Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Succession/Exit Strategies

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Apr 06, 2011


Law Firm Succession – Transitioning and Grooming the Next Generation

Question:

I have a general practice firm in Southern Missouri. I am the sole owner and I am 64 years old. There are three associates in the firm and four staff members. I have recently been giving some thought to my future, what to do with the practice, and how to salvage any sweat equity or value from the practice when I am ready to retire. The problem is that I love my work and really want to work forever. Suggestions?

Response:

Succession and exit questions are a hot topic in law firms of all sizes today. I find that in small firms it is not unusual for partners and owners to want to work as long as they can. In fact, in approximately 75%-80% of the firms that I am working with this is the case. Many attorneys enjoy their work and obtain great fulfillment from the work that they do.

The key is to start early and develop a transition strategy and plan. In your situation since you, health permitting, want to practice as long as you can, a sale of your practice is not really your best option. I would think that you need to focus on grooming your associates and gradually, over a phased basis, transitioning interests to them. Get a feel for the value of the practice, put together a firm financial profile and a quality proposal, dress up your financials, and sit down with you associates and discuss your ideas and plans with them. Determine their state of readiness. If they are not interested – keep your succession plans in mind when hiring others and screen for new hires that have an interest in owning a law firm.

As you look toward grooming the next generation keep in mind that you must find ways to get your associates invested in ownership both financially and emotionally. They need to believe that they are part of the firm and that down the road that it is in their best interest to someday own your firm rather than start their own. This will mean gradually giving up some control. You can't have it both ways.

Click here for our blog on succession/exit strategies

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

Feb 09, 2011


Surviving in an Insurance Defense Law Firm – Reinventing the Practice & Staying in the Game

Question: 

I am the founding partner of a 17 attorney firm in Missouri and I serve as the managing partner. We have 12 partners and 5 associates. Our practice is entirely defense – personal injury and workers compensation. The majority of our clients are insurance companies and third party administrators. We represent a handful of self insured companies. While we have had a successful past fifteen years are firm is now struggling. We have lost market share and our case counts are way down due to the economy and regulatory changes in Missouri. Our profitability has suffered as a result. We need to make some changes but are unsure where to start. Could you share your thoughts?

Response:

The present state of the insurance defense practice presents numerous challenges to the law firm. These challenges simply cannot be ignored – they will have to be faced head-on. The solutions are complex and will require time to sort through. While solutions can come in different varieties, they will take the form of one of two general strategic approaches.

  1. Reinvent the Practice – Stay in the Game
  2. Exit or Diversify the Practice

The remainder of this post will focus on reinventing the practice and staying in the game.

For some firms the appropriate strategy may be to stay in the game. These will be firms that have a well-established reputation in insurance defense, where insurance defense represents a major source of their revenue, and where adequate leverage and profitability and leverage exist. These firms will not be firms that dabble in insurance work. These firms will be committed to this practice area and will focus on it exclusively. Some of the following actions will be required to reinvent the practice and stay in the game:

  1. Get leverage back on track. Tough decisions will be required here. High priced senior associates will have to be let go. Unproductive partners will also have to leave. Paralegals should be hired. Ratios need to get back to 4 to 1.
  2. Partnership admission criteria will become more demanding. Time required to make partner will be lengthened.
  3. Compensation will be based upon performance.
  4. Billable hour quotas will be enforced.
  5. Expenses will be tightly controlled.
  6. Flat fees and other forms of alternative billing will be commonplace.
  7. Unique out-of-the-box solutions will be designed to provide tailored services to meet client needs and differentiate the firm from competitors. The firm will no longer wait for the insurance company to take the lead. The firm will take the lead and provide clients will a menu of service solutions.
  8. Technology will be employed to the fullest extent to reengineer work processes. It will not be used just for technology sake or to keep up with the corporate litigation law firms. When technology is employed old outdated practices and processes will be eliminated.
  9. Standardized practices and procedures will be developed and used throughout the firm wherever possible.
  10. Client focus groups, insurance company councils, and other forums will be formed to open up channels of communications with clients in order to mend the tarnished client relationship and reestablish a business partnership. Innovative insurance defense firms will take active leadership roles in this endeavor.
  11. Aggressive marketing and business development strategies and plans will be implemented in order to maintain appropriate growth rates and profitability. Relationships with unprofitable clients will be terminated. Marketing with be done as a team approach as opposed to being a function done at the individual lawyer level. Both firm and individual personal marketing plans will be commonplace.

