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Sep 16, 2020


Law Firm Planning Retreat During COVID-19 – Consider a Virtual Retreat

Question:

I am a partner and a member of a three member management committee in a eighteen attorney firm in Chicago. During the past year we have discussed conducting an offsite long range planning retreat in the fall that would include the partners and other attorneys in the firm. We have never done this before so this would have been a new experience for us. However, with the COVID-19 crisis we have cancelled our site reservations and are wondering whether we can still conduct our retreat remotely? Any thoughts you have would be appreciated.

Response:

Sure you can. I suggest that you consider a virtual retreat using Zoom or some other communication platform. Organizations are holding virtual conferences, churches are conducting virtual services, and law firms are conducting virtual retreats and planning meetings. Last week I attended a two-day video conference and the process went extremely well. There were even small group breakout sessions that focused on specific topics. While a in-person format is preferable, you can get the job done with a virtual retreat. During the current crisis a retreat and long range planning is more important than ever. So, I suggest that you try a virtual retreat.

Here are some suggestions regarding planning your first retreat:

A retreat differs from the typical firm meeting in that it is a specific structured program with an agenda of topics and procedures agreed to in advance.  The purpose of the retreat is to help facilitate change. For example:

Setting up a retreat involves all of the following steps:

Gather Ideas

The first step involves key members getting together to discuss their initial thoughts about the firm, its structure, and its organizational problems to brainstorm for possible topics. Partners and other members of the firm can also provide written suggestions for the agenda. Tentative retreat objectives can be formulated at this time.

Prepare Preliminary Program

A preliminary program is formulated. An appointed retreat coordinator or team develops the preliminary program including tentative:

The coordinator works on further defining goals and objectives of the retreat, how it is to be coordinated, and who will be responsible for various functions and activities.  Coordination checklists and timetables are developed.

Approve and Finalize Program

The preliminary program is circulated for comments and suggestions. Changes are accommodated and the finishing touches are put on the program. The partners agree on all details of the agenda and program and the program is finalized.

Background Research

The brainstorming process will require background data. Internal data such as firm financial reports, client lists, lawyer productivity reports, etc. and external information such as demographic and census data, information on competitors, business trends, etc. should be compiled and organized into appropriate presentation formats such as PowerPoint presentations, whiteboards, flip charts, and handouts.

Retreat Facilitation

A moderator should be assigned to the retreat. The moderator can be a member of the firm if the firm has a member who can be objective and has the skills to properly facilitate a retreat or the moderator can be an objective outsider who has the requisite skills. The moderator serves as the “tour guide” and keeps the retreat on track, in focus, and provides resource information when required. The moderator should be given the authority to control the retreat and enforce the ground rules.

Implementation of Decisions

A retreat will not be successful unless an implementation plan is formulated during the actual retreat and made a part of the proceeding. Specific assignments and completion dates must be agreed upon during the retreat itself and schedules for reporting on progress must be determined.

At the conclusion of the retreat the outcome of the retreat and the implementation plan should be summarized.

Within two weeks after the conclusion of the retreat a retreat report should be written and distributed to all firm members in attendance. Completion dates should be placed on the firm’s docket control system. A retreat follow-up item should be on each and every firm meeting. A post retreat evaluation should be conducted six months after the conclusion of the retreat.

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

 

Apr 16, 2020


Law Firm Planning During COVID-19

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a fourteen attorney business law transaction and litigation firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Our area is in lock-down as a result of COVID-19 and everyone in our firm except for our receptionist has been working remotely. We had planned on putting in place a strategic plan this year and completed a couple of initial meetings. As we move forward how do we plan in this environment or should we even try?

Response: 

These are definitely uncertain times and the legal profession will be facing an uncertain future. I believe that COVID-19 will leave a lasting imprint on the legal profession and will change and accelerate law firms into the digital age. This digital transformation will effect law firm clients, law firms, and the judicial system. Status quo will be altered permanently and new operating procedures will be developed. Entrenched legal service delivery methods will be abandoned. The following practices that we are seeing now will become commonplace:

Competition for legal talent will intensify and commodity work competitive will be greater than ever.

I believe that long range/strategic planning will be more important than ever but more difficult. However, right now everyone is in survival mode with a focus on the day to day. While these are unusual times with a very uncertain future, short and long-term planning will be more critical than ever. Right now I believe your focus should be on short-term tactical operational planning with three month planning horizons. The following are just a few of the topics that you should focus on:

You will need your short-term planning to be flexible as the current situation changes.

Once you have a handle on the short-term you can continue working on your strategic plan. I suggest that it initially be for a five year time period. You should incorporate some degree of scenario planning with different strategies for different future scenarios. While the future may be uncertain an uncertain plan is better than no plan at all.

Finally, if you have people in your firm that are casual users of technology I suggest that this is a good time to push them to get up to speed. Recently I was speaking with the partner of law firm that advised me that he wished he was more comfortable with technology and he is severely handicapped since his IT skills are limited to checking email and browsing the web.

Good luck!

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

 

 

Aug 21, 2019


Law Firm Strategic Planning in a One Day Planning Retreat

Question: 

Our firm is a twenty-attorney litigation firm in Miami, Florida. We are managed by a three-member management committee supported by a firm administrator. While our committee and our firm administrator are entrusted to make many of the operational decisions, all partners must weight in on and vote on all major decisions as outlined in the firm’s management plan. Currently we do not have a strategic plan and our firm administrator has suggested that we can accomplish this in a one day off site retreat with all the partners. Is this realistic?

Response: 

This is a little bit aggressive and optimistic. The strategic planning process is as important as the end result – the strategic plan document, so you don’t want to rush the process. Two sessions a few weeks apart would be better as it would give some time for the ideas and discussion from the first session to cook and simmer until the second session. However, you might find that one session is all that you are going to get. If this is the case you need to do some homework before the retreat. I suggest the following:

  1. Solicit feedback from all your partners using a questionnaire. An online questionnaire such as SurveyMonkey would be preferred. Questions should include general attorney demographic information as well as issues and challenges facing the firm and suggested solutions, future direction of the firm, succession planning, talent management, practice area expansion or contraction, etc.
  2. Develop a retreat planning session agenda and workbook with all relevant supporting materials such as questionnaire results, financial reports, recent relevant articles, draft strategic plan with at least a mission, vision, goals, objectives, and issues sections completed in rough form. This should be developed by the management committee beforehand.
  3. Provide all your attorneys with the agenda and workbook at least two weeks prior to the planning retreat to allow them to come to the retreat fully prepared.
  4. Keep the retreat focused on strategic issues with day to day operational items discussions being off limits. Discuss the questionnaire results then use the draft Strategic Plan as an outline for the session. Try to get consensus on mission, vision, goals, objectives, and issues by the halfway point of your session. Focus the remainder of the session on developing specific strategies dealing with issues and goals outlined.
  5. After strategies have been developed, develop specific action items for each strategy with start and completion target dates for each action item with the name of the person that will be responsible for completion.

Once the retreat is over the management committee should finalize the rough notes from the planning session into a initial draft of the strategic plan and circulate to all partners for review and comment. Hopefully, the management committee based upon comments can finalize and launch the strategic plan within thirty days, if not a partner meeting should be scheduled for additional discussion.

Using an approach to similar to what I have outlined will improve your chances of a successful one day planning retreat.

Good luck.

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

Jun 19, 2019


Burning Issues for a New Law Firm Owner Starting Firm After Leaving BigLaw

Question: 

I have recently started a law firm in the suburbs of New Orleans after leaving a large law firm in the city. I was a non-equity partner in the firm and had worked for the firm for fifteen years. I worked in the estate planning group and handled complex estate planning matters for wealthy individual clients. Much of the business was referred to the firm by large bank trust departments. I have been promised referrals from some of these banks. I had other referral sources as well that will be sending business. The focus of my practice will be exclusively on complex estate planning for wealthy clients. A paralegal and an associate from the firm will be coming with me. During my career my focus has been on practicing law and not running a business. What are some of the challenges and burning issues that I will face?

Response: 

You are starting with the advantage of probably having grown up with excellent training and mentoring that larger firms are capable of providing. As a result you probably have an excellent skill set and it sounds like you have learned how to get business and have developed referral relationships. However, you also have been accustomed to firm management and other resources that will not be available to you in a smaller firm. You will have to get your hands dirty and handle much more of the firm management and administrative functions than you had to do in the larger firm.

Some of the challenges and burning issues that will keep you awake at night will probably include:

  1. Hiring, training, motivating, compensating, and retaining attorneys and staff – both those that initially join you and future hires. Small firms often cannot afford to provide the level of compensation and benefits that larger law firms and other businesses provide. You must creative and use other carrots such as flexibility, work-life balance, etc. to be competitive.
  2. Additional sources of business. Even though you have promises from past referral sources to send you business the business may not materialize from these sources for various reasons. You must be prepared to proactively marketing your practice. A content-rich website, client seminars, and additional referral source development should be at the top of your list.
  3. Cash flow will be a challenge and issue, at least initially. Insure that your have sufficient working capital to start your firm and access to adequate credit lines if you need them. Obtain retainers from clients upfront, stay ahead on retainer replenishment, and bill promptly. Watch your spending but focus on revenue generation.
  4. Balancing your time between servicing clients and managing the practice. In your prior firm your primary mission was to practice law and serve clients. Now, as the sole owner of a law firm, you will also have management and administrative responsibilities. Your time between these two areas will require careful balance – neither can be neglected. While you can eventually hire some help you can never relinquish total responsibility for running the business.
  5. Development of systems. Processes and procedures will need to be documented in office policy and procedures manuals. Computer hardware and software will need to be acquired and implemented. There will need to be oversight over these systems. You should at least have a “top level” understanding of these systems.
  6. Client demands. Client demands and workloads can often take a toll on new owners. There will a time will your will be so busy you would like to hire additional help but not so busy that you are ready to or can justify doing so.

These are just a few of the challenges and burning issues that others from BigLaw starting their own practice have discussed with us.

Good luck with the launch of your practice.

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

Feb 20, 2019


Law Firm Growth – Is Growth Always the Best Strategy

Question: 

I am the sole owner of a five-attorney litigation firm in Mesa, Arizona. I started the firm twelve years ago after leaving a large firm where I worked for a very large national firm in Phoenix. I was an income partner in that firm. For a few years I operated as  a solo with a legal assistant. Then I began adding associates and staff. Now we have me and four associates, a office manager/bookkeeper, two paralegals, and two legal assistants. Our annual gross fee revenues are around 1.2 million, the overhead is high, my net income is not all that much more than what I was making as a solo. My associates aren’t willing to put in the time to generate the billable hours that we need and then there is the time and stress of managing all of this. Is growth a good thing?

Response: 

Not always – depends upon your goals and your area of practice. If your area of practice is a low billable rate ($150-$175 per hour) practice area such as insurance defense or municipal law, it will be difficult to reach a desirable personal income level without associate attorney leverage. However, if you are in a practice area with bill rates of $300 to $500 per hour you may be able to attain the personal income levels that you desire without associate leverage and growth. It all depends upon your personal income goals, your ability to support and handle the work that you have, and your ability and desire to manage a group of attorneys.

Growth requires that you manage others as well as yourself. More office space is required – more overhead to support the additional people. Growth puts a strain on cash flow and requires additional working capital. A new set of skill sets (people skills) is now required.

Some Lawyers Never Develop the Skills Needed or Desire to Go to This Level and Firm Growth is Restricted as a Result.

I refer to this phase as Sole Owner Phase. I have client law firms in this phase than consist of an attorney owner, a handful of employed associates, paralegals, and staff. These firms may have 3 to 4 people or ten or more. I have sole owner law firms with over 100 employed attorneys and staff. I work with other sole owners that choose to remain solo (without other attorneys) and are quite successful. It all comes down to what you are comfortable with.

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

 

 

Jan 16, 2019


Improving Productivity and Profitability in a Sole Owner Six Attorney Insurance Defense Law Firm

Question:

I am the owner of a six attorney insurance defense firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started the practice twelve years ago with myself and a paralegal and have grown the firm to where is is today – six attorneys, two paralegals, and two other staff members. While I have done well, and am taking home around $350,000 a year, I am not sure if we are attaining the numbers that we should be. I have a fifteen hundred billable hour expectation with a per hour bonus payable for each billable hour exceeding fifteen hundred. I do not have any attorneys that have reached this expectation. Our billing rates average around $150 per hour. I am wanting to put in place a partnership track and am not sure where to start. You thoughts would be appreciated.

Response

Let me first illustrate the profitability levers for law and other professional service firms:

R – Rate – billing rate (effective rate, realization rate, etc.).
U – Utilization – the number of billable hours.
L – Leverage – the number of associates/paralegal, etc. to owners or equity partners.
E – Expenses – office overhead
S – Speed – time it takes from the time work is done to when cash comes in the door.

With the low billing rates that are prevalent in insurance defense firms the primary profitability levers that can be managed in an insurance defense practice are utilization, leverage, and expenses. Insurance defense firms need 1800 – 2000 annual billable hours from their associates, a high leverage ratio of three or four associates for every equity partner, and low expenses  – i.e. no frills office space.

You are doing fine now with regard to compensation but this would not be the case if you had partners – the profits would not be there to pay higher salaries. Less than 1800 annual billable hours is not acceptable and it sounds like there are no consequences for non-attainment of the 1500 hours. You need to look into the reasons as to why your associates are not attaining the 1500 hours. Possibilities could include:

If there is enough work you need to focus on the other factors and let everyone know what the consequences are for not attaining the billable hour expectation. Start with the 1500 hour expectation as an initial baby step but then increase the expectation to 1800 hours as soon as your can.

As you think about a partner track keep in mind the issue of leverage and don’t be temped to make too many partners.

Keep an eye on your expenses.

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

 

 

 

Dec 19, 2018


Strategic Planning Retreat – Need for Specific Action Plans

Question: 

Our firm is an eight-attorney firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. We have been together for fourteen years. There are four partners and four associates in the firm. Over the years we have traditionally had a year-end attorney planning retreat with limited success. This year we have decided that we want to dedicate the entire time to developing a strategic plan for the firm. What can we do to ensure that our strategic plan leads to actual implementation?

Response: 

Implementation should be planned in the retreat and the strategic plan itself. One of the biggest problems that firms have with strategic planning retreats and strategic plans is they end up on the shelf and there is no accountability for implementation.

Be sure you come away from the retreat with a strategic plan that includes an action plan section with  a specific plan for follow-up on every strategy/action plan item. Specific strategic plan action items should be broken down into specific tasks. It is critical that individual task assignments and target dates for reporting and completion be made explicit. These assignments should be documented in the strategic plan action plan section and in the retreat minutes or notes. In addition, a system of post retreat follow-up meetings to access progress is suggested to maintain the momentum achieved at the strategic planning retreat.

Many firms benefit by incorporating specific strategic planning action items on a firm master calendar as well as individual calendars and review progress quarterly.

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

Oct 17, 2018


The Focused Law Firm

Question: 

I am a member of a three-member management committee. Our firm is a twenty-five attorney firm located in the greater Washington D.C. area. We specialize in governmental law. We are feeling that our committee and the firm spends a lot of time in meetings discussing management problems, strategies, etc. to no avail. Not much changes or gets implemented. I welcome your comments.

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 I 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.
Don’t hide behind strategy and planning. Attorneys love to postpone implementation. Find ways to focus the firm and foster accountability from all.

Go For Bottom Line Results

Attorneys respect facts. The quicker your committee can implement solutions that have a positive financial impact on the bottom line the quicker the committee will gain credibility and respect from the other partners.

Use The Consulting Process

Treat the problem or issues like a legal matter engagement or project. Conduct appropriate research and back up ideas and recommendations with hard data. Adequately prepare and rehearse presentations. Prepare like attorneys prepare a case for trial. The management committee’s credibility will only be enhanced if its ideas are accepted and implemented with positive results.

