Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Strategy

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Sep 13, 2017


Institutionalizing Your Law Practice

Question: 

I am the sole owner of a six-attorney estate planning practice in Phoenix, Arizona. The five associates have been with me from five to fifteen years. I just turned fifty-five and would like to retire when I am sixty-five either by selling my practice to another firm or to one or more of my associates. I would like to receive some remuneration for the sweat equity that I have invested (goodwill). I have tried over the years to setup my practice in a way that it is not “just me.” I changed the name of my firm to a trade name that does not include my name, arranged the lawyers names on our letterhead and website alphabetically, and eliminated designations such as principal and associate. I believe that I have made it difficult for clients and prospective clients to know who the boss is. I hope that this will make my firm more salable and appealing in the future. I would appreciate your comments.

Response:

I took a look at your website and thought it was pretty easy to see that you are the firm. For example:

I suspect that you are the rainmaker and in spite of any advertising that the firm does and your website most of the firm’s business comes from your referral sources, past clients, and your reputation.

I believe you have to do more than what you have done to institutionalize your practice. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Motivate and push if necessary your associates to write and publish and get these works posted to the website.
  2. Motivate and push if necessary your associates to give presentations at bar and other professional association and community events.
  3. Motivate and push if necessary your associates to present firm seminars.
  4. Post your associates works to your website and to their bios.
  5. Require your associates to become certified as estate and trust attorneys with the Arizona Bar.
  6. Consider revamping your compensation system to motivate and reinforce the above activities.
  7. Incorporate the above as “performance factors” in annual performance reviews.
  8. As time passes if you find that your associates are unwilling to step up to the plate consider hiring different type of lawyers in the future.
  9. Do more advertising to increase the business that comes into the firm from other than your personal reputation.
  10. If you have not already, fully document your office procedures and automate your practice.

If you are able to accomplish many of the above suggestions you will be on your way to institutionalizing your practice.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Aug 08, 2017


Law Firm Strategic Planning – Reasons for Investing the Time to Develop a Strategic Plan

Question:

I serve on the management committee of our sixteen lawyer firm in Columbus, Ohio. We do not currently have a strategic plan and been discussing whether we should spend the time developing one. However, we are not sure what a strategic plan would do for us or why we should invest the time in developing one. We appreciate any thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

One of the major problems facing law firms is focus. Research indicates that three of the biggest challenges facing professionals today are: time pressures, financial pressures, and the struggle to maintain a healthy balance between work and home. Billable time, non-billable time or the firm’s investment time, and personal time must be well managed, targeted and focused. Your time must be managed as well.

Today well-focused specialists are winning the marketplace wars. Trying to be all things to all people is not a good strategy. Such full-service strategies only lead to lack of identity and reputation. For most small firms it is not feasible to specialize in more than two or three core practice areas.

Based upon our experience from client engagements we have concluded that lack of focus and accountability is one of the major problems facing law firms. Often the problem is too many ideas, alternatives, and options. The result often is no action at all or actions that fail to distinguish firms from their competitors and provide them with a sustained competitive advantage. Ideas, recommendations, suggestions, etc. are of no value unless implemented.

Well designed strategic plans are essential for focusing your firm. However, don’t hide behind strategy and planning. Attorneys love to postpone implementation.

A strategic plan is useless unless it is used. Don’t create a plan and simply file it. You must actively work your plan. Involve everyone in the firm, delegate action items, and require accountability. Consider it a living document – revise it – update it – change it as needed. Refer to it weekly and incorporate action plan items into your weekly schedule.

Use your plan as your roadmap to your future.

Good luck on your journey.

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

 

Jul 18, 2017


Law Firm Owners as Businesspersons that Don’t Service Clients

Question: 

I am the owner of a six attorney elder law firm in Dallas. I manage the firm and practice law. I am finding it more and more difficult to do both. I would like to shift my time totally to managing the practice. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

You are not alone. This is a common problem in law and other professional service firms. I have similar problems in my own firm – it is very difficult to serve two masters – serving your clients and managing your firm. Eventually you have to pick one – client service (doing legal work) or managing and running your business – as the area that receives your primary focus. This is not to say that you should not do both – but you select the primary area that you are going to focus on and get help with the other area.

A question that I typically ask my new law firm clients – what do you want to be or do – be a business person or a lawyer. The answer to the question often provides a hint to how you should structure your firm. If you want to be more of a business person – hire legal talent to help with serving clients and performing legal work and spend more time working on your firm rather than in it. If you want to be more of a lawyer and do legal work and serve clients hire a legal administrator or business manager (this is more than an office manager) to manage and run your firm.

I have more and more owners of small law firms that are managing their law businesses and not practicing law. I believe the appropriate direction is what makes you happy and what type of work you enjoy doing. You practice should support and fulfill your personal goals, what you want out of life and what makes you happy. If that is managing – then manage. If that is doing legal work – do legal work.