Click here for my article – Trapped In an Insurance Defense Practice

Click here for our blog on law firm strategy

 

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

Jan 05, 2011


Law Firm Succession – Practice Continuation Arrangements

Question:

I am a 55 year old sole practitioner in Chicago. I have two staff employees. I have recently been thinking about what I would do if I became sick or disabled? How would I take care of my clients and my employees? Would you share your thoughts in this regard?

Response:

While many lawyers and law firms are beginning to think about long range succession issues and the need for long range succession plans, many have not yet addressed the shorter range issues. At a recent presentation on succession/exit planning I was asked by a lawyer in the group the following question:

“What if something happens to me today or tomorrow – what is my backup plan?"

My presentation was focused on the longer term retirement issues but I also need to address issues such as short term illness, disability, death, and even vacations.

Many solo lawyers are in “reactionary mode” and have not adequately prepared backup plans in the event that, in the short term – prior to retirement – something would happen to them. For example:

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.

What Is a Practice Continuation Arrangement

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 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.

Click here for our blog on succession/exit strategies

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

Oct 27, 2010


Hiring Lawyers that are Children of Firm Owners or Partners

Question:

I am an owner of a 5 attorney law firm in the upper midwest. There are 4 associates in the firm and I hope to eventually make them partners. I have two children that will be finishing law school in the next year or two and they have expressed an interest in joining the firm. Is this a good idea? I have heard horror stories about such arrangements? What are your thoughts?

Response:

I have seen it go both ways. Many firms have brought children and other family members into the firm and have had excellent results. Others have not. In general I believe that law firms do a better job at this than do other business firms. Your situation is more complicated since you have associates in place that may feel threatened and uncertain as to their futures when you bring in family members. I believe that if you lay the proper foundation and go about it correctly you can successfully bring your children into the firm. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Recognize that for the family members there will be a family system, the family law firm, and an overlapping of these systems. This can be fertile ground for conflict if clear boundaries between the family role and the firm (business) role are not clear. Establish clear boundaries. Family dynamics and business dynamics seldom mix. Your objective should be to draw the clearest possible distinction between the two and make sure that everyone understands that the firm (business) is the firm and the family is the family.
  2. Children should not be brought into the firm unless they want to be involved and satisfy your standard hiring criteria for lawyers. I believe that before your children join the family law firm it is a good idea for them to work for another firm or organization. When they do join the family firm they can bring with them that experience, a supply of new ideas, a network of contacts, and a number of other benefits acquired.
  3. Make it clear to your children that they must "earn their stripes" and come up through the ranks in the same fashion as other associates in the firm. No special privileges. Make it clear that they must earn the respect of other attorneys and staff in the firm.
  4. Put your associates and staff at ease. Make it clear that your children are expected to "earn their stripes" and they will not be promoted to partner over other associates on family status alone. (Unless this is your intent)
  5. Clearly define the role of all parties.
  6. Monitor your own behavior. Don't take sides – either between your children if both join the firm or between your children and other employees in the firm.
  7. Be careful with compensation and other rewards. Compensation should be based up performance and results and consistent and competitive with other law firms of similar size and type.
  8. Put in place a succession plan sooner than later with a workable buy-sell agreement.
  9. Communicate, communicate, communicate – your intentions, roles, etc. before and after your children join the firm.

Click here for other articles

Click here for my blog postings on succession

Good luck! 

