Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Succession/Exit Strategies

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Oct 06, 2015


Law Firm Growth – Associate Hiring and Retention

Question: 

Our firm is a two partner firm located in Rochester, MN. We have been approached by a solo practitioner that wants to sell us his practice. The price and terms seem fair but we are concerned about staffing and managing the other office. His practice consists of himself and two staff members. We would have to maintain a second office, hire an associate or two for the office, and then manage both operations. We have recently tried to hire an associate without success by reaching out to targeted lawyers that we knew in our local area. Frankly, acquiring this practice is a little daunting. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

I believe the first issue is whether you are looking to grow the firm and are willing to undertake the additional management responsibilities that comes with growth. Some firms are ready for growth and others are not. Larger is not necessarily better. 

I would not let your unsuccessful associate hiring attempts discourage you from acquiring the practice if you desire to grow and the price and terms are acceptable. You may need to cast a wider net and be more focused in your efforts. Recently a two attorney firm in Mid-Missouri hired an associate from St. Louis. A two attorney firm in Central Kentucky hired an associate from Lexington, Kentucky. It may take some time but a concentrated recruiting effort usually pays off regardless where you are located – even in small communities. 

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

 

 

Sep 15, 2015


Law Firm Succession/Exit Planning – Sole Owner Practice

Question: 

I am the owner of an estate planning practice in northwest suburbs of Chicago. I have two associates and for staff members. I am sixty seven and would like to retire when I am 70 (3 years). I have no idea as to where I should start and the approach I should take. I would appreciate suggestions.

Response: 

Sole owner firms and solo practitioners face a real challenge when deciding what to do with their practices. While many of the issues are similar to those faced by multi owner firms, sole owners and solo practitioners must also face the following additional challenges:

As with multi owner firms the key is to start early and not wait until the last minute. I suggest that you put in place your succession/exit plan as soon as possible – not just for retirement but for unexpected situations as well – so that your family, employees and clients are not left in the dark if something should happen to you.

Just because you have associates – don't assume they want to be owners and own a law firms. Look into this early as it may impact your hiring strategy as well as your overall strategy and whether it will be an internal vs. external succession strategy. 

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

Jul 07, 2015


Law Firm Ownership – Acquiring a Founding Partner’s Interest – Question from a Reader

Question:

I have a quick question on a recent column of yours that appeared on last week's blog and Illinois State Bar Association (in an ISBA email).

You refer to the following:

“One to one and a half times the owner's average earnings for the past five years is typical. "Does this mean the total firm revenues or the amount the owner attorney received as income? I thought I have seen that multiplier to be on total firm revenue.

Thank you!

Response:

I was speaking in terms of net profit or earnings – not gross fee income.

It is true that we often speak in terms of a multiple of gross fee income when trying to value a firm. Typically a best case is a multiple of 1.0 – often less – .60 – .75 or even less. Downward adjustments are made to the multiple based upon practice risk, how high the overhead is, likelihood of clients or referral sources remaining etc. 

For example:

Law Firm A – has $1,000,000 in gross income and the net earnings of the owner is $600,00

 vs.

Law Firm B – is a collections practice – very high overhead intensive practice- has $1,000,000 in gross income and the net earnings is $150,000.

Using a multiple x gross has to be discounted substantially for law firm B due to risk, overhead, etc.

It is sometimes simpler to think in terms of net profit – with the typical ranges between 1.5 – 2.0.

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

Jul 01, 2015


Law Firm Ownership – Acquiring a Founding Partner’s Interest

Question:

I am a senior associate in a eight attorney elder law firm in Miami. There is one owner (founder) and seven associates including myself. The owner has approached me with a proposal to over time buy out his interests. I am the only senior associate in the firm and the only associate that he has approached concerning selling his interests. Specifically his proposal is as follows:

  1. Pay him $825.00 for the practice over five years.
  2. After five years I will own 100% of the shares.
  3. My compensation arrangement will remain the same (salary plus formula percentage incentive bonus based upon my responsible attorney collections) until I have acquired 100 percent interest of the firm.
  4. The owner wants to work in the firm indefinitely after his interest are acquired as an employee or Of Counsel.

I don't know how to respond to this proposal and would appreciate your thoughts? Is it fair? Does it make sense?

