Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Sep 02, 2009


Is There a Number One Tip For Improving Client Service?

Question: We recently completed an informal client survey and were surprised at some of the feedback. Our scores were lower than anticipated. Clients believe that our services took longer than expected and fees were also higher than expected. We work as dilligently as we can for our clients and I don't see how we can improve turnaround or reduce legal fees. Suggestions?

Response: Based upon client surveys that we do for law firms we find that one of the biggest problems is that the attorneys are doing a poor job of managing client expectations. The key is to under promise and over deliver. I suspect that upon the initial client meeting you are under estimating the timeline and low balling the fee range. Increase the promise – timeline and fee range and then shoot to deliver under that range. This will do wonders for improving the client relationship.

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

Sep 01, 2009


Staying Ahead on Retainers

Question:

I do a good job of collecting initial retainers before doing work for my family law and criminal clients. But then I fall behind on retainer replenishments. Do you have any thoughts or ideas?

Response:

This is a common problem I hear from clients in all practice areas. Here are a few suggestions:

The key here is assigning someone the daily responsibility of monitoring retainers, having a good time and billing system, and using the managment reports from the system to stay on top of retainer useage.

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

Aug 26, 2009


Should Time Spent Managing the Firm Count in Partner Compensation Systems

Question: I am one of the founding partners in a 25 attorney law firm in the northeast. We have three equity partners, six non-equity partners and sixteen associates working in the firm. We focus totally on litigation. Each of us three equity partners have equal ownership percentages and since day one (20 years) have divided firm profits equally along those lines (1/3, 1/3, 1/3). We each put in the same amount of effort and work – but since I am managing partner – my fee collections are much lower than those of the other two equity partners and I am concerned that they may feel that I am not carrying my weight since my fee collections are lower. How should this be handled in our compensation system?

Response:

This is a common question that we hear often. It sounds like you are still allocating income in the same manner that you did when the firm first started. Often when a firm grows the partner compensation system needs to be reexamined when and if partner roles or contributions change. As the firm has grown I suspect that your time spent on management activities has grown as well. I, as well as many other legal management consultants, believe that firm management (running the business) is as important as generating client fees and should be so considered in partner compensation systems.

We have numerous law firm clients where at least one or more of the equity partners "run the business" and do not provide billable client services at all.

Management time should not be used as a non-billable time category (excuse) to simply "dump" time. Your partners have a right to expect results that improves the bottom line and the size of the pie for all.

Here are a few suggestions:

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

Jul 15, 2009


Lawyer Networking As a Marketing Strategy

Question:

I am having problems with effective client development. I believe that I need to do more networking and become involve in professional organizations. Suggestions?

Response:

Definitely. However, here are a few ideas and guidelines.

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

Jul 15, 2009


Newsrooms on Law Firm Websites

Question:

More and more law firms are using web sites. Where are these sites falling short? What about news rooms?

Response:

There is another audience besides clients and prospective clients. That audience is the media. Law firm web sites need to direct more focus on the media and the recognize the benefit of effective public relations. Law firm web sites should incorporate first-rate online press rooms.

The first wave of law firm web sites was often the brainchild of the marketing department or the attorneys. As a result reporters were often forgotten in the rush to publish.  However, for most firms, the news media is a clear and well-defined audience. What type of information should we provide that is key to this audience?

Contact Information

Too many web sites bury any contact information, much less specifics on whom to call  for an “on the record” statement. Many sites, if they include any contact information, will  only include an address, phone and fax – no names.

If you want to make friends with the media, make it easy for them to call (or e-mail) you.  Whether it is a link from the home page, or an easily-found link in the “about us” or   “news” sections of your web site – give the media basic information about branch offices – along with names and phone numbers. Don’t forget the area code.

 

If you are concerned about e-mail overload, set up a special e-mail address for media  inquiries (but make sure that it is checked more than once a day). If your web administrator persuades you to use “form mail” (instead of an e-mail link) minimize the  “required” fields and tell the reporter, up front, that he/she will receive a copy of the      correspondence upon “send.” (These are two functional requirements that you should  insist upon.)

 

Archived News Releases

 

This seems like so much common sense that I don’t understand why many have foregone  this courtesy. Not only is it a boon for reporters (90% say they use the web for research)  or others who are researching your firm, industry, or a event of the day, but it also allows  you to let the world know what your organization has said about any given topic. Think of it as self-publishing.

 

Search engines may or may not be a good idea for archives. I suggest taking a little time  (so that reporters don’t have to) and organizing news releases in annual archives as well as subjective ones. Some releases will fall into more than one subject category. Use hyperlinks and the web.

 

Downloads

 

Your web site allows you to have a 24×7 presence for the media, which is especially  crucial for firms with a global presence. Think about common requests that could easily be delivered via the web:

 

If you do set up a special section for the media, as a general rule, don’t require registration or “credentialing.” There are exceptions to this rule, but they are in the distinct minority for most firms.

