney insurance defense firm located in Los Angeles, California. We have six partners and twelve associates. We represent insurance companies in personal injury and property claims. Over the last five years our growth and our profitability has been flat. We feel that we have enough work to reach our goals but we just don’t think our people are energized. We have a billing requirement of 2000 billable hours but few of our attorneys are hitting them. The partners met a few weeks ago and set for the first time set some goals for 2018. The firm does not have a business or strategic Plan. Do you have any thoughts on 2018 goals and how best we can implement?

Response: 

Since you do not have a strategic plan I assume that you have not done any formal planning in the past. Even firms that do have strategic plans often fail to engage and energize their team. Here are a few thoughts regarding your 2018 goals and initiatives:

  1. Most law firms are not run like a business. They haphazardly go through the motions without a plan, without structure, and with no order. The first thing I would suggest is for the firm to make a commitment this year to begin running your firm more like a business with more structure, order, and accountability from your lawyers and staff.
  2. If the firm does not have a budget develop a budget this year before the end of January and review the firm’s performance against the budget monthly. The revenue section is particularly important. Build it from the ground up timekeeper by timekeeper. Advise each lawyer and other timekeepers  of their revenue and or hours targets for the upcoming year.
  3. Consider a new year kickoff meeting, possibly breakfast or lunch, to jump start the new year that would include attorneys and staff. During this meeting you can accomplish the following:
    1. Recognize team members that performed well the past year.
    2. Provide information about the firm’s past year performance, where the firm is and where it is headed in the upcoming year.
    3. Review the firm’s mission and purpose and specific firm and individual goals for the upcoming year.
    4. The firm kickoff meeting sets the tone for the upcoming year, communicates firm and individuals goals, and energizes team members and solicits commitment.
  4. During the year consider the following meeting schedule:
    1. Kickoff meeting – attorneys and staff – early January.
    2. Attorney meeting – weekly
    3. Staff meeting – monthly
    4. Partner meeting – monthly
    5. Midyear meeting – attorneys and staff – early July
    6. Budget and Planning meeting – Partners or Management Committee –  early December.
  5. Review your attorney compensation system to ensure that it is rewarding the performance you are seeking.
  6. Review your attorney hiring protocols to ensure that you are getting the right people on the bus.
  7. Dig deeper and look into why attorneys are not meeting billable hours requirements. Possible reasons might be:
    1. Not enough work.
    2. Attorney not putting in the hours.
    3. Attorney has poor time management habits.
    4. Attorney has poor timekeeping habits.
    5. A combination of all of the above.
  8. Implement solutions to above.
  9. Take a tougher approach to those attorneys that are not meeting performance targets.
  10. Conduct formal performance reviews with each attorney and staff member annually.
  11. Commit to starting to work on a strategic plan no later than the third quarter of this year.

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

Oct 04, 2017


Personal Injury Law Firm Strategy & Strategic Planning

Question: 

I am a partner in a four attorney personal injury plaintiff in downstate Illinois. Three of us are partners and we have one associate attorney. We handle run of the mill slip and fall, vehicle and premises accidents, and products liability cases as well as workers’ compensation cases. We have a very aggressive advertising and marketing program. We are having issues with reduced case flow and dwindling and diminishing profits and earnings. For the past year the partners have been living off our credit line. We believe that we need to be thinking about doing something different and are not sure as to what that should be. However, we have agreed to start doing some long term planning. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

I believe that the very process of developing a strategic plan would be very helpful, beneficial, and enlightening. Strategic planning does not need to be the involved and complicated process that sometimes it becomes. It a nutshell it is nothing more than a series of logical steps. The process is often more important than the written plan. Most workable strategic plans are put in writing at the end of the process, and then often in summary or outline form. Generally, the steps include:

  1. Develop the mission statement
  2. Develop the vision statement
  3. Develop the long range goals statement
  4. Develop specific objectives
  5. Gather information – internal and external – identify the firm’s strengths and weaknesses
  6. Identify key issues
  7. Formulate strategies
  8. Develop detailed action plans
  9. Write-up the plan
  10. Implement the plan and monitor

Your first step will be the mission statement – you should take a hard look at who are you as a firm and who are you serving as clients? Many of our personal injury law firm clients across the country are facing similar problems that you are and they have been forced to take a hard look at their their practice and geographic area segments. Some firm’s have tried to balance the cash flow ups and downs of contingency fee work by adding time billing practice areas that provide consistent cash flow such as employment, family law, criminal, and bankruptcy. Other firms are extending their geographical reach through additional offices and some are getting involved in mass-tort cases.

