Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Aug 02, 2017


Associate Attorney Career Track in a Small Law Firm

Question: 

I am the owner of a five-attorney estate planning practice in Denver. I have four associate attorneys of which three have been with the firm for over twelve years. Last year an associate that had been with me for many years left the firm and started his own practice. I thought I was paying him well by virtue of a competitive salary and discretionary bonus in additional to other benefits. I do not want to lose other seasoned attorneys. What should I do to provide more incentives for them to stay with the firm?

Response: 

Our experience as well as research over the years by our firm and others has demonstrated that the following, in priority order, are the key drivers of associate attorney job satisfaction:

  1. Satisfaction with immediate manager or supervisor
  2. Opportunities for training
  3. Satisfaction with team and coworkers
  4. Opportunities for career growth
  5. Compensation
  6. Opportunities for promotion

While compensation often is considered the primary factor related to associate satisfaction, I often find that opportunities for career growth and promotion play a significant role. Associates do leave law firms for less money for career growth and promotion opportunities in other firms or in some cases starting their own firm.

A key tool that law firm’s should be using for managing attorneys is a well-defined career path/track. The critical components of a career track include well-defined levels, roles and responsibilities at each level, promotion criteria, and compensation plans for each level. Typically these are outlined and documents in a career advancement program policy document. For example:

  1. Levels. Each attorney level within the firm (partner, non-Equity partner, principal, senior associate, associate) should carry a specific and clear title.
  2. Roles and Responsibilities. For each level, the typical roles and responsibilities should be clearly documented including client service work as well as business development and administrative responsibilities.
  3. Promotion Criteria. For each level in the firm, the criteria for promotion to that level should be outlined in the career track or career advancement program policy document. These criteria are often tied to competencies (knowledge, capabilities, and experience of the attorney), tenure as well as other factors.
  4. Compensation. A compensation plan should be developed for each level. (salary, bonus, benefits, and other perks)

I suggest that you give some thought to developing such a program. As you start with levels you will have to do some soul searching and confront the most burning issue – is partnership an option for associates in your firm – do I want partners –  and go from there.

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

 

 

 

 

Jul 26, 2017


Law Firm Succession Planning – Impact of Firm Size for a Solo

Question: 

I am a solo practitioner in upstate New York. I am 66 years old and I am looking to retire and am trying to figure out what to do with my practice. My practice is a general practice and there is just me and one secretary. I welcome you suggestions:

Response:

The size of the firm will present different retirement succession, transition, and exit challenges. Firm size will affect the number of moving parts, specific steps that a firm will have to take, and the overall timeline. Solo practitioners and sole owners will have the most moving parts and face the greatest challenges.

You will have the greatest challenge since you have no associates or anyone in place to transition the practice. Therefore, you could both hire and groom an associate that could buy the firm or become a partner and buyout your interests, sell the firm to another firm, or merge with another firm. Other options would be to become Of Counsel with another firm or simply close down the practice. This takes time.

Hiring and grooming an associate can be problematic for the solo. If he or she does not have sufficient business and does not originate business, the associate will be an expense and the your net earnings will suffer. Other issues include:

You could sell the firm to another lawyer or law firm. This option works best when the practitioner is actually ready to retire and quit practicing. Often this is not the case and the restrictions on sale of law practice levied by a state’s rules of professional conduct, in particular Rule 1.17, may make this option undesirable. Locating desirable candidates will take time and a well-planned search process may have to initiated.  Our experience has been that this can take a year or longer.

Merger with another lawyer or law firm is another option. This is often a better option for solos that want to gradually phase-down yet continue to practice for a few more years. In essence, they join another firm as either an equity or non-equity partner, member, or shareholder and subsequently retire from that firm under agreed terms for the payout. The odds are improved for clients and referral sources staying with the merged firm and the merged firm is more committed that a buyer might be under a payout arrangement based upon collected revenues. The solo practitioner has more flexibility with regard to the ability to continue to practice longer, reduced stress, additional support and resources, and gradual phase-down to retirement.

Forming an Of Counsel relationship with another firm is an option that many solos are taking. Sometimes it is a final arrangement where a solo winds down his or her practice and then joins another firm as an employee or independent contractor. He or she is paid a percentage of collected revenue under a compensation agreement with different percentages depending upon whether the practitioner brings in the business, services work that he or she brings in, or services work that the firm refers to the practitioner. In other situations, an Of Counsel relationship is used as a practice continuation mechanism that provides the solo with additional resources and support if needed. An Of Counsel relationship can also be used to “pilot test” a relationship prior to merging with another firm. We have had several law firm clients that has taken a phased approach to merger with Phase I being an Of Counsel “pilot test” exploratory arrangement and Phase II being the actual merger.

