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Jun 20, 2018


Associate Attorney Compensation and Motivation

Question: 

Our firm is based in Springfield, Illinois. We have four partners and four associates. We are a general practice firm. All of our associates have been with the firm over ten years and each of them are receiving $100,000 base salaries plus discretionary bonuses. Our associates are excellent attorneys however none of them bring in any business  and their production numbers are low. Annual billable hours are below 1200 and working attorney fee collections are below $300,000. We have not given raises or bonuses for the last several years. We are losing money on some of our associates and not even covering our overhead alone making any profit from our associates. We are at a loss as what to do. Please share any thoughts or ideas that you might have.

Response: 

It would be interesting to know whether you set production goals such as billable hours or working attorney fee collection goals for your associates and if and how they are enforced. Billable hours should be in the range of 1600-1750 per year and fee collections should be $300,000+ for associates being paid $100,000 per year. It sounds like production goals either don’t exist or are not enforced.

I suggest that you look in to the cause or causes of your associates low production. Here are a few questions you should ask yourselves concerning the cause of your associates low production:

  1. Does the firm have enough work for the associates?
  2. Are the associates working enough hours? What is their work/billable hours ratio? Goal 70%.
  3. Are the associates clear as to their goals – billable hours/fee collections.
  4. Do associates have time management issues?
  5. Do associates have time keeping issues?
  6. Are there consequences for poor production?

I suggest that you meet with each of your associates, address the above questions, and determine what is going on. It could be one or all of the above. If the firm does not have enough work for the associates you need to determine if partners are delegating sufficient work, whether business is down at the firm (short-term vs long-term), and whether the firm may have too many associates for the work that is available. If there is simply not enough work, has not been enough work for some time, and it is projected that the firm’s workload will be the same for the foreseeable future the firm will need to consider eliminating an associate’s position or reducing the work hours, and compensation, of one or more associates. If the work is there and associates are just not working and putting in the hours you need to insure that goals and consequences for non-performance are in place – you might want to consider changes your compensation system. If associates are having problems with time management or timekeeping conduct some training sessions and coaching.

Some firms have changed their systems whereby associates are paid a base salary plus a bonus for billable hours or collected fees over a predetermined threshold. However, incentive bonus work better when salaries are kept low. Often when salaries reach $100,000 or more additional bonuses may not motivate attorneys that are not hungry for more, are comfortable, and their priority is work-life balance.

While you must get associate compensation right in order to acquire and retain top associate talent as well as reward performance and reinforce desired behaviors, the starting point is hiring and retaining the right people to begin with.

Research from a classic business study that was highlighted in the popular business book “Good to Great” (Collins, 2001) authored by Jim Collins found that the method of compensation was largely irrelevant as a causal variable for high and sustained levels of performance. Other research also bears out that performance and motivational alignment are impacted by intrinsic and other factors other than just extrinsic factors such as compensation or methods of compensation. Over the years I have seen too many partners leave lucrative situations in law firms to join other firms for less compensation or to start their own firms to suggest that it is only about the money or compensation package.

Your compensation system should not be designed to get the right behaviors from the wrong people, but to get the right people on the bus in the first place, and to keep them there. Your compensation system should support that effort.

James Cotterman, Altman & Weil, Inc., (Cotterman, 2004) contents that there are two groups of employees for whom compensation is not an effective management tool. The intrinsically motivated (6% to 16% of partners perhaps) do not need compensation as an incentive. The struggling performers (another 6% to 16%) will not react favorably to a compensation system that rewards positive behavior.

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

Jun 12, 2018


Law Firm Strategic Planning – Culture as an Essential Ingredient

Question: 

Our firm is a twelve attorney firm – eight partners and four associates in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm was founded by the present partners twenty years ago. We are an eat-what-you- kill firm – partners are allocated their fees, overhead is allocated, and their compensation is their individual profit. While we have a firm administrator that handles the day-to-day management of our operations, we have done a poor job of long-term management and planning. One of our partners has suggested that we develop a strategic plan. However, I believe this would be difficult for us given that we never meet, have different ideas of our future, have never been able to agree on any major decisions, and unwilling to be accountable to each other and have a general attitude of mistrust. I don not believe we even have a firm culture – in essence we are eight separate practices operating under the guise of a partnership. Your comments are most welcomed.