I think this is the most important step if you don’t do anything else. You may have to consider expanding and diversifying your practice.

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

Jun 20, 2017


Characteristics of a Successful Liability Defense Law Firm

Question: 

I’m a second generation attorney (about 5 years’ experience) at a small liability defense firm in Southern, California. My father is the managing partner and we have three total attorneys. My father and his partner probably have 5-7 years left practicing. We only do California workers’ compensation defense. I’m planning on taking over the practice but am concerned about trends in the industry that will affect profitability, such as more stringent billing guidelines/bill audits, cuts to travel time, etc. What are the characteristics of a successful liability defense firm that I should strive towards? (i.e., # of attorneys, leverage, overhead ratio, revenue per lawyer, etc.)

Response: 

I appreciate your concerns. Both workers’ compensation defense and civil insurance defense firms have a real challenge with the performance pressures placed on them by their clients, billing guidelines and audits, and low billing rates. I have civil insurance defense firm clients across the country billing at rates averaging from $175 to $225 per hour and workers’ compensation defense firm clients billing at rates averaging from $140 to $175 per hour. Some firms are being required to take on more work on a flat fee basis.

Here are a few thoughts concerning characteristics of successful liability defense firms that you should strive towards:

  1. Number of attorneys will depend upon the amount of business that you can bring into the firm. If you are a sole owner you should have an additional four associates to achieve the level of leverage that you will need to be profitable. This assume that the work is there to keep them all busy.
  2. You should strive for a leverage ratio of four associates to every owner. Resist the temptation to make everyone a partner.
  3. Hold the line on expenses and remember that your largest expenses are salaries and office space. You do not need to hire lawyers from top tier law schools and pay the salaries that such lawyers are able to command. You also do not need to have your office in an A or B+ building. Look for B or C+ office space.
  4. Revenue per working lawyer should be in the $300,000 range.
  5. Profit margin (earnings available to owners) should be in the 35% to 45% range.
  6. Annual billable hours should be 2000 or greater for each attorney.
  7. Ensure that you tie lawyer compensation to performance. Pay your associates a salary but also have a variable performance bonus based upon billable hours collected or dollars collected. Keep the salary low enough that they are still hungry.
  8. Diversify the practice. Actively market to more companies and organizations that you can represent directly rather than representing strictly insurance companies. Consider big box companies as target clients. Get on their panels and bid lists. Consider expanding into civil liability defense work rather than doing just workers’ compensation. Many law firms in the Midwest do both.
  9. Some of our clients have found that a federal workers’ compensation practice is beneficial.

Here are links to two articles on defense firms that you might find interesting.

https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/resource-center/trapped-in-a-insurance-defense-practice/

https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/resource-center/insurance-defense-law-firms-strategies-and-best-practices/

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

 

May 02, 2017


Increasing Law Firm Revenues Through Additional Marketing Investment

Question: 

I am the solo owner of a two attorney firm in Atlanta. I have been in practice for thirteen years. I have one associates that has been with me for one year, one full-time paralegal, and two part time assistants. I have a general practice. Revenues have stagnated and I need to identify strategies for getting to the next level. My practice is struggling. I have been thinking about narrowing my practice and focusing on five or six practice areas. I am ready to invest in marketing. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

This is the age of specialization – less often results in more. Many attorneys in small general practice firms are afraid to specialize and focus on three or less – even one – area of practice. The concern is that by specializing there simply will not be enough business of keep the attorneys busy generating sufficient revenues.

