Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Succession/Exit Strategies

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Jun 22, 2013


Law Firm Succession – Where and How Should I Start

Question:

I am the sole owner of a 8 attorney practice in Houston. 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.

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

Jun 11, 2013


Law Firm Buyout Arrangements in a Contingency Fee Practice

Question:

I am a partner in a four partner law firm in Cleveland, Ohio. Our firm does class action contingency fee cases and all of our fees are contingency fee. We do keep time of our time expended on these cases even though we don't bill by time. One of our partners has announced that he will be withdrawing from the firm. We each have 25% ownership interests. How do we value the firm and determine his buy-out. Our partnership agreement does not address this nor do we have any precedent. Do you have any suggestions?

Response:

The real value component is the value of your unsettled cases and it will be difficult – if not impossible – to determine the value of these cases until they are concluded in the future. Some firms payout the capital account and the value of the hard assets upon departure or over a relatively short payout period and they have a future payout formula for the cases in progress as the cases are concluded.

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

 

Apr 23, 2013


Law Firm Succession – Client Transition

Question:

Our firm is a 24 attorney firm in Chicago West Suburbs. We have 10 partners – five of which are in their early 60s. We represent small to mid-size business clients. Recently we have been discussing the eventual retirement of the senior partners and approaches to client transition. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Client transition involves different challenges that have to be overcome in order to successfully transition client relationships. Consider the following challenges and hurdles:

  1. Relationships take an investment of time and must be nurtured on behalf of the parties making the introductions and connections as well as the parties trying to form the  new relationship. Attorneys often want immediate gratification and the "quick fix" and are unwilling to invest time needed for longer term results. More than a "one-shot" simple introduction is required.
  2. Clients hire lawyers not law firms.
  3. Client transition requires trust on the part of all parties (introducers and new players). A high level of trust must exist within the law firm organization between the attorneys involved and within the client organization between the parties there as well.
  4. There is potential risk of embarrassment for all concerned. The transitioning attorney in the law firm could risk losing the client if the other attorney does poor work for the client. Another issue is the loss of control over the client. The individuals in the client organization could also risk criticism (or even their jobs) if the new relationship does not pan out.
  5. Many law firms are "lone ranger" rather than "firm first" or "team based" firms. As a result there is no inclination or incentive to invest the time and effort nor take the risk to refer work to others in the firm.
  6. Lack of knowledge regarding other partners' practices.
  7. Fear of losing clients.
  8. Fear of losing client control.
  9. Compensation systems in many law firms encourage hoarding of work and discourage the referring of work to others.
  10. Communication systems in  some law firms do not facilitate relationship building among attorneys. Effective client transition is simply not possible without strong relationships and high levels of trust among attorneys in the law firm.

Effective client transition is not a one-time lunch or introduction event – it most go deeper to bind the new relationship. This takes time. Start early and allow ample time for an effective partner winddown.

I generally suggest five year client transition programs.

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

 

Mar 26, 2013


Sale of Law Practice – Proper Timing

Question:

I am a sole owner of a 4 attorney law firm located in Washington, D.C. Our practice concentrates on estate planning and administration. We have 6 support staff members. I just turned 60 the first of the month and am beginning to think about what I will eventually do with the practice. None of the associate attorneys are interested in partnership or in purchasing the practice – they just want jobs – they are not interested in owning a law practice. When is the best time for me to sell my practice?

Response:

You really have to give some thought to your timeline – how long do you want to work? Do you plan on pursuing another career? Have you put enough money away so you can simply retire without concern about the need to generate additional income?

If you need revenue for an additional ten years – a way to earn it – and if you enjoy what you are doing – then it will not be in your interest to sell the practice too early. Let's say you could sell your practice for one million dollars – this might equate to two years of earnings. If you worked another ten years – you could have earned five million dollars.

To a large extent owning a law firm is in essence a job where you work for a living where you have provided employment for yourself. It might be hard to find a job that pays as well as your firm. So if you need revenue for another ten years and your enjoy your work – you should probably plan on working another ten years. Build you timetable to sell your practice around your future work timeline. Things change – you may find that your associates change their mind or down the road you may end up with new hires that will have an interest in partnership.

Start with planning out how long you want or need to work and go from there.

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

 

Feb 20, 2013


Selling a Law Practice – How do I Value My Practice

Question:

I am the founder and owner of a law firm in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. I have three other attorneys and 4 staff members. We represent primarily business and civic organizations. Our fee revenues are around $735,000 per year and I take home $175,000 to $200,000 from the practice. I am looking to sell the practice to either the associates in the firm or another law firm. Do you have any idea what my firm might be worth?

Response:

There is no one “right answer” when valuing a law practice. There are different types of valuations performed by different advisors for different reasons. Valuations can be extensive or ballpark estimates. 
 
While law firm owners and partners would like a simple “plug and play” approach to establishing a value for their firms, such an approach does not exist in the real world. There are too many variables that come into play. At the end of the day it comes down to what someone will pay you for your practice and the terms. Often the terms are as important as the price or value.

What a potential buyer is really the future cash flow (earnings from the practice) I suggest that you use the rule-of-thumb approach to get started. Multiply one year’s gross revenue by a factor of x. The result will be the stream of income’s value.

We usually suggest that you average the firm’s gross fee revenue over the past five years to even out any peculiar ups or downs in the revenue stream. Then multiply this average year’s gross fee revenue by a given factor. The factor varies with the industry and even with geographic location. Accounting firms, for example, are valued at 1.0 to 1.5 times (100 to 150 percent) annual gross fee receipts. A well established standard is still in its infancy in law firms. Some argue that the multiplier for the rule-of-thumb method for law practices should be between 0.5 to 3.0. However, based upon what we have seen in recent sales of law practices, the multiplier for the rule-of-thumb method for law practices is ranging between 0.6 to 1.0 (60%-100%) of annual year’s gross fee revenue. Another way to look at it would be 1.2 to 2.0 (120% to 200%) times net income. (Based upon partnership method of accounting and not including owner’s compensation as an expense) Whether the multiplier is in the lower or higher level of the range depends on the following:

  1. Quality of owner earnings
  2. Quality of personnel
  3. Location
  4. Practice area and types of services
  5. Financial performance
  6. Nature of clients
  7. Fee Structure (hourly rates charged)
  8. Repeat or one-time clients
  9. Referral sources.

Start with a multiple of one and adjust for the above factors.

Based upon the figures you provided I would think you would have a difficult time getting a multiple of one for your practice due to the low margin of 24%. Peer practices average 35-45% margins. You might ask for around $700,000 but due to the low earnings, etc. $350,000 – $400,000 might be the best that you can hope for and that may be subject to a five year earn-out. The key is often to find the right person to buy the practice. Finding the right person could take a lot of work and time – so start early.

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

Nov 13, 2012


Law Firm Succession: Approaching 70 – What Now

Question:

We are a two lawyer firm in New Orleans. We are both partners in the firm. We have 5 staff members. My partner is 68 and I am 63. Recently, we have starting thinking about what we are going to do with the practice in the next few years and we aren't sure where to start. Do you have any thoughts along these lines?

Response:

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 that you bring in and grow over the next few years. 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). If you bring in other lawyers develop them 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.

Click here for our blog on succession topics

Click here for our article on succession strategies

Click here for our article on valuation

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

 

Nov 06, 2012


A Backup Up Plan for Small Law Firm Owners – Using Practice Continuation Arrangements

Question:

I am a 52 year old solo practitioner in Memphis with one non-attorney staff member. While I do have some concerns about my long term succession exit strategy my immediate concerns are more short term in nature. How do I cover and serve my clients if I take vacation, get sick, or get busy and need help? What are your thoughts?

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.

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.

Look around for another solo practitioner or law firm that you can partner up with.

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

 

 

 

Sep 05, 2012


Selling Your Law Firm – Readying It For Sale

Question:

I am a sole practitioner in Bloomington, Illinois. My practice is general practice and most of my clients are either individuals or small businesses. I have one legal assistant and one paralegal that works for me. I am 62 and am starting to think about what to do with my practice and what I need to be thinking about concerning selling my practice. I would be interested in your suggestions.

Response:

I would start by asking yourself when you actually want to retire or quit. Do you really want to stop practicing law or do you want to work forever? Over two thirds of the solo and small firm lawyers that I speak with advise me that they want to practice forever – maybe not full throttle – but on a continued but scaled back schedule.

Review Rule 1.17 – Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct to insure that you understand the method and the restrictions involved in sale of a law practice.

If you want to continuing practicing determine whether selling your law practice is your best option given Rule 1.17. Some of our clients are exploring other options including bringing in other attorneys and forming partnerships or merging with other firms.

If you determine that selling the practice is the route you want to go here are a few ideas to begin readying it for sale:

  1. Decide when you want to retire and leave your firm.
  2. Determine who your would like to transfer the practice.
  3. Determine the your goals for sale of your practice and the priority and what is most important to you. (clients, staff, money or sweat equity, etc.)
  4. Determine how much the practice is worth today.
  5. Begin finding way to institutionalize the firm so the client and other relationships are less uniquely you.
  6. Begin implementing management practices that will systemize your firm and improve it's future value. (written procedures and policies, checklists, forms, automated case management systems, organized client files, accounting systems, etc. ) Document everything.
  7. Draft and implement a succession/exit plan and implement same. Insure that it incorporates safeguards for your clients, employees, and family if the unexpected happens to you.

Click here for our blog on succession topics

Click here for our article on succession strategies

Click here for our article on valuation

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

 

 

Jun 19, 2012


Law Firm Dissolution/Winddown

Question:

Our firm has recently gone through a series of partner defections – we were a 40 attorney firm – now we are 10.  In our last partnership meeting we had some discussions about the possibility of dissolving the firm. If this comes to pass – do you have any tips or suggestions regarding winding down the firm?

Response:

Winding down a firm is like starting a firm but in reverse, harder, and has more steps. Sort of like building a house and then later tearing it down. You will have to deal with:

  1. Clients (notification, termination of representation, and disposition of case files)
  2. Retired partners
  3. Current partners
  4. Employees (associates and staff) – job placement, severance, etc.

Unlike other businesses – the major asset of a law firm are its clients, employees, and partners – many of which may have already defected or walked out the door. You may be left with only the liabilities.

One of your priorities will be to decide who will manage the winddown and who will manage internal and external communications.  Then you will need to develop a project management plan and dissolution/winddown plan/checklist. Major priorities will include:

  1. Bank Loans
  2. Building Lease
  3. Retainer Obligations to Clients
  4. Equipment Leases
  5. Retirement and Other Payouts to Former Partners

Firm should consider if it will retain a caretaker or trustee to manage the winddown.

You should insure that you review the ethical requrements with your state bar association concerning:

  1. Clients right to choose legal counsel.
  2. Notice to clients
  3. Proper and continuous handling of a client's matters
  4. Protecting a client's interest
  5. Disposition of client files
  6. Conflict of interest due to any new affiliations

Click here for our blog on mergers

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 18, 2012


Law Firm Succession: Using Affiliation As a Phase I Pilot Test

Question:

I am sole owner of a law firm in Chicago with an elder law practice. I have two paralegals and two legal assistants. Although I want to continue to practice as long as I can I am in my late 60s and am beginning to think about what to do with my practice. I have recently had several discussions with another sole owner that is interested in buying my practice. Since I want to practice as long as I can I am concerned about the timing of selling my practice due to the current ethical rules. I also want to insure that the other firm would be the right fit for my clients and staff. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions?

Response:

Making the right decision concerning the "Who" is usually more important than the "What" or the "How". Take your time to do the proper due diligence regarding the other firm. Get to know the owner as well as the employees of the other firm. Ascertain practice, client, and cultural compatibility. If you both determine that a a deal might make sense – then move to the "How". Even though you have done the best due diligence you can – you won't really know about the other firm until you try working together. So before you jump – consider taking a few baby steps first. You might start with an affiliation arrangement (Of Counsel) as a Phase I pilot test for six months. Under this arrangement you can both refer work to each other as well as have the other attorney work on some of your client matters at your office. Outline the details of the relationship in an affiliation (Of Counsel) agreement. After six months review the success of the arrangement and whether it makes sense to take the next step. If it does – a Phase II step might be to enter into a more formal practice continuation/transition arrangement with the other firm. Phase III would be either the eventual sale of your practice or merger with the other firm. Taking a phased approach allows you learn more about the other firm which will increase your odds of a successful transition and buys you time before actually selling your practice if that is the direction you should go.

Click here for our blog on succession/exit strategies

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

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