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Nov 11, 2014


Law Firm Budgeting – Creating a Financial Budget for 2015

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 12 attorney firm in Springfield, Illinois. We have never had a financial plan or budget but I have been thinking of creating one for next year. I would appreciate your thoughts as to whether the time invested in putting one together is worth the effort.

Response:

I believe that successful firms:

  1. Are focused
  2. Have a sense of where they have been and where they are heading 
  3. Have a vision and a strategy
  4. Have business and financial plans
  5. Have goals and measured attainment 
  6. Foster accountability from self and others 
  7. Are proactive 
  8. Work the books and aggressively managed and balance the RULES (Rates, Utilization, Leverage, Expenses, and Collections)

Lawyers that fail to focus their practices; set goals, measure accomplishment, and foster accountability will fall short and not meet their financial objectives.

Attorneys need to begin focusing their practices, setting firm and individual performance goals, measure accomplishment, and implementing systems to instill accountability from all members of the team – attorneys and staff alike.  Budgeting is a tool that can help you measure goal attainment and how well you are doing.

What is measured is what gets done

With budgeting law firms and attorneys can:

  1. Reduce worry and stress at home and at the office 
  2. Improve productivity and profitability  
  3. Increase accountability – yourself and others  
  4. Focus the practice  
  5. Improve balance between personal and professional life  
  6. Maximize practice value for eventual practice transfer/transition

Keep in mind that budgeting entails both financial and non-financial goals.

Click here for our blog on financial management

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

 

 

Nov 04, 2014


Law Firm Attorney Compensation in a Contingency Fee Firm

Question:
 
Our firm is a five attorney personal injury plaintiff law firm located in San Francisco. We have 2 equity partners, one non-equity partner and two associates. One hundred percent of our fees are contingency fees. Our attorneys work on some cases together. We do not keep time sheets.

The two equity partners are compensated based upon their ownership interests and this has worked well. We are looking to improve our compensation for the non-equity partner and the two associates. Currently they are paid salaries and a percentage of firm collected fee revenue over a certain threshold. We feel that they have not been profitable and we have been overpaying them. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Personally I think that a percentage of firm revenue or profit should generally be reserved for equity partners or shareholders. There should be a reason for them to want to become equity partners. I would tie the majority of their compensation to individual performance – client origination revenue, working attorney production revenue, and responsible attorney revenue, and case profitability - being the primary factors. Develop specific guidelines for client origination (rules for the credit – direct effort of the attorney versus the brand of the firm). Since you don't keep time sheets you will have to develop some method for allocating the working attorney credit when attorneys work together on cases – subjective determination of value and contribution to the case, etc. Without timesheets it will also difficult to determine profit at the matter/case level. Decide how you want to weigh origination, working attorney, responsible attorney and case profitability and then use these to determine a compensation percentage to be used for overall compensation or bonus.

Click here for our blog on financial management

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

 

Jun 14, 2014


Law Firm Succession: Buying Out the Owner of a Personal Injury Plaintiff Practice

Question:

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.

Response:

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.

Click here for our blog on succession

Click here for out articles on various management topics

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

 

Apr 15, 2014


Buying a Law Practice: What Should I Be Considering

Question:

I am an associate in a law firm in Akron, Ohio. The firm is an estate planning practice consisting of the owner/founder of the firm, myself, and two legal assistants. I have been with the firm for ten years and this is the only firm that I have worked with since law school. The owner is 67 and has announced that he wishes to retire. He has approached me and provided me with a proposal to buy his practice via an arrangement where I would initially pay him a down payment of 50% of his asking price and after two years the other 50% would be paid over a period of five years. The arrangement would be structured as a partnership and for the two year period we would be 50-50 partners. Compensation would be based upon these ownership percentages. The owner's asking price is two times his average net earnings ($125,000) – $250,000. Average revenues – $210,000. I would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions:

Response:

Buying a law practice is a major commitment and major investment. To a large extent you are buying a job as well as hopefully a book of business. Here are a few ideas that you may wish to consider:

  1. A general rule of thumb for establishing a value for when a law practice is being sold to an outside buyer is a multiple of 1.0 times average gross revenue or a multiple of 2.0 times average net earnings. Typically this is a best case scenario for an outside buyer. Buy-ins for associates that have invested "sweat equity" over the years is usually less. In addition you must consider the extent of repeat client business, talent of those that will remain with the firm, management skills and ability of the new owner, and management infrastructure. (IT, databases, case and document management systems, automated billing and accounting systems, etc.) Personally, I think the asking price/buy-in figure is high. Try to get the owner to do better for you.
  2. Review at least the last five years financial statements and insure that there are no surprises.
  3. Insure that all debt and potential malpractice claims are disclosed.
  4. Review the office and equipment leases.
  5. Create a demographic profile of the firm's clients and referral sources.
  6. Have you been able to generate a book of business? If no, why not? Do you believe you will be able to in the future?
  7. Create a business plan for the future practice and share with the bank when applying for any needed financing.
  8. Are you sure you want to own and manage a business?
  9. If you will be borrowing money from a bank determine all the interest that you will be paying as well as any interest on the five year payout to the owner. Determine the time it will take to receive a return on your investment – how many years. If you pay $250,000 for the practice plus interest – say $300,000 over five years – will you earn this amount in additional income over and above what you are presently earning and is there upside potential? Does the deal make sense?
  10. Insure that you develop a partnership agreement for the new partnership. Insure that is provides for retirement of the owner after two years – if not be careful of the compensation arrangement.
  11. Insure that the owner makes a commitment to timely transitioning client and referral source relationships.

Good luck!

Click here for our blog on succession

Click here for out articles on various management topics

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

 

 

 

 

Mar 25, 2014


Law Firm Associate and Non-Equity Partner Compensation: Is There a Cap or Ceiling?

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 16 attorney insurance defense law firm in Kansas City. We have two equity partners, four non-equity partners, and ten associates. Only the two equity partners bring in client business. Since our clients are insurance companies most of our work is new business from existing clients. Unlike other firms doing insurance defense work our billing rates are low and we have to put in a lot of billable hours and maintain a high ratio of associates and non-equity partners to equity partners.

In the past our associates stayed for a while and left after several years. As a result about the time they reached the higher compensation levels they left and we replaced them with lower cost associates. In the last few years – with the economy and the oversupply of lawyers – they are staying much longer. While we – the equity partners – want to be fair and are willing to share – we are concerned about our reducing profit margins and at what point an associate or non-equity partner's compensation is "maxed out." We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Law firms of all types of practice are experiencing this dilemma. The problem is even more evident in insurance defense firms where much of the work is routine discovery work that can be handled as well by an attorney with two years' experience as by an attorney with ten years' experience at lower cost. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Use the formula – 3 times salary as a general guide to determine where you are regarding working attorney fee production from each of your attorneys. If you are paying an associate or non-equity partner $100,000 a year salary you should be collecting $300,000. The goal is that 1/3 of each fee dollar goes to association of the attorney, 1/3 to overhead, and 1/3 to profit – this a 30% profit margin.
  2. Dig into your financials and determine your contribution to profit from each of your attorneys. Allocate all direct expenses and indirect overhead and calculate profit margin. Click here for an illustration on how to allocate overhead
  3. Profit margin should be between 25%-30%.
  4. Use the margin to establish a theoretical salary limit in absence of other contributions such as management, client origination, additional business from existing clients, etc.
  5. Cap salaries with the exception of periodic cost of living adjustments.
  6. Use a client or referral commission bonus, production/hours bonus, and bonus pools to reward exceptional performance.

 Click here for our blog on compensation

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

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