Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Succession/Exit Strategies

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Jan 24, 2012


Starting a Law Practice: Challenges and Tips – Partnership – Phase III

Over the last two weeks I responded to a question concerning starting a new law practice and I outlined the first to phases of start-up. Eventually, you must address and face Phase III.

Phase III – Partnership – Internal/Other Firm

Eventually the question of partnership arises – weather sooner based upon the need or desire to transition an associate into a partnership or to add a practice area by acquiring a lateral partner with his/her book of business. Maybe you are thinking about merging with another firm. Or maybe you have been solo or a sole owner for your entire career and are now contemplating retirement and are looking for a succession/exit strategy and now must either bring in a partner, merge with another firm, or sell your practice. Partnership with another attorney creates another set of interpersonal dynamics and another set of skills that will need to be developed at this stage of your practice.

Phase III Survival Tips

1. Partnership is like a marriage. You must marry the right person. Most partnerships that fail do so as a result of partnering up with the wrong partners. Compatibility is critical. Consider:

a. Long term goals of both parties

b. Work ethic computability

c. Common interests

d. Money and compensation

2. Thinking of merging? Research indicates that 1/3 to 1/2 of all mergers fail to meet expectations due to cultural misalignment and personnel problems. Don't try to use a merger or acquisition as a life raft, for the wrong reasons and as your sole strategy. Successful mergers are based upon a sound integrated business strategy that creates synergy and a combined firm that produces greater client value than either firm can produced alone. Right reasons for merging might include:

a. Improve the firm's competitive position. .Increase specialization – obtain additional expertise.

b. Expand into other geographic regions.

c. Add new practice areas.

d. Increase or decrease client base.

e. Improve and/or solidify client relationships.

3. I would start by thinking about your reasons for wanting to merge and your objectives. Ask yourself the following questions?

a. Do you want to practice in a large firm? If not, what is the largest firm that you would want to practice in?

b. What is driving the desire to merge?

c. If the desire to merge is being driven by a desire to retreat from internal problems – what have you done to address these issues internally?

d. Is your name being part of the firm name important to you?

e. What are your expectations and objectives for a merger?

f. What are you looking from a merger partner?

g. Make sure that you look for a complimentary fit. If you are weak in firm leadership, management and administration – look for a partner that is strong in these areas. Strong leadership, management, and administration may be hard to find in a firm under 25 attorneys.

Are you ready for the challenge?

Click here for our blog on mergers

Click here for articles on other topics

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

Sep 14, 2011


Law Firm Succession: Opportunities for Solos and Small Firms to Join Other Small Firms Looking for Talent to Implement Their Succession Strategies

Question:

I am a solo practitioner located in the Chicago suburbs. I have one staff member. I am 53 and have been practicing law for over 25 years. I try to limit my practice to estate planning and estate administration. However, I do have to take on other general practice type matters to stay busy. Practicing law by myself is beginning to take its toll on me – it gets lonely practicing alone, coverage and backup for clients is difficult, and I have the full burden of the worry 24/7. What do I do with the practice when I get older and reach retirement age? I have not taken a vacation in years. I have been thinking about the pros and cons of joining another firm? What are your thoughts?

Response:

One option would be to grow your practice internally. You could add a younger associate attorney. However, it sounds like you currently don't have the business that would support the position. Then you would have to train the mentor the assoicate and pray that once they become productive – two or three years down the road that they stay with you and don't leave for greener pastures.

Another option would be to bring in a more senior lateral attorney with experience and a book of business.

A third option would be to look around for another solo or small firm that is looking for someone to carry the firm into the next generation as a part of their succession strategy.

According to a 1995 American Bar Foundation Lawyer Statistical Report the number of bar admissions has been consistently around 30,000 each year since 1977. Further, the number of lawyers by age reached 30,000 for lawyers under 50. Those lawyers in 1995 who were in their late 40s will be reaching retirement age between 2010 and 2015. Law firms have a larger population of lawyers in their 50s and 60s that will be approaching retirement and must develop strategies for transitioning their legal and leadership skills as well as their client relationships and market presence.

Sixty-five percent of law firms’ equity partners are in their late 50s or early 60s. Over the next 10 years there are going to be a lot of successions.

There are a lot of firms looking for someone just like you.

I am currently working with several firms in the ChicagoLand area that have asked us to help then find someone just like you. So there is a lot of opportunity to join a firm that is looking for a succession strategy that will carry the firm into the next generation.