I have worked with several firms that have shifted their practices from general practices to practices limited to estate planning and elder law and they have performed far better as specialized practices than they did as general practices. I suggest that you consider focusing your practice on on no more than 2-3 key practice areas in which you can differentiate yourself.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Don’t copycat. Brand yourself. Look for ways to differentiate yourself and your firm from your competitors. Become the only attorney that can do what you do. Make a decision – what do you want to be known and remembered for? Unique services, unique client groups, different service delivery strategy, personal style. Create a five-year plan for goal accomplishment.
  2. Create a marketing culture and environment. Marketing and client service needs to be incorporated into the culture of the firm. All attorneys and staff should have a role in marketing. Owners/partners must walk the talk and consistently, build and reinforce the marketing goals of the firm. Marketing goals and action plans should be formulated and team members held accountable. Over time a marketing mindset will emerge.
  3. Learn how to become “solutions orientated” and become a consultant to your clients as opposed to simply their attorney. Solutions may involve activities and services other than legal services. Think out-of-the-box and outside of typical frameworks in which you are comfortable.
  4. Join a client’s trade association and make contributions in the form of articles, speeches, conference attendance, etc. Learn the client’s business from top to bottom.
  5. Increase your geographic reach – possibly a state wide or multi-state practice.
  6. Institute quarterly client service/marketing brainstorming sessions. Break the rules. Encourage all members in the firm to think out-of-the-box and innovate. Look for new ways to solve client problems. Look for new solutions. No topic should be initially be considered out-of-bounds.
  7. Write an article every other month.
  8. Take a client or referral source to lunch once a week.
  9. Establish a marketing library to include general materials on marketing as well as specific publications related to your clients business.
  10. Provide marketing training/coaching for attorneys and staff. and improve time management skills of everyone in the firm.

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

 

 

Mar 29, 2017


Improving Law Firm Profitability

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a six lawyer general practice firm in Chicago. We have four partners and two associates and have been in practice for twenty years. While we are holding our own and doing okay financially we would like to do better. The partners have never earned more than $175,000 – some years not even that. What can we do to improve profitability?

Response: 

Profitability can be increased by increasing revenue, decreasing expense, or increasing leverage – ratio of associates to partners. Most law firms do not have an expense problem – they have a revenue problem. Profitability improvement programs tend to be more successful when they concentrate on improving profits through increased revenue versus programs than focus on reducing expenses. A program that focuses on increasing revenue such as increasing billable hours, raising billing rates, and improving realization rates will yield better results. Programs that focus on expense reduction often do not yield satisfactory results in the long-term.

Improvement in leverage usually can only be achieved as part of a long-term program. Sudden sizeable increased in the number of associates may prove to be counterproductive if there is not sufficient client work to keep associates busy. Another option would be to reduce the number of partners  through retirement and other options must be carefully planned and I am sure is not an option that your firm is looking for.

I suggest that you review your expenses to insure that they are in line and if they are not make reductions that make sense. Then focus on the revenue side of the equation. Review your client base, practice areas, billing rates, flat fee rates, billable hours being worked by your partners and associates, and realization rates. Then identify problem areas and chart out a course of action.

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

 

Nov 22, 2016


Law Firm Billable Hours – Attorneys Not Meeting Expectations

Question:

I am a partner with a fourteen attorney business litigation defense firm in Los Angeles. I am the member on our three member executive committee that is responsible for financial oversight. This year we put in place an 1800 annual (150 hours per month) billable hour expectation for associate attorneys. No one has ever reached 150 hours. Are our expectations unrealistic? What is our problem? I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

I do not think that a 1800 annual billable hour expectation is unrealistic. Litigation defense firms typically have an expectation of 1800 to 2000 annual billable hours. Many litigation defense firms that I am currently working with have a 2000 billable hour expectation with many attorneys working 2200 billable hours.

Typical causes for an attorney not meeting expectations are:

  1. Not working or putting in enough hours.
  2. Not enough work.
  3. Poor time management habits.
  4. Poor timekeeping habits.

I suggest that you meet with each associate and discuss each of these possible causes.

Since this seems to be an across the board problem I suspect that the firm may not have enough work to support these billable hour expectations. Many of our clients are having this problem. They are hiring more attorneys that they actually need, have overcapacity, and simply don’t have the work to support billable hour expectations.

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

 

Sep 07, 2016


Law Firm Profitability – How Do I Know if We Have Enough Work for the Attorneys?

Question:

I am the owner of an eight attorney estate planning firm in Jacksonville, Florida. Our firm handles estate planning and estate administration. For this entire year our financial numbers are way down and I am getting concerned. For example, compared to last year:

I would appreciate any ideas on what I should do next.
 
Response:
 
Several of my estate planning/administration firms from different areas of the country are advising me that business is way down this year and they can't put their finger on the problem other than demand and timing.
 
I would start by:
 
  1. Take a look an your new matter intakes for the year – month by month.
  2. Examine the referral and marketing sources as to where this business is coming from.
  3. Prepare a open matter inventory report by attorney and matter type to get a count of the number of matters each attorney is handling
  4. Examine billable hours, non-billable hours, collected working attorney fees and realization rates for each attorney.
Compare each of the metrics above with last year and prior years. Meet with all of the attorneys and review their matters in progress and discuss their workloads. Also review your marketing budget and marketing programs to see if changes are warranted.
 