Response:

It makes sense for him. Seriously, you are going to need much more information that this proposal. To get started you need to ask for and review the following:

  1. Profit and Loss statements and Balance Sheets for the past five years.
  2. Tax returns or Schedule C for the past five years.
  3. A report showing the current accrual based assets – mainly unbilled work in process and accounts receivable. There are often the largest assets that a firm has and it is not on a typical cash-based profit and loss statement.
  4. A list showing any off-balance sheet liabilities.
  5. Copies of the office lease and other leases to determine lease liabilities.

From these documents you can get a feel for the cash-based net equity, the accrual-based net equity after considering work in process and accounts receivable and unrecorded liabilities.

Two numbers that may be even more important is the average fee revenue generated over the past five years and the average compensation (net profit plus compensation – W2 and K1 earnings) that the owner has been earning over the past five years.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. One to one and a half times the owner's average earnings for the past five years is typical. So from this guideline you can evaluate the appropriateness of the $825,000.
  2. What assets are included? Will he exclude any assets?
  3. Will you be able to acquire minority interests over the five years as you pay towards the payout? I will insist on such.
  4. If you do acquire minority interests as you go will there be a profit pie for you to share in or will the owner increase his compensation, personal perks he passes through the firm, cut down on his working time, etc.? You should get a handle on compensation as well.
  5. I would not have the owner's employment open ended after you acquire 100% interest. Have some protection in case he fails to produce or has physical or mental problems that affects his performance. Suggest an Of Counsel agreement that gets reviewed and renewed annually.
  6. Consider whether there is a transition that insures that the clients and referral sources stay with you after he retires. If he has not groomed you, involved you in relationships with clients and referral sources, had you giving seminars, and plugged you into referral sources future business could drop off dramatically. This should be factored into the value.
  7. Weigh the cost-benefit of starting your practice v.s. purchasing his practice. 

Good luck!

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

May 20, 2015


Law Firm Succession – Coming to Terms With Aging

Question:

I am the managing partner in a 12 attorney firm in Chicago. We have 6 partners and 6 associate. We a boutique litigation firm. Three of our partners are in their mid to late 60s and should be thinking about retirement but they seem to be in denial? How to we begin to addresses this issue?

Response:

Several years ago I was giving a presentation to an ALA (Association of Legal Administrators) Chapter and after the presentation an administrator came up to me and asked, “what kind of financial incentives can we put in place to encourage some of our senior attorneys to retire”? I responded by saying “help them identify some hobbies.” While my comment was partially in jest, many attorneys,
especially baby boomers, have invested so much into their careers and law practices they have not had either the desire or time to invest into other areas of interest.

The more difficult components of retirement include:

For some people the best way to retire may be to continue working.      

For others, rather than being a time of easing back and retiring into old age or continuing to work in one’s old job or career, it can be a time of personal growth and an opportunity to explore other interests, callings, and vocations. It can be a time of freedom to do what you always wanted to do but could not because you had to earn money and the pressure of work prevented you from pursuing you dreams and interests that were in tune with you values and beliefs. Here is a list of a few areas that lawyers approaching retirement might want to explore:

  1. Teaching courses at a local law school or university
  2. Pro-bono work
  3. Writing
  4. Photography, gardening, travel, or other hobbies
  5. Serving as a director on a profit or non-profit board
  6. Counseling
  7. Volunteering

Retirement planning begins with taking the time to think about how one will use their 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)

Find ways to encourage your senior attorneys to explore and think about their future and explore other interests - both at home and at the firm.

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

 

Mar 03, 2015


Sale of Law Practice and Alternative Approaches

Question:

I am the owner of a solo practice located in the western Boston suburbs. I have been considering selling my practice. Do you see many practitioners selling their practices?

Response:

Yes, I am seeing many solo practitioners selling their practices. However, I also see many lawyers looking to exit their practice start by thinking that they will sell their practice. However, when all is said and done the arrangements often take one of the following arrangements:

  1. Admitting an existing associate to partnership and then having the associate buy out the owners partnership interest in a retirement payout.
  2. Bringing in an associate and mentoring and grooming them, admitting the associate to partnership when he or she is ready, and then having the associate buy out your partnership interest in a retirement payout. Sometimes partnership interests are sold gradually over time.
  3. Merger with another law firm.
  4. A wind-down of the practice and then Of Counsel relationship with another firm with a client transition/payout arrangement.

