I am the owner of a six-attorney litigation firm in San Francisco Bay area. I am sixty and starting to give though to gradually transferring my interest to associates in the firm. I have heard other attorneys mention that I should get some goodwill out of my practice. I would appreciate your thoughts.
Many law firm owners prefer to leave a legacy and keep the firm “within the family” and transition the firm to non-equity partners or associates in the firm at a discounted value and buy-in as an incentive to stay on with the firm and a reward for their years of dedication to the firm.
Some law firms – typically second generation or later firms – allow non-equity partners or associates to become equity owners with no buy-in whatsoever. The thought being that the real assets of the firm are its talent – its people and the firm’s priority is to retain and keep the best talent that it can. These firms also do not have hefty buy-outs for partners or shareholders leaving the firm other than possibly the initial founders of the firm. Over the years, such firms fund retirement through 401ks, profit sharing plans, and other mechanisms. When partners or shareholders leave the firm, they get their cash-based capital account, or share of retained earnings and their share of current year earnings.
A “founders benefit” is sometimes put in place for firm founders in which they may be paid a share of the accrual-based capital or retained earnings – WIP and A/R. They may also be paid a goodwill value as well either in the form of a multiple of earnings or a specific sum based upon a multiple of gross revenue.
The problem in many firms is that associates are still paying off student loan debts and they don’t have cash available to purchase the owners interests. As a result, if you don’t start early, the cash often has to come from future cash flows that are available after the owner leaves the firm from the compensation that the owner is no longer receiving.
You need to start early, get people committed and start selling affordable minority shares years before you retire so you can get at least half of your ownership interest paid for before you leave the firm and the other half paid out over a five-year time period.
Wait too long and your associates may feel they can just wait you out and inherit your clients without having to pay you anything.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC