Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Succession/Exit Strategies

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May 23, 2017


Solo Practitioners Best Friend – Law Practice Continuation Plan

Question: 

I am a sole practitioner in Peoria, Illinois. My firm is a general practice firm that services clients throughout Central, Illinois. I have four staff members. I am fifty eight. While I have enjoyed having my own practice for the past twenty years I am concerned – what if something were to happen to me today or tomorrow – what is my backup plan in the event of short-term illness, disability, death, and even vacations. How would the firm keep operating? Who would take care of the client’s needs? How would my staff be taken care of?

Response: 

Sound practice continuation arrangements can solve this dilemma and preserve practice value and can help prevent a lawyer’s spouse or immediate heirs from facing a hasty sale or disposition of the practice in an emergency. A practice continuation arrangement can also give lawyer practitioners, their staff, and their family’s peace of mind.

A practice continuation arrangement is an arrangement – typically in the form of an agreement or contract made between an individual lawyer or a small law firm and another lawyer or law firm. The arrangement describes a course of action to transfer a lawyer’s practice and sets payment for its value. In the event of vacation, temporary or permanent disability, or death, a practice continuation arrangement protects the practice, the business interests of the lawyer or law firm’s clients and the financial interest of the lawyer and his or her family.

Approaches

There are different kinds of practice continuation arrangements. Typically, a lawyer enters into a one-on-one agreement with another sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, or professional corporation in the community. Agreements can range from simple “dual coverage for each other” for vacation or other temporary absences to sale of the practice in the event of long-term disability or death.

A practice continuation agreement’s provisions for the sale of a practice must contain a reasonable valuation and a realistic payment structure. What lawyers really want is to leave to their surviving spouses or heirs is something from all the hard years of work it took to build the practice. To accomplish this end, selling the practice at a buyer friendly price may be necessary. Law practices can lose value very quickly, so timing is vital.

Lawyers must invest time and effort to find suitable successors for their firms and to create useful, equitable, practice continuation agreements. The key is to finding the right person or firm. The investment of time is a good investment, however, because a good practice continuation arrangement will ensure that if a lawyer is unable to continue managing the practice, the value he or she has built over the years will not be lost. An orderly transfer of a practice to another lawyer or law firm is a substantial financial benefit to the lawyer’s family. At the same time, through the handpicked successor, the lawyer fulfills his professional responsibility to his clients. Lawyers who do not have these agreements should learn more about preserving the value they have created.

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

Apr 18, 2017


Law Firm Succession/Exit Plan – Merger, Selling, Laterals, or Promoting Associates to Equity

Question:

I am the owner of a small estate planning firm in Worcester, Massachusetts. I have three associates and three staff members. I am fifty five and am wanting to begin putting in place my succession/exit plan. I would like to retire and exit the practice in ten years. Would I be better off selling to another firm or attorney, merging the practice, bringing in laterals, or selling to one or both of my associates? I am interested in your thoughts.

Response: 

The biggest challenge for many firms, is finding the right WHO.

The who dictates the what – the actual succession/transition/exit strategy. In other words, many law firms find that they start down one path and end up on another. Not all non-equity partners and associates want to own a law firm. Not all lateral and merger candidates will be a good fit for your firm and culture. The key is the right relationship and sometimes that takes the form of making someone at the firm a partner, bringing in a seasoned lateral, merging with another firm, or selling the practice. Therefore, succession/transition plans have to be flexible and often the key is not get stuck in creating complex succession plans at the onset. Establish timelines, outline a general course of action, generate some momentum and see where that takes you. Then build the plan when you can see where the firm is headed.

Unless the retiring partner in a larger firm has a unique practice that requires the firm to conduct a search for lateral or merger candidates, larger firms will not have to embark on a search. However, solo practitioners and often sole owners will have to explore their options and conduct a search for the following:

This search and exploration often is the most time consuming and difficult part of the process and often the options identified through this process ends up dictating the succession/transition/exit strategy.

If a firm has associates, does the firm have the right associates on the bus for the long term? In other words, has the firm hired associates that want to be business owners and own a law firm? Many owners and senior partners in law firms are approaching retirement age and are beginning to think about succession strategies. As they examine their associate lawyer ranks, some partners are often surprised to learn that there may be few takers. While their associates may be great lawyers, they may not bring in business and may not be interested in ownership or partnership. Such firms have hired a bunch of folks that just wanted jobs and have no interest in owning a law firm. While this hiring approach may have satisfied the firm’s short-term needs – it may fall short in the long term.

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

 

 

 

Apr 11, 2017


Client and Management Transition in a Larger Law Firm

Question:

I am a member of the executive committee of a seventy-five attorney firm in Houston, Texas. We are a first generation firm. Several of our founders are in their sixties and we have recently begun discussing succession planning and how clients and management duties will be transitioned. We would appreciate your thoughts in these areas.

Response:

In larger firms, clients are more likely to be large sophisticated clients, possibly Fortune 500 companies, which refer many matters to the firm during the course of a year. Often such clients may be both a blessing and a curse for the firm. A blessing in that their business provides the firm with huge legal fees during the course of a year. A curse in that their business represents a large percent of the firm’s annual fee collections and a significant business risk if the firm were to lose the client. An effective client transition is critical, takes time, and must be well planned.

Successful client transition – moving clients from one generation to the next – is a major challenge for larger firms. Shifting clients is not an individual responsibility but a firm responsibility. To effectively transition clients the individual lawyer, with clients, must work together with the firm to insure the clients receive quality legal services throughout the transition process. Both the individual lawyer and the firm must be committed to keeping clients in the firm when the senior attorneys retire. Potential obstacles include:

In larger firms, partners may have management responsibilities as well as client responsibilities. A retiring partner may be a managing partner, executive committee chair or member, or serve as a chair or member on other firm committees. Retiring partners will have to transition these responsibilities to other partners in the firm.

Transitioning client relationships and management responsibilities effectively can and where possible should take a number of years – preferably five years – typically not less than three years. For this reason, many firms use five-year phase down programs for retiring partners. These plans provide detailed timelines and action steps for transitioning client relationships and management responsibilities.

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

 

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

 

 

 

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