I am the founder and owner of a personal injury plaintiff practice located in Lexington, Kentucky. I have two associates and four support staff members. All of our cases are handled on a contingency fee basis and our swings in fee collections from year to year can be substantial. I am 64 and would like to transition my practice and retire within the next three years. Both of my associates would like to take over my practice. I believe I am entitled to compensation for my practice and am desiring a fair buy-out. I would appreciate hearing your ideas concerning a buy-out approach.
You could look at the value of your practice from either a historical or a future perspective. Personally, if I were a law firm or your associates I would be more interested in the future perspective. In other words what fee revenues/cash flows will the practice generate over the next three to five years? In traditional time bill/flat fee firms a multiple of gross revenue is often used as a proxy. In a contingency fee firm such as yours the primary value beyond cash-based book value is the expected value of your cases. Sometimes a firm is able to review a list of cases and estimate the expected value of these cases or estimate a fee range per case. (High-Low, or Conservative-Optimistic estimate).
More often than not it is simply not possible to estimate the value of the cases until they are concluded. In this situation the values will be determined in the future as the cases are settled. If this method is used you would provide a list of cases in progress at the time of your retirement and when the cases are concluded apply a ratio of the time the case was with the firm before and after your exit, apply an overhead factor, and apply your ownership percentage to determine your share of the fee for that case. Your share of the case fees as the cases settle and cash-based book value is your buy-out.
Of course in the end you will have to balance your buy-out against what your associates are willing to pay. If your deal is too high you may run them off – if you make it too low you are leaving money on the table and not realizing the value of your sweat equity.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC