Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Strategy

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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

Mar 28, 2018


Law Firm Growth Planning

Question:

I am a partner in a six lawyer firm in Jackson Mississippi. There are three partners and three associates in the firm. The firm is a insurance defense litigation firm. Our firm has been at its present size for many years, revenues have been flat, and profits have been shrinking. The partners have been discussing the pros and cons of growth and we would like to significantly grow the practice. A couple of our insurance company clients have asked us to open offices in other states and we are giving this consideration. Initially, we would open two other offices and we anticipate that this would require us to hire six additional attorneys. We appreciate any thoughts that you have.

Response: 

This is a huge step and I suggest that you give it careful thought. Here are a few of the issues you should consider:

  1. Firm Size – opening two branch offices and hiring six additional attorneys all at once is a major undertaking. This would double your firm size. A twelve attorney firm is quite different that a six attorney firm and requires a different approach to management, structure, etc. This would tough enough if the expansion were not in remote offices but in remote offices I believe the growth is too aggressive. I would start with one branch office and phase in the work and attorneys. Hopefully, you have a commitment from more than one client to send you work for a given location.
  2. Branch Office Staffing – staffing the office, especially with attorneys, will be a major issue. Unless you have attorneys in your office now that are licensed in these states you are going to have to hire local talent. How will you integrate the cultures of the two firms, prevent the remote offices from operating as separate silos, and keep the new offices from splitting off in a few years and starting a competing firm. Quality attorney talent will be hard to find and those that you do find will be reluctant to want to work for a small firm with no footprint in the local area. It is always preferable to staff a branch office, at least initially, with attorneys from the home office.
  3. Structure and Management – a larger firm will require a more sophisticated structure and approach to management. Will the attorneys hired for the remote offices be partners or associates? Will you need to create a non-equity tier? Who will manage the remote offices? Will you need to hire a firm administrator?
  4. Cash Flow – Growth will put a strain on the firm’s cash flow and will require additional working capital. Your partners will have to invest additional capital or the firm will have to take on debt.
  5. Systems – Growth will require you to examine your IT systems and software that you are currently using. They may not be sufficient. Consider how you will connect the computer system of the main office to the remote offices. How will phone systems be connected?
  6. Policies and Procedures – policies, procedures, and protocols will need to be developed and documented.
  7. Compensation – You present attorney compensation system may no longer be adequate. Consider whether a new approach will be required to attract new attorney talent.
  8. Financial Management – Your approach to financial management may need to be more formal that it is now. Budgeting will be a necessity.
  9. Facilities – Office space will have to be located and leases signed unless you start out with an executive suite type of arrangement, such as a Regus office. There are pros and cons to starting this way. One the one hand it provides a low risk way to enter a new market but on the other hand it signals that you are not committed to the market and you have just one toe in the water.

These are just a few of the issues that you will need to consider. Do your homework and due diligence on this before you jump feet first.

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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

Nov 08, 2017


Law Firm Retreats – Should Spouses be Invited?

Question: 

Our firm is a twenty-five attorney firm located in Austin, Texas. I am the firm administrator with the firm. We are planning on having a firm retreat consisting of the attorneys in the firm in February and are wondering whether we should included the spouses. Some of our partners think we should include spouses and others think that we should not. We had had retreats in the past and have not included spouses. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Having spouses attend law firm retreats varies from firm to firm. The majority of the retreats that I have facilitated have not had spouses attend. The decision to have wives or husbands of attorneys attend the retreat depends on the retreat program and the retreat goals. Firms do not generally invite spouses when the retreat is devoted primarily to firm business and little time is available for recreation and informal socializing.

If social programs are planned, some firms do invite spouses and design special programs (e.g. sightseeing tours, tennis/golf games, lunches, special sessions) for them, with couples getting joining each other in the evening for dinner and evening programs.

Some firms will setup special sessions during the weekend to orient spouses to the firm’s organization, operation, and culture. In these special sessions, spouses are introduced to the firm’s history, culture, pecking order among the lawyer ranks, why attorneys work after hours and on weekends, and how career advancement works.

When wives or husbands occupy positions in the firm, special day-to-day programs are often created that deal with any problems that the firm may be experiencing as a result of their employment. Problems such as spousal conflict, differences in compensation, and work production are just a few examples of issues that can occur when spouses are employed in a law firm. Special pre-retreat consideration needs to be given to how the presence of family staff members would influence the retreat proceedings.

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

Oct 31, 2017


Law Firm Strategy – What is a Strategy for a Law Firm?

Question: 

We are an Oklahoma City law firm of seventeen attorneys – ten of which are partners. Our firm does a little of everything. We have a three-member management committee of which I am a member. The firm was founded by four of the present partners twenty-two years ago. For many years the firms was very successful, however for the last five years financially we have been hard pressed and we have been stagnant. We have been discussing what to do about the situation. One of our partners suggested marketing and another suggested that we needed a new strategy. We do not have a marketing plan and I didn’t know we even had a strategy. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

A strategy is the firm’s decision on what services to sell, to whom to sell these services, and on what basis to sell these services. In other words a law firm must determine what legal services to be provided, to which clients and in what geographic locations, and how these services will be differentiated from those provided by other law firms. Law firms can choose a broad or narrow range of clients. Law firms can compete either on the basis of price, quality of service, or expertise. Firms compete on price by charging lower fees than their competitors. If the firm’s clients perceive that the firm has unique advantages over its competitors in the way services are provided, then the firm is competing on the basis of quality of service. If the firm offers its clients a superior knowledge base, it is competing on expertise.

Your strategy or lack of a strategy has been broad. A narrower strategy is appropriate in today’s competitive legal marketplace.

Here are a few suggestions for narrowing your strategy:

  1. Commit to one mode of competition – price, quality of service, or expertise.
  2. Select a strategy compatible with industry conditions.
  3. Select a unique niche.
  4. Diversity practice area risks.
  5. Select a strategy compatible with the firm’s internal environment.
  6. Look for practice areas in which the client is at great risks.
  7. Turn away clients.

I suggest that you study up on the strategic planning process and engage all of your partners in the process and comes to terms with an appropriate strategy for your firm. Then develop a strategic plan and use as your roadmap for getting there.

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

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