This should give you a feel for what is going on. You could have problems in the following areas:
 
While you may find that you have problems in each of the above areas I suspect that your biggest problem is that attorneys do not have enough work and your business is down. If this is the case I would question how they are using their non-billable hours – are they doing more business development and marketing – or they simply pacing their time so they fill an eight hour day.
 
If your problem is lack of work you are going to have to see if additional marketing can generate the business needed to support the attorneys you have on board or reduce your attorney headcount.
 

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

 
 
 
 

 

Aug 04, 2015


Law Firm Associate Attorney Performance

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 8 attorney general practice firm in Chicago western suburbs. We have 5 partners and three associates. For years it was just the five partners all who started the firm together. In the last three years we added our associates. We are not making money from our associates and wondering what we need to be doing differently. One associates is logging 925 billable hours, one is logging 1200 billable hours, and the other 1400 billable hours. You thoughts are welcomed.

Response:

If these are full time associate positions and they have been with your firm a couple of years you should be getting 1600 – 1700 billable hours per year. If your firm does litigation – 1800+ billable hours. Some practice areas such as estate planning/elder law – range in the 1500-1600 hour area.

The starting place is setting expectations. During interviews with associate attorneys at client law firms I ask – what is your billable hour goal/expectation, etc. Frequently I am told that they have no idea or they tell me that they think that the expectation is such and such. Other times they advise me that the firm simply does not have a billable hour expectation. Of course the partners tell a different story and can't believe that their associates are not clear on billable hour expectations. 

Some firms put in place auto pilot type incentive bonuses based upon hours or dollars and believe that these bonuses in themselves will motivate performance and as a result billable hour expectations are not needed. Often this is simply not the case.

I believe that baseline expectations should be spelled out and measured monthly. These baseline expectations are the minimal requirement to remain employed and justify the base salary that the associate is being paid. If these baseline expectations are not been met, you must had some heart-to -heart discussions in real time. Outline the problem and consequences for non-compliance. 

The billable hours your associates are logging just won't cut it. If the work is there they simply must get their hours up to desirable levels. You might look into the reasons for the low hours – work ethic, time management issues, or problems with timekeeping. If there is not enough work – long term – you may have to consider reducing the work hours that you are paying for.

It sounds like you may not be adequately mentoring or training your associates. Consider performance reviews and active mentoring and coaching. Insure that you are providing adequate feedback to your associates. Your time investment in the short term will pay dividends in the long term. 

 

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

 

Dec 06, 2014


Law Firm Collections – Reducing Accounts Receivable Writeoffs for Family Law Matters

Question:

I am the managing partner in a eight attorney firm in Nashville, Tennessee. We are exclusively a family law practice and while we charge a few client on a flat fee basis – most clients are time billed. We ask for a $5000.00 security retainer up front. After the retainer is used we invoice clients for additional time spent on a monthly basis. We are having problems getting paid and are having to write off a large amount of accounts receivable. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

This is a common problem that I hear from family law as well as other firms representing individuals. The law firm collects the initial retainer, the retainer is used up, additional work is done, – often to the conclusion of the matter – the client is invoiced for the remainder of the time expended, and the bill either does not get paid or is paid partially. The law firm ends up writing off the balance.

The best solution is to require the retainer be replenished at a certain point and, within your state's ethical parameters, not perform additional work until the additional retainer is received. Recently a client told me that his office manager's number one responsibility is a daily review of unbilled time compared to unused retainer. When the unbilled time get to 90% used the client is invoiced for additional retainer. When 100% is reach work is stopped until the additional retainer is received.

With today's client billing systems that have integrated trust accounting, assuming that timesheets are entered directly and daily, an office manager or bookkeeper can simply print or review on screen a summary work in process report that shows for each matter the unbilled values for fees and costs, unpaid receivable, and retainer balances in the trust account. Matters with unbilled fees and costs approaching the retainer balance can then be invoiced for additional retainer. The key to making this work:

  1. All timekeepers must enter their own time via direct time entry and daily.
  2. Someone must be assigned the responsibility for daily monitoring and daily invoicing for additional retainer replenishment and help accountable.

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

  

 

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