Use of Triads – Present Three Alternatives or Options

Time after time management committees have spent endless hours studying and researching a problem, brainstorming solutions, preparing and presenting their recommendations to the partners only to have their report tabled and asked to present additional alternatives. What happened? The management committee failed to present three options or alternatives. The partners had no basis of comparison.

Experience and research shows that the success rate improves dramatically when three options or alternatives are presented. The triad strengthens thinking abilities enormously and empowers people in making choices. It also trains the mind to see the relationships between alternatives and options. Management Consultants never present just one alternative or option.

Management Committees that use triads and present three alternatives or options will be more successful in selling their ideas to their partners.

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

 

Aug 22, 2018


Law Firm Retreat Follow-up and Implementation

Question: 

I am a partner in a eighteen attorney firm in Milwaukee. Over the years our firm has held firm retreats, but the results have been disappointing – a lot of talk and little action. We have the same problem in our monthly partner meetings. We spend a lot of time in meetings – discussions and decisions made but little implementation. This week we are having a partner vote to decide on whether to have a retreat this year. Frankly, I will vote against it and I think it will be a waste of time. What are your thoughts concerning law firm retreats?

Response: 

I understand your frustration and concern. Many law firms have had similar experiences with retreats. Good ideas and decisions but no follow-up or implementation once the retreat is over. Often retreats are too loose with no structure or leadership.

Insure that the firm appoints a qualified retreat leader either from within the firm or someone outside the firm that has experience leading or facilitating retreats. Identify specific objectives and desired outcomes during the retreat planning phase and design in how follow-up and accountability for implementation will be achieved. Be sure you come away from the retreat with a specific plan for follow-up action on every problem discussed. For example, if you decide to start a talent search to fill specific position, or if you have assigned several partners members to work further on specific problems and report the results, it is important that individual assignments and target dates for reporting and completion be made explicit. Determinations of this kind should be recorded and made part of the minutes of the retreat. Further, a system of follow through meetings to assess progress is advised, in order to maintain the momentum achieved at the retreat.

Many law firms benefit considerably by incorporating specific retreat decisions into a twelve month plan and schedule of activities to meet firm objectives. Planning of this kind typically results in significant firm progress, even though there may be initial resistance to these efforts by some firm members.

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

Jun 27, 2018


Elder Law Firm Expanding into Personal Injury and Other Areas

Question: 

I am a partner in a four attorney law firm in a small town south of Waco, Texas. We have two partners and two associates. Our practice is limited to elder law, estate planning, and estate administration. The practice was formed thirty years ago by the  two partners. The firm has built a strong brand in elder law and estate planning/administration and does a significant amount of business in several other counties. The firm is doing well financially. Our main problem is that we are overwhelmed with work and we need to hire an additional attorney. We have interviewed an attorney that is a partner in another two attorney law firm in the area that has some limited experience in small business corporate work and estate planning. However, most of his experience is in personal injury plaintiff, criminal, and family law.  If he joins our firm he wants to continue to develop these practice areas as well as bring his personal injury, criminal, and family law cases with him. Bringing him on board could solve our lawyer staffing issue as well as increase our business. Should we bring him on board?

Response: 

It sounds like the attorney you are considering is a trial lawyer and has limited experience in your practice areas and he wants to expand his personal injury, criminal, and family law practice. You need help in your core practice areas.

This would cause your firm to become more of a general practice firm rather than the specialty firm that you are presently. While there are general practice firms that handle elder law and estate planning/administration, more of the successful firms your size are specializing in these practice areas. Bringing these practice areas into your firm would totally change the firm’s brand, image, culture, and strategy. Marketing will be more complex. The firm will have to fund client advances for the personal injury cases. You need to revisit your strategy and ask whether you want to go this direction. Personally, I think you should pass. If you want to expand into other practice areas you might consider real estate and corporate. I have several elder law/estate planning firms that handle real estate and corporate work.

I would cast a wider net and look for additional candidates. I would start by looking for an experienced elder law/estate planning attorney. However, these attorneys are hard to find. You might have to hire and train a recent law school graduate.

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

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