Response: 

It is very hard for partners in an eat-what-you-kill firm to come together and implement a strategic plan when the partners have no common values, goals, or objectives. Eat-what-you-kill firms more often than not have no culture at all. Three components that are linked, reinforce each other, and must be balanced are strategy, compensation, and culture.

Culture is the outcome of how people are related to each other in a law firm, thrives on cooperation and friendship, and defines the firm’s sense of community. Culture is the glue that holds a firm together and is built on shared interest and mutual obligation. A firm’s culture boosts a firm’s identity as one organization and prevents disintegration and decentralization. Without a common culture a firm lacks values, direction, and purpose.

You firm is a fragmented or confederation culture and as such will find it difficult to even get started on a strategic planning process unless you are willing to change. You might want to spend some time addressing the question of whether you want to continue operating as lone rangers or whether you want to become a firm-first law firm. This will require that the partners give up some independence and be accountable to each other.

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

Jun 06, 2018


Law Firm Succession Planning – Getting the Conversation Started

Question: 

Our firm is a seventeen attorney business law firm in Chicago. Our clients consists of mid-size companies and a few Fortune 500 companies. There are eight partners and nine associates in the firm. Four of the eight partners are in their early sixties and the other four partners are in their forties and fifties. The four senior partners are the founders of the firm. Consequently, we have not had to deal with succession of partners until now. While we realize that we need to be thinking about succession planning we have not made much headway. The senior partners are reluctant to discuss their retirement plans and timelines. We would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions.

Response:

Client transition, management transition, and talent replacement are the major succession planning issues for law firms. Such transitions take time, especially with clients such as yours, and law firms can not wait until a senior partner comes forward, announces his intentions, and gives his required notice. Law firms should begin having conversations with senior attorneys and begin transition planning five years prior to a partner’s actual retirement. Having these conversations can be difficult. Senior attorneys may not know their plans themselves and may not have even discussed this topic even with their family. In some cases there can be trust issues at the firm and in other situations the firm’s compensation system may be a barrier. Law firm management must force the issue by institutionalizing a transition program and requiring conversation and discussion at a certain age. Some firms have mandatory retirement and others have a five year phase-down requirement with a formal client and management, for those partners that have management roles, transition program. Personally, I prefer the phase-down requirement with an individual tailored transition plan over the phase-down period. I suggest that transition plans be tailored for each retiring partner and reflect partner, firm, and client perspectives. Use compensation to reward successful client transitions.

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

May 30, 2018


Outsourcing Appellate Work

Question: 

Our firm is a six attorney insurance defense firm in Kansas City. For the last few years our associate attorney costs have gotten out of control and in some cases revenues generated by particular attorneys are not even close to where they should be considering their costs. We have one associate attorney that we are paying a base salary that only does appellate brief work. He does not like litigation and does a poor job doing our bread and butter litigation work. We simply don’t have enough appeals to keep him busy. We are paying him a base salary of $100,000 a year. Last year his working attorney fees collected were $110,000. I welcome your thoughts.

Response: 

Obviously, you are losing money on him. An associate being paid $100,000 per year should be generating $300,000+ if you are looking to make any margin from him. Overall you should be making 25%-30% profit from your associates. Margin from associates is critical in an insurance defense firm. You are not even covering his direct cost alone any indirect overhead cost.

I believe you cannot justify this position and should consider eliminating this position and outsourcing your appellate work . Many insurance defense and other litigation firms that I work with are outsourcing appellate work to other law firms that provide this service for other law firms. There are also solo practitioners and freelance attorneys with appellate expertise that are working as contract lawyers for law firms doing appellate work. Another option is a legal process outsourcing firm.

It is imperative that you conduct proper due diligence and really check out the background, experience, and appellate track record of the firm or individual attorney that you are considering. Your short list should only include firms or attorneys that have a proven track record of appellate wins. Talk with some other law firms that are doing this.

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

May 22, 2018


Law Firm Financial Management – Using Credit Line to Purchase Equipment

Question: 

I am the financial partner with our sixteen attorney firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. The firm has had a rough couple of years. We had several partners leave the firm and they took several corporate clients with them. Unfortunately, this was ongoing consistent retainer and time bill work. While we still have some retainer and time bill corporate work, a much larger mix of our work is now contingency fee work. As a result we have had some cash flow challenges and for the first three months of this year there was no money to pay partner draws. We have a credit line with the bank of $125,000 that we have not used. We only use our credit line for long-term equipment purchases. We would appreciate any suggestions that you have.