Two great books on this subject are – The E-Myth Revisited and The E-Myth Attorney – available on Amazon. The theme of both of these books is:

Small business owners often spend too much time being the technician (i.e. lawyering) and not enough time managing and innovating.

Think about where you want place the priority of your focus – working on firm (business) or in it.

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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

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

 

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 14, 2017


Sixteen Characteristics of a Successful Contingency Fee Law Firm – A Guide for New Managing Partners

Question:

I am a newly appointed managing partner for an eighteen attorney law firm in Dayton, Ohio. We are a employment law litigation firm that represents plaintiffs on a contingency fee basis. We have been in business for five years and we are facing severe cash flow and profitability challenges primarily due to lackluster contingency fee outcomes. Do you have any guidelines or suggestions as to what we should be aiming for?

Response:

In general I find that successful contingency fee law firms are:

  1. Sustainable over the long term
  2. Are disciplined, have order and common vision, and manage the firm like a business.
  3. Have long-term talented people that are passionate and team players.
  4. Organized and have structure.
  5. Have the right people on the bus and in the right seats.
  6. Meet on a structured basis.
  7. Have a long-range plan.
  8. Have a budget.
  9. Have fee goals for each producer.
  10. Have a marketing plan.
  11. Are consistently profitable.
  12. Have solid cash flow.
  13. Use metrics to manage the firm.
  14. Are financially stable.
  15. Have a succession plan.
  16. Are diversified – both practice areas and case portfolio.

I would use this as sort of an initial performance checklist. You may need to examine your case portfolio and your contingency fee case risk profile and look for ways to diversify your case mix.

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

 

 

Dec 27, 2016


Law Practice Management – Goals for 2017

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for a Personal and Professional 2017

As 2016 comes to an end we begin with a clean slate for 2017. As with anything new – the uncertain future can be scary and exciting at the same time. Year-end provides an opportune time for reflection on the past year and setting goals for the next year – both personal and professional. Goal setting can improve your personal life and your practice.

Here are a few ideas for 2017:

  1. Whether you are in a small firm or a large firm have a sit-down with your team and discuss the past year business results, (successes and failures), what went right and what went wrong, what can be done this year to improve over the past year, and aspirations for the upcoming year.
  2. If billable hour/revenue goals are not set for attorneys and paralegals set expectations for each individual, measure accomplishment, and provide feedback monthly on how they are tracking toward expectations/goal.
  3. Writing and speaking are excellent ways for attorneys to develop their referral networks and enhance the firm’s brand as well as their individual brands via their bios on the firm’s website. Published articles – on the firm’s website and elsewhere – lead to speaking opportunities as well as interviews by reporters and writers as sources for articles that they are writing for other publications. Multipurpose your articles in more than one publication and venue. Turn an article into a webinar, webcast, or live presentation. Commit to writing one article a quarter in 2017 (4 during the year). If you have been writing four articles a year consider writing a book in your field of expertise.
  4. Consider adding a new skill set this year. It may a new legal skill set such as a LLM in tax, litigation, etc. or it may be a non-legal skill set such as in management, counseling, medication, etc.
  5. For attorneys in their late fifties or early sixties give some though this year to your retirement/succession/transition goals.

Best of luck for a prosperous 2017!

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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

Jul 06, 2016


Law Firm Strategy – Building a Firm Brand

Question:

I am the owner of a fourteen attorney firm in the western suburbs of Chicago. I am 45 years old and I started my practice as a solo ten years ago. The firm focuses on business litigation exclusively. Like many law firms the name of the firm is My Name, LLC. The firm has grown rapidly and we have been successful. However, I am concerned that I should be building more of a "firm brand" and the firm is too much about me. I would appreciate your thoughts?

Response:

This is a common issue for solos and sole owners. While it may be an ego booster for you in the early days of your practice it can be a negative in future years, especially when you approach retirement and want to exit the practice. In essence the firm is all about you and the goodwill is you. This can have negative consequences when you:

  1. Try to merge with another firm.
  2. Try to sell your practice.
  3. Try to approach certain clients.

I suggest that you consider the following to develop more of a firm image or brand rather than just you.

  1. Do all you can to insure that the firm is not uniquely you.
  2. Consider a firm name that does not include just your name. You might consider more of a trade name or a name that includes other partners or members if associates are made partners or members in the future .
  3. Encourage your associates to develop their individual reputations/brands and feature their accomplishments in their bios on your website. (Writing, Speaking, CLE Presentations, Certifications, etc.)
  4. Help your associates grow.
  5. Consider at non-equity partnership for deserving associates.
  6. Feature other attorneys in the firm in your marketing efforts and events.
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

 

 

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