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

Jul 15, 2010


Valuation of My Law Practice For Merger or Acquisition

Question:

I have been thinking merging or selling my practice. How do I determine what my practice is worth?

Response:

You might want to consider retaining the services of outside advisors to help you with this process. There are a variety of methods used to value law practices including:

  1. Fair Market Value Methods
  2. Rule of Thumb Methods
  3. Price Earnings Ratio
  4. Discounted Cash Flow Models, etc.

CPA practices are often valued using a rule of thumb method employing a multiplier of 1.0 to 1.5 times average gross revenues for the past five years. Thus, a practice with average billings of $400,000.00 per year might sell for $600,000 with 50% of the purchase price paid upon closing and the balance (50%) paid over a five year period based upon subsequent collections.

Law practices are more difficult to value. CPA firms often have more repetitive work from ongoing clients and less risk in the practice – say compared to a personal injury law practice. CPA firms often have enforceable non-compete agreements which are non enforceable and therefore non existent in law firms. Law firms have much more fluctuation in practice valuation and no valuation model dominates. The rule of thumb model – when used – ranges from .5 to 3.0% – and will dependent upon the amount of repeat business, extent of institutional vs indivdiual clients, and the ability to sucessfully transfer clients to the acquiring practice.

Look for ways to institutionalize your practice in a way that your practice is not "uniquely you."

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

Jul 14, 2010


Succession/Exit Planning Questions

Question:

I am sole owner of a 8 attorney firm in the Northwest. Two other attorneys are income partners – no equity – and the other five attorneys are associates. I am just turning 50 and am beginning to think about future retirement. What questions/issues should I be thinking about?

Response:

Fifty seems to be the point at which attorneys being thinking about their retirement and their future. Some even consider and in fact make complete career changes at this point in their lives. Here are a few questions to begin thinking about:

  1. Have you decided when you want to retire and leave your firm? Or do you want to work forever?
  2. What amount of cash or annual cash flow do you need when you exit?
  3. Do you presently have a retirement plan and how much income to you project that it will provide at different exit times?
  4. To whom do you want to transfer your interest? Family members in law school, other attorneys in the firm, another firm, etc?
  5. Based on future cash flow, do you know how much the firm is worth today?
  6. Do you know how to best maximize the income stream generated by the firm – in the years ahead while you are still with the firm and after you leave the firm?
  7. Have you been able to institutionalize the firm – or is it uniquely you?
  8. Is the firm even marketable?
  9. Do you have a succession/exit plan?
  10. Do you have a plan for your business if the unexpected happens to you?
  11. Have you taken steps to protect your family's wealth?

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

Apr 08, 2008


Succession: Obtaining Maximum Value for Your Practice

Question: I am the sole owner of a 12 attorney practice. I am 55 years old and am beginning to think about retirement. The other attorneys are associates in the firm. What do I need to be thinking about in order that I can transition out of my practice and have money for retirement. While I have put some money in a 401k, I am not yet financially secure enough to retire.

Response:

You are not alone. As the baby boom generation ages – more and more attorneys are asking this question. Unless you have an appropriate Exit Planning Strategy and put in place a sound Exit Plan, it is doubtful that you will be able to cash in on the full value of the goodwill that you have created. To exit successfully you need:

You will need to consider whether you should consider merger, sale of the practice to an outside buyer, or sale of the firm to the other lawyers in the firm. You need to find ways to institutionize the firm so that in additional to professional goodwill (your personal reputation and goodwill) you develop practice goodwill (goodwill of the firm that will remain after you have left the firm). Develop your lawyers and create a desire and motivation for them to want to be owners/partners in the firm. Develop your staff and practice systems. Diversify and stabilize your client base.

If you decide to sell to attorneys in the firm – begin the process early so that most of the buy-in is completed before your actually leave the firm. The longer the planning horizon – the easier they buy-in burden will be for others

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

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