Response: 

A line of credit is designed to be used for financing short-term working capital needs – not long-term financing needs such as fixed asset acquisitions. I would use either leases or long-term bank loans for equipment and other fixed asset financing secured by those assets. This leaves your your credit line available for short-term financing needs. While I hate to see a firm use a credit line to pay partner draws, often there is no other choice in law firms that are not adequately capitalized, especially contingency fee firms.  Partners have to eat too. Contingency fee practices can have wide cash flow swings and often have to use their credit lines to temporarily fund payroll and partner draws.

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

 

May 16, 2018


Law Firm Client Surveys – How to Collect and Report the Data

Question:

Our firm is a sixteen attorney firm in Chicago. Our marketing committee has been discussing implementing a client survey program. We are not sure where to start or how best to collect and report the data. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Response: 

Surveys can be used for a variety of purposes including the following:

I assume that you are planning on doing a client satisfaction survey in order to solicit feedback on how well the firm is meeting client needs, quality of services being provided, and additional needs that the client may have where the firm can provide services.

The type of survey will depend upon whether your clients are individuals or institutional clients such as corporate or governmental. If your clients are institutional I recommend that you conduct telephone structured telephone interviews with these clients using a interview questionnaire consisting of quantitative and qualitative questions. If you have a large number of institutional clients then you may want to consider conducting these interviews with your top fifty, twenty-five, or ten top clients and use a paper mail survey or online survey for the remainder. For individual clients you may want to use a paper survey or online survey for your entire database of individual clients and thereafter a paper mail survey or online survey at the conclusion of a matter. Another option would be to survey a random sample of your clients.

Once the surveys are completed – whether telephone interviews or paper mail or online surveys the questionnaires/surveys will need to be tabulated and provided in some form of a report. Some firms use two Excel spreadsheets – one for the quantitative responses and one for the qualitative/narrative responses for interview and paper mail questionnaires.  Then averages, percentages, and other summary statistics can be calculated for the quantitative responses. If you use an online survey service such as Survey Monkey the tabulation and the statistics will be done already for these surveys. If you have a Survey Monkey account you could also enter your interview questionnaire and paper mail questionnaires responses into Survey Monkey and use it rather than Excel. If you want more sophisticated statistical analysis you might want to look into statistical software such as SPSS which is sold and marketed by IBM.

Once you have summarized analyzed the questionnaires you may want to prepare a summary report document using your word processing software. Include the tabulation, statistical calculations, charts, etc. as attachments to the report.

There are several articles on our website – see links below – that discuss client satisfaction survey programs and how to get started.

Click here for our blog on client service

Click here for our article on client satisfaction

Click here for our article on client surveys 

Click here for our article on analyzing survey results

Click here for our article on developing your client service improvement plan

Click here for our article on tips for rewarding and recognizing employees

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

May 08, 2018


Of Counsel Arrangement as a Law Firm Exit Strategy

Question: 

I am the owner of a solo real estate practice in Merced, California. I have two staff members that work for me. I am the only attorney in the firm. I am sixty years old. While I am concerned about the long term exit from the practice I am also concerned about office coverage in case something would happen to me in the short term. I appreciate any recommendations that you may have.

Response: 

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

 

May 02, 2018


Law Firm Overhead and Profit Margins

Question: 

I am an attorney in New Orleans that has been a lawyer for ten years. I practiced with a small firm for eight years as an associate and then opened my own firm two years ago. I primarily work from home supplemented with a virtual pay-as-you-go office. I do not have any staff employees. I have been approached by a fourteen-attorney firm that would like me to join their firm as an income partner. Their offer includes a salary which I feel is low and a bonus based upon a percentage after covering my salary, other direct costs, and indirect firm overhead. The overhead allocations seem extremely high to me. In my practice I am bringing in around $100,000 in gross fees and my overhead averages $10,000-$15,000 per year. My profit margin is around 90%. I feel like I am better off building up my practice rather than accepting their offer. What are typical overhead and profit margins for law firms?