Many solo practitioners are often taken back by the inflexibility of some of the various state rules of professional conduct concerning sale of law practices and find the above approaches more flexible.

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

Feb 24, 2015


Law Firm Succession Planning & Mid-Career Partner Roles

Question:

I am a partner and a member of the Executive Committee of a 250 attorney firm in the mid-west. We have had a succession plan in place for several years for our senior partners. Several have completed their phasedowns successfully and others are struggling. One of our challenges is many of our mid-career partners are simply not ready. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

This is a common problem that many larger firms face as their senior partners phasedown to retirement and try to transition client relationships and firm managerial and leadership roles to the next generation. Often the focus of non-founders is on billable hours and working attorney fee collections as opposed to non-billable longer-term investment activities such as client development,  firm leadership, and management.

Unlike smaller law firms most large law firms do invest time and effort in developing mid-career partners in these areas. However, often more can be done. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Profile and Personal Brand Building. While developing new clients and new sources of business is always a goal – another questions is – is the mid-level partner, who is planned as the future responsible partner, bio/brand strong enough to entice the client to stay with the firm after the senior partner retires? Often it is not. All mid-level partners should have active personal development plans that requires profile enhancement and personal brand development. These plans should include steps to be taken and tasks to be completed as well as a timeline including milestones and deadlines.
  2. Go Deep with Client Relationship Development. Clients hire lawyers – not just law firms. In fact, the law firm brand is what gets the firm on the client's short list – the lawyer and his or her personal brand is what lands the client – the lawyer's relationship with the client is what keeps the client. Clients work with lawyers they like and trust – transitioning this to another lawyer in the firm will take time and nurturing – more than one or two meetings.
  3. Encourage Mid-Level Partners to Invest the Time to Understand Their Client Business as Well as Their Industries. Clients of law firms are always telling us that their law firms do not understand their business.
  4. Encourage Mid-Level Partners to Raise Their Hands, Volunteer, and Take Baby Steps Toward Leadership and Management Roles in the Firm. Such steps will cause senior partners in the firm to take notice and eventually lead to appointments to various committees and possibly eventually to an appointment on the Executive Committee.
  5. Work at Producing Excellent Work Product. In addition to the above excellent work product and hard legal skills, client service, and personality are all critical as well.  

I would encourage mid-level partners to try to budget 70% of their worked time for billable client production and 30% for non-billable investment activities.      

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

       

 

 

Feb 11, 2015


Law Firm Succession – Client Transition Plan

Question:

I am a founding partner in a 17 attorney firm with nine partners and eight associates located in Chicago west suburbs. We represent business firms and other institutional clients. I am the primary rainmaker in the firm. I am 60 and am planning on retiring when I am 65. My concern is how to effectively transition clients. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Successful client transition – moving clients from one generation to the next – is a major challenge for all law 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:

Transitioning client relationships effectively can and where possible should take a number of years – preferably five years – typically not less than three years. 

The following client transition plan might be an approach you could take to transition clients over a three to five year period:

  1. Review your Top Client List and develop and implement a detailed action and milestone plan for each significant client.  
  2. In consultation with the Firm Executive Committee, designate one or more Co-Responsible Attorney(s) for each existing client, and each new client as to which you are the Responsible (Primary) Attorney. You, in consultation with the Firm Executive Committee, may for cause adjust or amend the Co-Responsible Attorney(s) designation as to any Transitioning Client. The stated goal in designating one or more Co-Responsible Attorneys for each client is to facilitate the transition and retention of your clients upon your retirement and phase-out from the practice of law. You will agree to introduce the Co-Responsible Attorney(s) to the client when you are reasonably available, and work with the Co-Responsible Attorney(s) to transition the client and client matters to the Co-Responsible Attorney(s). You and the Co-Responsible Attorney(s) shall meet to discuss and evaluate the timing for the transition of each client. However, notice to clients shall be solely at your discretion. The Co-Responsible Attorney(s) may, at your discretion, prepare all invoices for legal services rendered. You will review and approve all invoices unless you agree to the contrary in writing. The client’s wishes shall be paramount in the designation or selection of any Co-Responsible Attorney(s) and client satisfaction shall at any time allow for change of the designation of same.    
  3. You will perform such duties as the Firm Executive Committee of the Firm may from time to time determine to be in the best interest of the Firm and which are agreeable to you. You will  agree that your professional procedures will be in accordance with the rules and regulations promulgated by the Firm Executive Committee. You will also maintain the records as reasonably required by the Firm Executive Committee. 
  4. Of Counsel. After the conclusion of the final transition year, the firm may enter into an “Of Counsel” relationship with you. In that event, you would be listed as “Of Counsel”. The relationship would be subject to both parties agreeing on the terms and conditions of the “Of Counsel” relationship.

