Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Succession/Exit Strategies

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Jan 24, 2017


Law Firm Practice Sale – Selling a Personal Injury Plaintiff Practice

Question:

I am the owner of a personal injury plaintiff practice in downtown Chicago. I am the only attorney in the firm. I have two legal assistants. I am sixty-six years old and am starting to think about retirement and how to exit my practice. I would like to sell the practice to another law firm or practitioner. Does my practice have any value and can it even be sold?

Response:

After you pull out all the cash and pay down any liabilities the general the value of your practice will be the value of your fixed assets, goodwill (if any), and the value of your contingency fee cases in process. The largest asset of value is your cases in process and often that value cannot be determined until the cases are concluded. If you are an advertising type firm and have   built a sustainable brand beyond your individual reputation there could be a goodwill value. However, since you are a solo I doubt that there is a goodwill value beyond the value of your cases – it all depends whether you end up farming out your cases to another firm or whether you can find someone to come in and take over your practice.

If you have to sell your practice to another firm they will probably not have a need for your fixed assets. You will have to sell or otherwise dispose of them. More than likely you will not be able to come to an agreement with the other firm on a specific sale price for the cases in process. Therefore, you will have to agree on a fee split formula where you are paid as the cases are concluded. This formula will need to consider a percentage of completion factor based on how much work was done while a case was in your possession and while in the possession of the new firm.

Your best bet would be to find an attorney that would come in and take over your practice. He or she would have a need for the fixed assets, your employees, and if you transition properly could benefit from the goodwill that you have generated. In this situation you could receive payment for fixed assets, goodwill, and cases in process. This would also provide continued employment for your employees.

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

Dec 20, 2016


Law Firm Succession Planning – Selling My Stock to Several Associates

Question:

I am the sole owner of a five attorney personal injury plaintiff firm in the Dallas suburbs. Over the years I have built a sustainable brand through advertising. I have helped my associates develop their reputations, handle substantial cases, and be involved in various areas of firm management. I am planning on retiring in five years and I would like to begin the transition early next year by selling some stock (minority interests) to deserving associates with the remainder of my shares to be purchased upon my retirement. Originally, I had through about selling shares to two associates that have been with the firm for over fifteen years – now I am thinking about selling shares to all four associates. I think it would be easier for the four to come up with the required money. I welcome your thoughts.

Response:

If you are asking for a goodwill value plus cash-based book value as well as a percentage of completion estimated value of your contingency fee cases in process, the amount you are asking for your stock could be considerable. This would indeed be difficult for one or two people to raise and on its face it would make sense to sell your shares to all the associates. If this is not the case if may be possible to the two senior associates to raise the required funds.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. You know your people best but give consideration to the future partner dynamics. You are going from a sole owner structure to a five attorney ownership structure if you bring them in all at the same time. This will require some major adjustments in governance, compensation, etc.
  2. Are the two newer associates deserving of ownership? Have they developed their skills and earned the respect of the other associates in the firm and others outside of the firm?
  3. What do the two senior associates think? Do they want to be future partners with each other? Are they able to come up with the money? Do they initially, after your retirement, want other partners? Do they want the other associates to be their partners – initially or down the road?
  4. Interview your two senior associates and get their thoughts on the above questions. They may want to enjoy the benefits of leverage from having less partners as you have over the years. 
  5. My guess is that your senior associates would prefer to go it alone if they can swing it.

Don't try to force future partners on your two senior associates. I will rather see you initially admit the two senior associates as partners and let them admit other partners after your retirement when they are ready.

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

 

Nov 08, 2016


Law Firm Retirement – Planning Retirement

Question:

I am a partner in a six-attorney firm in downtown Chicago. I am sixty four and starting to think about retirement and would appreciate your thoughts on how where to start.

Response:

Begin to visualize getting older, your mortality, and retirement. Think about the amount of time that you have left on this earth. If you are sixty-five you may live to be eighty. Thus, you have fifteen years left and this is your planning horizon.