Response: 

We have to be careful how we define overhead. Overhead is generally to be considered all law firm expenses less attorney salaries and sometimes less paralegal salaries. The overhead ratio would then be the overhead divided by firm revenues. Profit margin is  expressed in terms of owner (partner, shareholder, etc.) earnings. In other words what is going into the owner’s pockets in terms of salary, share of profit, etc. Owner earnings is firm revenue less all firm expenses including associate and paralegal salaries but not including owner salary or compensation. The profit margin is total expenses (excluding owner compensation) divided by firm revenues.

A desirable profit margin range for law firms is thirty-five to forty-five percent.  Some firms are able to attain fifty percent. Profit margins depend upon the type of law practice, leverage ratios (associates to partners), how well the firm is managed, etc. I have some very successful firms with profit margins as low as twenty percent but the partner earnings are very high.

Your current overhead and profit margin is not sustainable in the long-term. While you have low overhead and a high profit margin you also have low earnings. You are only earning $85,000. You will soon reach a point where in order to increase your revenues you will have to hire people, acquire office space, and buy phone systems and other equipment. When this occurs you will be in a similar situation as to the law firm you are talking with.

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

Apr 25, 2018


Law Firm Management Committee vs Full Partnership

Question: 

I am a partner in a fourteen attorney firm in San Antonio, Texas. We have eight partners and six associates working in the firm. The firm was founded twenty years ago, so we are a first-generation firm. Two of the partners were the founders of the firm and the other six were made partners in later years. Currently our method of governing the firm is handled by the full partnership. While each partner has one vote, we try to manage by consensus. We do not have a managing partner or any committees. We have an office manager that primarily handles the accounting and the staff oversight. The partners meet weekly to discuss issues and make decisions. We are beginning to have issues with our management structure. Partners are not showing up for the weekly meetings and complaining about the amount of time it is taking away from servicing their clients. Should we consider a different approach? We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

You are at a difficult size, still a small partnership but big enough that management by all may no longer be working for you. I believe that you should consider either a managing partner or a management committee of three partners elected by the partnership. For this to work all of the partners must agree to surrender some degree of independence to a managing partner or a management committee. I would start with putting together a list, or job description, for the managing partner or management committee. Partnership agreements often outline management decisions (powers) reserved for the partnership with all decisions handled by the managing partner or management committee. If your partners are unwilling to  surrender some degree of independence then changing to a managing partner or management committee may prove to be wasted effort.

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

Apr 17, 2018


Subjective Law Firm Partner Compensation Systems

Question: 

I am a partner in a twelve attorney commercial litigation law firm in Palm Beach, Florida. There are five partners in the firm. We are contemplating merging with another firm in the area of similar size. We have done our due diligence and have come across a possible non-starter – the compensation system. Our compensation system is totally objective – formula-based very close to an eat-what-you-kill system. The other firm has operated under a subjective system and they are pushing for the firm to operate under this type of system. We would appreciate your thoughts and enlightenment concerning subjective-based systems.

Response:

Subjective-based systems are the most commonly used approach to setting partner compensation, especially in larger firms. More and more firms your size and larger are moving to subjective systems as a result of the failure of other systems to account for the full range of contributions that partners make to the law firm. Subjective systems can take on a variety of forms but the central theme of such systems is that they rely on a subjective assessment of partner performance, without reference to specific weighting of factors or a set formula. This is not to say that subjective systems lack structure or predictability, or that they don’t consider objective financial data. Successful subjective compensation systems include these elements and more.

Subjective compensation systems vary widely. Here are some of the most common elements found in subjective systems:

In additional to subjective compensation systems some firms used hybrid systems that employs objective (formula) and subjective components.

Subjective systems are not for all firms. They will fail with out strong, trusted, leadership. In very small firms it is difficult to structure a compensation decision making body.

It sounds like your firm and the firm you are thinking of merging with may come from two very different cultures. Subjective systems work well for firms that are “firm first” firms but not for lone ranger firms that often operate under eat-what-you-kill systems. If you firm is not a long ranger firm and your are in fact a “firm first” firm or aspire to be such you may be able to adapt to a subjective system. However, you may need a post-merger phase-in period. Another comprise approach might be a hybrid system.

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

 

 

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