 

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

Jul 15, 2009


Should We Merge With Another Law FIrm

Question:

We are a small six attorney litigation firm. We have two partners and three associates. One of the partners wants to retire within the next five years. The other partner will continue to practice for another 10-15 years. We love practicing law and consider ourselves to be very good lawyers. However, we find firm management and administration to be a challenge and we are not skilled in this area nor do we want to be. We have a good book of business and clients. Recently, we began discussing the possibility of merging with another law firm. What are your thoughts about firm's like ours merging with another law firm?

Response:

Obviously, merger or acquisition of law firms is becoming more and more commonplace. Hildebrand is projecting 44 mergers (firms with five or more attorneys) in 2007. However, 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:

  1. Improve the firm's competitive position.
  2. Increase specialization – obtain additional expertise.
  3. Expand into other geographic regions.
  4. Add new practice areas.
  5. Increase or decrease client base.
  6. Improve and/or solidify client relationships.

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

  1. Do you want to practice in a large firm? If not, what is the largest firm that you would want to practice in?
  2. What is driving the desire to merge?
  3. 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? 
  4. Is your name being part of the firm name important to you?
  5. What are your expectations and objectives for a merger?
  6. What are you looking from a merger partner?

Make sure that you look for a complimentary fit. Since 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.

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

May 14, 2009


Two Attorney Compensaton System

Question:

Our firm has been getting by for 18 months since start-up.  We are starting to get some repeat business and I think we on our way.  However, my partner looked at the numbers for 2008 and realized that she made about a third more money last year, both in terms of actual dollars for her work and in terms of origination. Our actual hours were roughly even, but there might have been some slighter disparity.  Now were are having that first talk about changing from the straight 50-50 split to the perhaps the other extreme of "each woman for herself" (after jointly paying basic expenses).  What are your suggestions?

Response:

I have reviewed your comments. In small firms the best systems are those that are simple, easy to understand, and easy to implement. Often two partners start out on a 50%-50% arrangement and the arrangement eventually has to be changed when and if their situations change that has a major impact upon their overall contributions to the firm. (Notice I used the word contributions – not necessarily – fees collected).

However, until level of contributions change – I have often seen 50% arrangements work well in small firms that are looking to build a Firm – rather than simply their own practice and earn as much money as they can for themselves. When level of contributions change – in a healthy partner culture – the partners will be able to talk to each other and sit down and discuss an alternative arrangement that makes sense for them.

I encourage firms to look beyond single year timeframes – typically 3-5 year cycles. Sometimes in healthy firm cultures one partner may need to carry the other partner for awhile. For example, an attorney with a PI plaintiff practice may have wide swings and may need to be carried in lean times – but when the big fee comes in both share in the benefits. In other situations billing cycles mandated by clients, etc. can impact timing of collections. In your firm – it may be a little early yet to have a true picture concerning contribution. Sounds like you are both putting in about the same time investment in the firm and commitment even though one's numbers are higher. Is one of you managing the firm or doing other activities that still benefits the firm?

You must ask yourselves what kind of firm you want to be – team-based firm or group of space sharers or partnership of individual firms. Eat-what-you kill compensation systems are not appropriate for law firms that want to build a firm and create a team-based practice since such compensation systems typically reinforce "lone ranger" behavior resulting in a "me first vs firm first" orientation. It is hard to build a team-based firm with such an orientation. However, some firms do not want to practice as team-based firms – they want to practice as groups of individuals. For these firms such a system may be appropriate.

The challenge will be to nail down a method of allocation revenue and overhead that is fair and equitable to both of you. Compensation systems should do more than simply allocate the pie – they should reinforce the behaviors and efforts that the firm seeks from its attorneys. Many firms are discovering that desired behaviors and results must go beyond short term fee production and must include contributions in areas such as marketing, mentoring, firm management, etc. to ensure the long term viability of the firm. Eat-what-you-kill systems discourage these behaviors.

In the long term the highly successful law firms will be those that are team based that where the partners look beyond their own self interests and have a "firm first" attitude.

I think you need to have an open exchange about what kind of firm you want to build and the commitments each of you are willing to make to achieve that. You need to decide what you consider to be contribution and value to the firm – fees generated, fees originated, primary attorney fees, marketing, firm management, etc. If those commitments are in general alignment – they maybe you should stay on the 50-50 split for awhile longer. Another option would be to stay on the same split – but create a special bonus pool – say 25% of income that could be allocated on a discretionary basic for unusual accomplishments, etc. Of course you would have to agree on who gets how much. Another option would be to have a base draw and then either a formula or discretionary bonus pool for distribution of the excess.

The general trend in compensation systems in larger firms is toward more subjective based system rather than formula. However, many smaller firms do still use objective or formula based systems.

 

I hope this helps.

 

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

May 14, 2009


Strategic and Long Range Planning in Solo and Small Law Firms

Question: I am a solo attorney with no other personnel at the present time other than virtual employees. I hope to add a staff member later this year or early next year. I am frustrated with the success of my practice and feel that I am lost and have no sense of direction or plan for the future. I have been to seminars that talk about the need for a long range plan but it seems that the mechanics of the process is geared to firms that have other partners. How can I best go about long range planning?