Effective client transition takes time so start early. Clients hire lawyers not law firms.

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

 

 

 

 

Jan 28, 2015


Law Firm Succession – Succession Plan for the Solo Practitioner

Question:

I came across your firm while researching law partnerships. The short story is as follows: I am a sole practitioner and have been practicing for over 35 years. I have a high volume practice and I employ 7-8 people. Business is good and actually on the rise. I have a great office manager and outstanding loyal staff. The practice is on semi- autopilot for me. I have a young associate lawyer in my office that shares space and is  learning my practice but actually seems to be making his own way in a different practice area. He wants to buy into my practice. We have had some serious talks. He's capable and I think the right person to transition with. I have asked myself why sell/partner/transition when I don't have to? I am not ready to retire. With that said a 3-5 year plan may make sense. Let me know your thoughts.

Response:

The real value for most practitioners is the cash flow from working in the practice. Exit value is secondary and only makes sense when you are ready to quit or retire.

Eventually, however you will retire (retirement, death, etc.) as the clock runs. The biggest problem that I am finding is that practitioners that are ready to exit the practice is finding attorneys willing to buy the practice or buy out partnership shares in the event of a partnership. I am working with practices where is has taken a couple of years to find the right WHO and this often dictates the WHAT – merger, partnership, Of Counsel, sale, etc. The approach that works best is an internal transition via bringing an associate into partnership. So, I would take a serious look at the attorney that you are speaking about, maybe have him become a partner (member in a LLC) with minority interest initially, and incorporate into your agreements how compensation will be handled, him acquiring additional interests down the road, and the arrangement for your retirement payout upon your actual retirement.

Don't wait until you are ready to retire – take some baby steps now.

Good luck with it.

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

Dec 17, 2014


Law Firm Valuation – Establishing a Value for a Family Law Practice

Question:

John, where do you begin to get a value on a family law practice? It seems that one times gross revenue is unfair since it is usually one time business. I saw you speak at an ISBA event and this question was not addressed.

Response:

Regarding your question – it sort of depends on whether you are buying or selling and where you want to start. In general I agree with you that a multiple of one times gross for a family law practice is probably high. It depends on whether the practice has built up more of a firm brand vs. an individual brand. In other words institutionalized the practice. Also on where and how the firm gets business – advertising, referral sources, etc. A firm that has practice (institutional) goodwill might very well start at a multiple of one whereas a practice where the goodwill is personal goodwill the multiple might be .75 or less – in some cases even zero. I know of a few family law practices in the Chicago area that have been sold for .33 of gross revenue. 

Often the initial asking price has little to do with regard to where you end up. Often, due to the concern that the clients and business might not materialize for the new buyer many firms are sold on various forms of an "earn-out" or a small payment at closing with the remainder paid and based on a percentage of revenues collected over a period of time – 3 to 5 years.

I have seen PI and other one shot matter firms sell for one times gross revenues but this is a best case scenario. CPA firms fare much better.

If you are the seller and your practice is a personal practice you probably will have to start with an asking price around .75 or less – if you have branded the practice and have others besides yourself – you might ask for more.

If you are the buyer I would balk at 1 times gross and would want to discuss provisions for reduction in purchase price if revenues fall below a certain level over a certain time period. Better yet – no payment at closing with the payout totally based and paid as revenues are collected in the future.

Getting to "the number" will involve balancing the seller's concern that the buyer will let the practice die on the vine versus the buyer's concern that the clients and referrals with not materialize.

Click here for our blog on succession

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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