Click here for our blog on succession

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

 

Jul 18, 2017


Law Firm Owners as Businesspersons that Don’t Service Clients

Question: 

I am the owner of a six attorney elder law firm in Dallas. I manage the firm and practice law. I am finding it more and more difficult to do both. I would like to shift my time totally to managing the practice. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

You are not alone. This is a common problem in law and other professional service firms. I have similar problems in my own firm – it is very difficult to serve two masters – serving your clients and managing your firm. Eventually you have to pick one – client service (doing legal work) or managing and running your business – as the area that receives your primary focus. This is not to say that you should not do both – but you select the primary area that you are going to focus on and get help with the other area.

A question that I typically ask my new law firm clients – what do you want to be or do – be a business person or a lawyer. The answer to the question often provides a hint to how you should structure your firm. If you want to be more of a business person – hire legal talent to help with serving clients and performing legal work and spend more time working on your firm rather than in it. If you want to be more of a lawyer and do legal work and serve clients hire a legal administrator or business manager (this is more than an office manager) to manage and run your firm.

I have more and more owners of small law firms that are managing their law businesses and not practicing law. I believe the appropriate direction is what makes you happy and what type of work you enjoy doing. You practice should support and fulfill your personal goals, what you want out of life and what makes you happy. If that is managing – then manage. If that is doing legal work – do legal work.

Two great books on this subject are – The E-Myth Revisited and The E-Myth Attorney – available on Amazon. The theme of both of these books is:

Small business owners often spend too much time being the technician (i.e. lawyering) and not enough time managing and innovating.

Think about where you want place the priority of your focus – working on firm (business) or in it.

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

 

Jul 11, 2017


Small Law Firm Retreat

Question:

Our law firm is a sixteen attorney Intellectual Property firm in Tampa, Florida. We have ten partners and six associates. I am a member of our three member executive committee and I have been given charge of looking into the pros and cons of having a firm retreat with all of our partners and associates. We have not had a retreat before and we would like your thoughts concerning the benefits that a small firm can receive from a retreat.

Response: 

Attorneys in group practice experience numerous issues as they grow and expand their practices. Management problems increase as the firm becomes larger. Senior partners often do not want to be involved in increased firm management responsibilities. If this is one of your firm’s issues, a retreat will provide an opportunity to deal with it before it gets serious and out of hand. Use a retreat to review how administrative responsibilities are being handled throughout the firm’s entire operation. Place on the retreat agenda topics such as strategic planning, succession planning, growth planning, client development, etc.  Consider whether your firm has the need to establish an office administrator position (if you do not have one) or whether the broadening of responsibilities of those on staff will provide the desired remedies. It is particularly important for small to medium-sized firms to clearly recognize at the retreat that the problems of growth are in part administrative and appropriate steps to deal with these problems early will prevent serious disruptions and internal conflicts later.

Many attorneys are reactors – they are trained to solve client problems – not management problems. Most attorneys find firm management distasteful and feel that their time is best spend doing billable work for clients. However, a firm’s success is in part dependent upon how well it is managed. The retreat can be used to educate firm members about the importance of these issues, even if the firm is a small firm. Retreats also benefit attorneys by helping them understand the management roles of other partners and other management positions in the firm as well as open up and improve communications.

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

Jul 04, 2017


Law Firm Merger Agreement

Question: 

Our firm, a fourteen-attorney litigation firm in Sacramento, California, is planning on merging/acquiring a three-attorney firm in the area. We have completed our due diligence and both firms have agreed on the terms of the merger. What type of agreement and legal documents do we need to effect and implement the merger?

Response:

If business law is not your forte you may want to consult with a business attorney to determine the appropriate legal agreements that should be used to effect the merger. The agreement may be as simple as a Letter of Intent signed by the two law firms, a Memorandum of Understanding, or as formal as a merger agreement covering the major details and terms of the merger which have been approved by required vote of the partners of both firms including:

  1. Merged firm name
  2. Effective date of the merger
  3. Method of integration, assets and liabilities contributed by each firm, and whether accounts receivable and work in process will be pooled and contributed
  4. Management and governance structure and names of partners from each firm that will hold key management roles/positions
  5. Compensation system for partners, non-equity partners, associates, and staff
  6. How employee benefits will be handled and integrated
  7. Capital contributions
  8. Employees and their respective roles in the merged firm

Typical exhibits to agreements often include:

  1. Employee Benefits Summary
  2. Asset/Equipment Purchase Agreement
  3. Employee Roster and Wage Rates
  4. Proforma Balance Sheet
  5. Proforma Income Statement
  6. Partner Compensation Plan
  7. Non-Equity Partner Compensation Plan
  8. Associate Attorney Compensation Plan
  9. Staff Compensation Plan
  10. Attorney Career Advancement Plan
  11. Office Lease
  12. Partnership Agreement
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Jun 28, 2017


Law Firm Accounting/Finance Position

Question:

Four of my partners and I have just split off from a large law firm in Phoenix, Arizona and have started a litigation boutique firm with five associates. As we staff our nine attorney firm we are planning on hiring someone to handle our accounting and manage our finances. What type of position should we create and what level of experience should we be looking for?