Retirement planning is deciding on how to use this time. It is about the process of deciding what you will do in your retirement and putting a plan into practice. As the amount of time left to you decreases, its value increases to the point where it will be more valuable than monetary assets.  It will be more valuable that a new house, a new car, a new boat, or a chest full of cash. Time enjoying life, being with your family, and spiritual renewal will become more important than earning money. The greatest change when you retire is how you will use your time.

Retirement planning begins with taking the time to think about how you will use you time. If you live fifteen years beyond your retirement your will have 28,800 hours that will have to be filled with retirement activities. (five days a week, eight hours a day, 48 weeks, for fifteen years)  Start by creating an interest activity list, a time plan, and then DECIDE, PLAN, and ACT.

You options include:

1. Continue working in your present situation;
2. Continue to work for compensation but in another occupation; or
3. Retire and pursue recreational and other retirement activities without compensation.

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

 

 

 

Oct 11, 2016


Law Firm Management – Valuing a Personal Injury Practice

Question:

I am the firm administrator for a small personal injury five attorney practice in Des Moines, Iowa. The firm's owner is approaching retirement and is planning on approaching other law firms regarding sale of the practice or merger. He has asked me for reports in order that we can value the practice. QuickBooks is the only software that we use. What reports should I use to establish a value for the practice?

Response:

You will want to start by generating a profit and loss statement and a balance sheet from your software. I would run five years of profit and loss statements and the most recent balance sheet. The profit and loss statements will help you illustrate the revenue, expenses, and profit picture for the past five years. The balance sheet will provide a current financial snapshot of the firm's cash-based financial position. However, since most law firms keep their books on a cash-based basis the largest asset – contingency fee cases in progress – is not reflected on the balance sheet. Neither is any value for practice goodwill. Since you do not have a case management system you will have to setup a spreadsheet with columns for the name of the case, date opened, estimated settlement, estimated fee, client costs/advances, and projected date of receipt of fee. You will have to have the attorneys managing the cases help you with the estimates. These will be the key reports you will need initially.

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

Sep 14, 2016


Law Firm Succession – Transition of Partners and Transition Plan

Question:

Our firm is a twenty-five lawyer firm with ten partners. Six of these partners are in their sixties. What should we be doing concerning planning the succession of these partners?

Response:

In a larger firm with multiple partners, shareholders, or members, succession and transition involves transitioning client relationships and management roles. Such transitions take time. Many larger firms have five-year phasedown retirements for this reason and require equity owners to properly transition clients and management responsibilities. Some firms tie retirement pay or compensation to completing a successful transition program.

A plan might included the following:  

Some firms are providing economic incentives for the transitioning partner to handoff work to others.

The internal succession/transition plan provides a mechanism for the firm to outline a general timeline for a senior partner’s retirement, a process to effect an orderly transition of clients and management responsibilities, and a vehicle for starting initial discussions.

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

Aug 24, 2016


Law Firm Acquisition – Acquiring Another Practice

Question:

Our firm is a twelve lawyer firm in Austin, Texas. We have been approached by the owner of a three attorney firm in an adjacent city who has a complimentary practice consisting of institutional business clients. He is looking to retire within the next thirty days and he would like us to acquire his clients. We have reviewed his practice and we would be willing to take over his clients but not his personnel or other fixed assets. He has no interest in a merger or an lengthy relationship with us. It could add $800,000 per year to our practice. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

It sounds like a great opportunity if there are no conflicts, the clients actually transition, and the billing rates are in line. Start with conflicts checks. Then ask for five year's of financial statements and tax returns, internal financial reports, schedule of billing rates, client lists, copy of building and equipment leases, and malpractice applications. Assess the stability of the revenue stream, repetitive ongoing clients, client dependency, etc. Prepare a letter of intent with terms for acquiring the practice. I would lead with a down payment of say $25,000 and then a percentage of collected revenue for say five years at 20% and see how he responds. He will want more certainty and a fixed price. If you have to go with a fixed price to seal the deal structure it with an initial down payment, payments over three to five years with provisions for reduction in the purchase price if the clients and revenues don't materialize. Make sure there are no pending malpractice claims or other liability issues.

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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

 

 

 

Jun 28, 2016


Law Firm Succession – What to do When No One is Interested in Equity Ownership

Question:

I am the owner of a fourteen attorney insurance defense practice in Baltimore. I started the firm twenty years ago after leaving behind my partnership in another firm. Of the other thirteen attorneys there are four non-equity partners and the rest are associates. I am sixty three years old and beginning to think about retirement and how I am going to transition out of the practice. Two of the non-equity partners are well seasoned attorneys, have major case responsibility, and have developed solid relationship with clients. I have discussed equity partnership vaguely with two non-equity partners but their interests seem lackluster and they have been non-committal. I would appreciate your thoughts and advice on what my next steps should be.

Response:

It sounds like your non-equity partners are on the fence as a result of the "vague" nature of your discussions. It is hard for non-equity partners or associates to commit to equity and taking on the risk of ownership when they don't know what the deal is. This is a scary proposition for them and they need detailed information so they can evaluate and make an informed decision. A vague discussion doesn't cut it. I suggest that you put together an equity partnership proposal that includes:

  1. Profit and loss statements for past the five years.
  2. Balances sheets for the past five years.
  3. A current accounts receivable and unbilled work in process report.
  4. Tax returns for the past five years.
  5. Malpractice insurance application.
  6. Building and other leases.
  7. Proposed Partnership Agreement
  8. Proposed Equity Partner Compensation Plan
  9. Planned date of admission
  10. Governance and management plan
  11. Ownership percentage being offered
  12. Capital contribution or buy-in requirement
Meet and discuss the proposal with your candidates, allow sufficient time for candidates to discuss with their families and advisors, and set a timeline for their decisions. I think you will see a different reaction. If they still are unable to commit your may have to begin thinking about an external strategy and looking around for merger candidates.

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

 
 

May 31, 2016


Law Firm Succession – Transitioning Clients to the Next Generation

Question:

I am a member of a three-member executive committee for a 34 lawyer firm in Austin, Texas. We have been in practice for over one hundred years. While we have had partners retire in the past with no issues we are now facing a situation where seven partners are approaching retirement at the same time and each of them controls significant books of business. What can the firm do to ensure that retiring partners properly transition their clients so the firm can continue to flourish after the partners are no longer here? We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

This is problem that many law firms are facing as baby boomers approach retirement. Rather than one or two partners coming up for retirement many firms are experiencing a "bunching of retirees" all at the same time. This can have a significant impact upon cash flow planning, client development, and attorney talent management.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Access your lawyer talent pool to insure that you have people in place that can service the needs of the retiring partner's clients. If your talent pool is insufficient develop a strategy (lateral recruitment, merger, etc.) and develop a plan for locating lateral/merger opportunities.
  2. If the firm does not have a plan for dealing with the upcoming partners retirements and the transition of their clients write a client transition plan and commence its implementation. The plan should include an action plan that is structured like a project plan with beginning and ending dates, specific times, and individuals assigned to specific tasks. The plan should serve to keep things moving over a three to five year transition time period.
  3. Your committee should be communicating with your partners approaching retirement, talking with them about their goals and timelines concerning retirement, and getting them to commit to a date certain even if it is many years into the future.
  4. The compensation should include incentives that encourages retiring partners to transition rather than hoard clients.
  5. Determine a shortlist of who in the firm should take over clients.
  6. Begin client introductions to successor attorneys early. Go deep with relationship building – not just a simple introduction. Your committee and the retiring partners should monitor and follow-up with successors to insure that they are developing relationships with these clients.
  7. Assign co-responsible attorneys to all matters that a retiring partner is assigned.

There are a lot of other ideas that you can explore. The key point is to communicate with your senior partners, get them thinking about retirement rather than pushing it under the rug so there is a three to five year transition period, and start early. I have seen too many situations where a partners walks in and announces that he wants to retire in the sixty days, six months, or one year. This is not enough time if the firm wants to retain retiring partner's books of business.

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

 

Mar 22, 2016


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

Question:

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

Response:

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

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

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

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

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