Response: Long range (strategic) planning is hard to do by yourself. It is not just the plan that you end up with that is important – it is the planning process itself – done over an extended period of time – that yields out-of-the-box-thinking and real results. Brainstorming needs to take place and you need to work on your plan over say a four to six month period of time.

A strategic plan is different than a business plan. A business plan is a firm startup plan and often used for evaluating whether to startup a business and for securing financing or capital. Typically the audience is primarily external. A strategic plan is for internal use and thus is more of an outline of the firm's mission, vision for the future, long range goals, objectives to be measured in the short term, issues and obstacles that must be confronted, strategies, and specific action items with timelines and milestones. The plan should be short 10 pages or less and should have an implementation focus. Accountability should be part of the plan.

We have numerous solo and sole owner law firm clients that have successfully implemented long range strategic plans. Often we have worked with our client firms on such projects as a part of our six month business coaching program. In this way we are able to do a little each week with the client and serve as an accountability partner.

Click here for an article on planning

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

Apr 13, 2009


New Firm Start-up Where Should I Begin

Question: I am an attorney that has been in practice for 10 years with a large firm (200+) in the mid-west. I represented fortune 500 clients in the area of business and commercial transactions. I was a non-equity partner in the firm. Recently I was let go due to the economy and I have no idea when or whether I will ever be called back to work. For three months I have been applying for positions with no success. I am considering starting my own solo practice. Where and how should I start?

Response:

Being an attorney in solo practice will be a much different experience than what you are used to. You will have to handle more of the nuts and bolts of running and operating a practice. You will not have people to do everything for you like you did in your last firm. You will need to learn how to be an entrepreneur and think like a businessman.

First, I suggest that you give some thought as to whether you have what it takes to operate your own firm and plan out your business. The best way to go about this is with a business plan. Click here for an article on the subject.

After your have developed your plan begin developing your business identity, firm name, tag line, website domain name, and related graphic package. For ideas download a copy of our Best Practices Guide.

Consider legal structure for the firm. Register with appropriate governmental and tax authorities.

Determine where you will practice, how you will staff your practice, and techology needs. Keep as much of your overhead as possible. Consider virtual employees. At first do as much work yourself as you can. Add staffing resources as your firm grows. Don't skimp on technology.

Implement a first class website on day one.

Good luck.

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

Feb 10, 2009


Using Brainstorming Focus Groups to Take the Law FIrm to the Next Level

Question:

We have a successful practice but need to do a lot of things differently to move to the next level. How can we generate some momentum and ideas?

Response:

Our advise – why not use a few brainstorming focus groups and do some brainstorming. We find that many firms either don’t engage their people or don’t know how to engage their people. Untapped ideas are in the heads of your attorneys and staff. Using brainstorming focus groups and brainstorming techniques can help the firm improve decision making and tap these ideas.

Brainstorming focus groups are not just another firm or staff meeting. A focus group consists of  (1) people with similar characteristics, (2) that provides qualitative data, (3) in a focused discussion, (4) to help understand the topic of interest.

Size

These groups are typically composed of five to ten people, but the size can range from as few as four to as many as twelve. The group must be small enough for everyone to have an opportunity to share insights and yet large enough to provide diversity of perceptions. When the group exceeds a dozen participants, there is a tendency for the group to fragment.

Purpose

    Brainstorming focus groups aren’t decision making groups or committees. They are used to generate ideas. The actual decisions are made after all the brainstorming focus groups are completed, not in the individual groups. The brainstorming focus groups are used to gain understanding about a topic so decision makers can make more informed choices.

The Brainstorming Process

Brainstorming is a technique whereby individuals or groups generate large numbers of ideas or alternatives relating to a decision without evaluating their merits. Listing alternatives without evaluating them encourages group members to generate ideas rather than defend or eliminate existing ideas. Evaluation occurs after a large array of ideas has been generated. Principles for brainstorming include:

§  All ideas should be listed. No idea should be evaluated during the first part of brainstorming.

§  Creativity should be encouraged. Participants should think outside of the box. All ideas should be recorded, regardless of how frivolous or irrelevant they seem.

§  Members should be encouraged to offer ideas related to those already on the list.

§  Asking each participant to record and then offer five to ten ideas can help start the session.

§  Setting a time limit for brainstorming, for example, five to ten minutes, can often stimulate the rapid generation of ideas. 

Moderating the Discussion

Consider using a moderator team: a moderator and a recorder. The moderator, typically the administrator, the managing partner, or an outside consultant,  is primarily concerned with directing the discussion, keeping the conversation flowing, and taking a few notes. The recorder, on the other hand, takes comprehensive notes, operates the tape recorder, handles the environmental conditions and logistics (refreshments, lightening, seating, etc.), and responds to unexpected interruptions.

Recording the Discussion

A recorder should be appointed and all ideas obtained in the brainstorming focus group should be recorded by either tape recorder or written notes. Written notes are essential. Often ideas are initially listed on flip charts and later converted to written notes. The note taking should not interfere with the spontaneous nature of the session. Notes should be as complete as possible.

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

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