Response:

The size and skill of a law firm’s financial function usually varies directly with the size of the firm. Larger firms with a larger volume and more complex transactions require more sophisticated systems, procedures, and controls, and personnel with the knowledge and experience to operate effectively and efficiently in a more complex environment. The title for a law firm’s Chief Financial Officer will usually vary with the skill required for the position. Typical titles include:

In a small firm such as your firm, where financial activities are typically uncomplicated and volume is relatively modest, an Accounting Manager ordinarily oversees the Finance Function. The Accounting Manager is often a Bookkeeper/Billing Collections Clerk who handles the accounting, payroll, billing, and collections.

Some firm’s your size hire an experienced firm administrator to handle the Accounting Manager functions as well as managing other aspects of the firm such as human resources, IT, facilities, marketing, etc.

I suggest that you hire a experienced firm administrator or full-charge bookkeeper.

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

 

Jun 20, 2017


Characteristics of a Successful Liability Defense Law Firm

Question: 

I’m a second generation attorney (about 5 years’ experience) at a small liability defense firm in Southern, California. My father is the managing partner and we have three total attorneys. My father and his partner probably have 5-7 years left practicing. We only do California workers’ compensation defense. I’m planning on taking over the practice but am concerned about trends in the industry that will affect profitability, such as more stringent billing guidelines/bill audits, cuts to travel time, etc. What are the characteristics of a successful liability defense firm that I should strive towards? (i.e., # of attorneys, leverage, overhead ratio, revenue per lawyer, etc.)

Response: 

I appreciate your concerns. Both workers’ compensation defense and civil insurance defense firms have a real challenge with the performance pressures placed on them by their clients, billing guidelines and audits, and low billing rates. I have civil insurance defense firm clients across the country billing at rates averaging from $175 to $225 per hour and workers’ compensation defense firm clients billing at rates averaging from $140 to $175 per hour. Some firms are being required to take on more work on a flat fee basis.

Here are a few thoughts concerning characteristics of successful liability defense firms that you should strive towards:

  1. Number of attorneys will depend upon the amount of business that you can bring into the firm. If you are a sole owner you should have an additional four associates to achieve the level of leverage that you will need to be profitable. This assume that the work is there to keep them all busy.
  2. You should strive for a leverage ratio of four associates to every owner. Resist the temptation to make everyone a partner.
  3. Hold the line on expenses and remember that your largest expenses are salaries and office space. You do not need to hire lawyers from top tier law schools and pay the salaries that such lawyers are able to command. You also do not need to have your office in an A or B+ building. Look for B or C+ office space.
  4. Revenue per working lawyer should be in the $300,000 range.
  5. Profit margin (earnings available to owners) should be in the 35% to 45% range.
  6. Annual billable hours should be 2000 or greater for each attorney.
  7. Ensure that you tie lawyer compensation to performance. Pay your associates a salary but also have a variable performance bonus based upon billable hours collected or dollars collected. Keep the salary low enough that they are still hungry.
  8. Diversify the practice. Actively market to more companies and organizations that you can represent directly rather than representing strictly insurance companies. Consider big box companies as target clients. Get on their panels and bid lists. Consider expanding into civil liability defense work rather than doing just workers’ compensation. Many law firms in the Midwest do both.
  9. Some of our clients have found that a federal workers’ compensation practice is beneficial.

Here are links to two articles on defense firms that you might find interesting.

https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/resource-center/trapped-in-a-insurance-defense-practice/

https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/resource-center/insurance-defense-law-firms-strategies-and-best-practices/

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

 

Jun 06, 2017


Law Firm Collections/Retainer Management – Using a Retainer Follow-up Report

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a nine attorney general practice firm in the Chicago suburbs. We practice in the areas of estate planning/administration and family law. While our estate planning and uncontested family law work is done on a flat fee basis our estate administration and contested family law work is time billed. We collect initial retainers for these matters but we fail to insure that the retainers are replenished. We are having accounts receivable collection problems as a result. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