The big questions is always the "who" more than the "what". So put together a plan and start looking around and see if you can find a compatible firm.

Click here for our blog on succession topics https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/blog/category/successionexit-strategies/

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

Aug 16, 2011


Law Firm Acquisition Due Diligence – Using Client Surveys To Ascertain Client Retention

Question:

Our firm, a 22 attorney law firm in Chicago, has been contemplating acquiring a 6 attorney firm in the suburbs. We believe we have done an adequate job of due diligence regarding financials, people, culture, systems, and practice-mix compatability. Our concern is client retention. What are you thoughts concerning how we can determine if the clients will stay with us?

Response:

Why not ask the clients.

Much can be learned by talking to the firm's clients. Structured telephone interviews and other forms of surveys conducted by a neutral third party can uncover many surprises as well as answers. Client satisfaction surveys can be one of the best due diligence tools that you can use. 

It is good business practice to see how clients might react to a acquisition or merger. Understanding where your prospective firm's clients stand and how they feel about service quality can be one of the most valuable inputs into your due diligence process that you can get your hands on. By finding out where your prospective firm's clients stand can tell you a lot of their future retention. 

Before you invest significant time, money, or effort in developing an overall acquision/merger implementation strategy, survey your prospective firm's clients to understand where their clients stand.   

You must be careful using this approach and insure that it is done with the permission and in concert with the prospective firm.  The approach must setup, communicated and coordinated properly. It must be sensitive to clients and done in a way to communicate and reinforce positive rather than negative signals to the clients involved. 

 Click here for our blog on mergers

Click here for articles on other topics

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

Aug 02, 2011


Key Documents Needed to Launch a Law Firm Merger/Acquisition/Sale Initiative

Question:

Our firm is a 5 attorney firm in Detroit with three partners and two associates. The three partners are 79, 72, and 67 respectively. All three are considering succession and exit options. While internal succession is an option the firm has had a few merger chats with larger firms – on isolated unplanned occasions. We are having problems getting focused and generating interest from other firms. Is there a suggested process and or documents that we should prepare to generate interest and properly package our firm?

Response:

Suggest that you start by preparing an offer package that can be provided to other firms that you may approach directly or indirectly. A good offer package consists of the following:

  1. A firm profile (without identity for some presentations)
  2. Nondisclosure Agreement
  3. Detained Offering Memorandum (Confidential Descriptive Memorandum)
  4. 

The Offering Memorandum

Tells the firm's story
Provides relavant facts other firms want to know including:

  1. Legal structure of the firm
  2. Ownership & Governance
  3. Key Management
  4. Organizational Chart
  5. Client Breakdown
  6. Practice Areas/Mix
  7. Marketing
  8. Historical Financial Performance

Potential Growth Opportunities
Potential Synergies or Economies of Scale
Proposed Deal Structure

The firm profile is the first point of contact with potential buyers/merger partners. It summaries the key points and describes the firm without revealing any identifying information. If an interested party wishes to go to the next step a nondisclosure agreement is executed an a offering memorandum with more specific information is then provided.

Using tools such as these can help you focus your effort, cast your firm in it's best light, and reduce wasted effort on the part of all parties.

Click here for our blog on law firm mergers

Click here for our law firm management articles

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

 

 

 

 

Jul 26, 2011


Law Firm Succession and Retirement Options

Question:

I am the senior partner in a six attorney firm in Los Angeles. I am 68 years old and thought that it was  about time I begin thinking about retirement and begin discussions with my other partners. We have no partnership agreement and no plans in place to effect the transition of partners. What are some of the methods being used by law firms effect the retirement of partners?

Response:

There are almost as many approaches as there are law firms – ranging from partners that just leave and give their practices to the others partners to various methods for buying out the departing partner's interest in the partnership. In the final analysis the optimal approach is what makes everyone happy and a solution that everyone can live with. Here are a few illustrations:

Fully Funded Retirement

50 Percent Wind Down Option – Then Retirement Payments For Live 

Pension For Life

Mandatory Wind Down

Five Year Retirement Benefit Payout Based On Earnings

More and more firms are avoiding payouts for life and even moving toward funded buyouts.

Click here for our blog on succession and retirement

Click here for our law firm management articles

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

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

Click here for articles on other topics

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

Click here for articles on other topics

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

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