This is a common problem that I see in firms doing estate administration and especially family law. The best way of managing your accounts receivable is to have less in outstanding accounts receivable in the first place. You do this by staying on top of your retainer balances compared to your work in process and ask the client for additional retainer before the work in process exceeds the retainer balance. In order to stay on top of retainer replenishment you need to develop what I call a retainer replenishment report and have someone assigned to reviewing the report daily and advising responsible attorneys to contact the client when work in process has hit a certain threshold (percentage of retainer used). Some firm’s present the report at a weekly attorney meeting and determinations are made regarding additional retainers to request. Other firms assign the responsibility to the firm administrator to automatically bill for the additional retainer. It is also important to insure that ongoing work is managed in a way that an excessive amount of work is not committed to a matter until the additional retainer replenishment is received.

A retainer replenishment report is not a standard report in many billing systems. You may have to create a custom report in your billing system using a report writer or in a worst case drop a accounts receivable report to an Excel file and add in some columns for the other information.

Here are the suggested data fields/columns for such a report:

Responsible attorney
Client/Matter name
Retainer Balance (typically this would be the balance in the trust account)
Unbilled WIP Fees
Unbilled Cost
Total Unbilled WIP
75% Retainer Threshold
Amount Over/Under Retainer
Additional Retainer Requested
Total Amount Retainer to Bill (Amount WIP over retainer plus additional retainer requested)

Many family law firms have advised me that after learning the hard way they are now doing a good job at this and advising me that they have minimal accounts receivable issues.

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

 

 

 

 

May 31, 2017


Law Firm Governance – Partner Participation in Management

Question: 

I am the founder, majority partner (80%), and managing partner of a twenty two attorney firm in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm practice is focused in the area of health care. There are twelve equity partners, five non-equity partners, and five associates. I manage the firm as a benevolent dictator. I am becoming overwhelmed trying to manage the firm and practice law and I believe the firm is now at a size where others must become involved in managing the firm. I have been considering forming a committee of all the equity partners to manage the firm. Your thoughts are welcomed.

Response: 

While I believe that you are of a size that warrants broader participation in the governance and management of the firm you can go too far. Broad participation in decision making and consensus building slows things down. It can also make it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion. Getting all the partners to agree takes time. Broad participation can also diffuse responsibility. If everyone is in charge no one is in charge. In law firms whose partners are overly deferential to their partners’ views, the decision-making process often seizes up. Unless firm partners who, when necessary, will assert themselves and use their influence to press for action, the only decisions it’s likely to make are decisions not to decide.

I believe that you should stop short of broad participation by all the equity partners. Consider a three member executive committee elected by the equity partners on three-year staggered terms. This committee would have responsibility for the general management of the firm not delegated to your firm administrator if you have such a position in your firm. Committee responsibilities would include financial management, human resource management/oversight, client development, IT systems oversight, procedures and policies, etc. Establish proper structure for the committee with a chair, identified roles and duties for each member, defined meeting schedule, and agenda and meeting minutes. Define in your partnership agreement those powers that are restricted to a vote by the full partnership and the rules for voting – one partner one vote or vote by percentage interest. Other than those powers restricted to the full partnership partners should let the executive committee manage the firm and not second guess.

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

May 23, 2017


Solo Practitioners Best Friend – Law Practice Continuation Plan

Question: 

I am a sole practitioner in Peoria, Illinois. My firm is a general practice firm that services clients throughout Central, Illinois. I have four staff members. I am fifty eight. While I have enjoyed having my own practice for the past twenty years I am concerned – what if something were to happen to me today or tomorrow – what is my backup plan in the event of short-term illness, disability, death, and even vacations. How would the firm keep operating? Who would take care of the client’s needs? How would my staff be taken care of?

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.

Approaches

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.

A practice continuation agreement’s provisions for the sale of a practice must contain a reasonable valuation and a realistic payment structure. What lawyers really want is to leave to their surviving spouses or heirs is something from all the hard years of work it took to build the practice. To accomplish this end, selling the practice at a buyer friendly price may be necessary. Law practices can lose value very quickly, so timing is vital.

Lawyers must invest time and effort to find suitable successors for their firms and to create useful, equitable, practice continuation agreements. The key is to finding the right person or firm. The investment of time is a good investment, however, because a good practice continuation arrangement will ensure that if a lawyer is unable to continue managing the practice, the value he or she has built over the years will not be lost. An orderly transfer of a practice to another lawyer or law firm is a substantial financial benefit to the lawyer’s family. At the same time, through the handpicked successor, the lawyer fulfills his professional responsibility to his clients. Lawyers who do not have these agreements should learn more about preserving the value they have created.

Click here for our blog on succession

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

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