Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Jul 17, 2019


Law Firm Succession – Pros and Cons of Hiring an Associate as My Succession Plan

Question: 

I am a sole practitioner in San Diego, California. My practice is mostly general practice with some emphasis on commercial real estate. I am 64 years old and am looking for a way to transition and exit my practice in the next three to five years. I am the only attorney in the firm however there are three legal assistants that work for me. I have been considering hiring an associate so that I have someone to sell my interests to in the next three to five years. I have never had an associate so I would appreciate your thoughts concerning the wisdom of hiring an associate at this stage of my career.

Response: 

In general I prefer an internal succession strategy when the firm has an attorney or attorneys in place that are willing to step up to ownership and take over the firm. Often this is easier said than done. Issues you will face will include:

  1. Unless you are loaded with work that you are unable to handle or you hire an attorney that can bring work with him or her you will be increasing your expenses and reducing your income/compensation.  Since you have operated all these years with just one attorney I assume that there is only enough work to support one attorney. If you are ready to slow down to a reduced work schedule and take less compensation that is another matter. If not, you may want to look for an experienced attorney with some business rather than hiring a lawyer fresh out of law school or wait a little longer till you hire someone.
  2. Associates require care and feeding – in other words training, mentoring, etc. A certain amount of training and orientation will be required even with an experienced attorney. Revenues may lag from one to two years and your will be saddled with their compensation and other related expenses. You have no experience with mentoring attorneys and this may be something that you are ill equipped to do or don’t want to do.
  3. You may end up hiring and training in an associate only to have them leave the firm in a year or so to join another firm and possibly take clients with them.
  4. The associate you hire may only be looking for a 9-5 lawyer job and have no interest in owning a law firm.
  5. The associate you hire may expect to have you hand them your practice for free and he or she may be unwilling to pay you for your practice.

Many firms have had positive experiences with transitioning their firm to associates. Just be aware of the possible pitfalls. You may be better off going a different direction.

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

Jul 11, 2019


Law Firm Operating Metrics and Statistics

Question:

I am the newly elected managing partner in our twelve-attorney firm in Chicago, Illinois. Our firm is a business transaction firm that was started by the present four partners ten years ago. While we have an office manager that does the bookkeeping, prior to this year all four partners as a group managed the firm. This year the firm decided to create the managing partner position. Since this is new to me I am trying to learn all that I can about law firm management. My first priority is to help the firm improve profitability and I would like to know what the key operating metrics and statistics are that I should be monitoring. You suggestions will be appreciated.

Response:

Law firm operating statistics represent an important management tool. They highlight superior performances and they flag below average performances. They provide law firm management with the key information needed to manage the firm’s business. In addition to measures such as firm fee revenue collections, firm profit/net income, profit per equity owner, billable hours, fee revenue collected per attorney, operating statistics found in law firm management reports typically include information on:

The first three statistics represent factors that relate to earning the firm’s revenue. Responsibility for earning the firm’s revenue rests with the firm’s partners. Consequently, it is important to assign this responsibility to specific partners – typically the responsible/billing attorney.

In recognition of the assigned responsible attorney concept, many firms choose to present revenue-related operating statistics reports in a format that focuses on each partner’s responsibility. This gives the management group the ability to access each partner’s “business” performance.

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

Jun 05, 2019


Law Firm Partnership Tiers – Different Qualifications For Equity and Non-Equity Partners

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a six lawyer firm in Nashville, Tennessee. There are two partners in the firm, myself and another partner, and we have four associate attorneys. Two of our associates have been with firm for over ten years. We are trying to put in place a career progression policy for them and we are thinking about having a non-equity and equity tier which would serve as a prerequisite to equity partnership. What are the differences between the expectations and requirements for non-equity and equity partner?

Response: 

The main difference between an equity partner and non-equity or income partner is that the equity partners assumes a higher degree of capability in a lot of areas, not just good lawyering. Equity partners are expected to develop business, to manage large client relationships, and to have a level of commitment that allows them to do all of that and maintain a very full practice load at the same time. Non-equity or income partners are generally lawyers that are excellent lawyers in his or her field but doesn’t satisfy the other requirements required of equity partners. In addition, equity partners usually invest capital in the firm and assume the risks of the office lease, credit line, and other liabilities. Non-equity partners usually have guaranteed salaries and equity partners do not.

Here are a few of the typical hurdles that are required to move up to equity partner:

The primary difference is non-equity partners focus is on lawyering and the focus of equity partners is on lawyering and being a businessperson as well – practicing law and managing a business.

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

 

May 22, 2019


Conflict Between Law Firm Partners and Non Productive Partners

Question: 

I am a partner in an fourteen attorney firm in Dallas, Texas. There are seven partners in the firm. We started the firm together twenty years ago. Over the years the firm has been very successful and each of the seven partners have had a great relationship. However, over the last five years some of the partners are no longer contributing like they were and relationships have become strained. We are equal partners and our compensation is based upon our ownership interest – so we are paid equally. I am concerned that if we don’t resolve this problem the firm may split apart in the future. You advise and thoughts will be appreciated.

Response: 

There are many reasons that difficulties may arise between partners in a law firm. One of the major factors is that working together effectively is a very difficult skill to acquire. Most individuals join a firm without realizing all that is involved. Professionals, especially, frequently do not understand that being an associate, colleague, and partner require a different set of skills than just being talented in one’s field. Many partners often only have a general idea of what the firm expects of them and only limited interest in how the firm itself operates, as distinguished from what they are professionally prepared to do. Most lawyers are highly motivated to use their expertise on client work, not on spending time in organizing or running a firm or partnership, even though doing so would help the firm operate more successfully and efficiently.

The first step would be, if you have not already, to sit down as a group and discuss the problem, establish agreed to performance expectations for the partners, document in writing, and have each partner sign the document. See if this makes a difference. If no improvement is made then the under performing partners should be confronted and some form of action taken. You may have to redesign your compensation system and possibly ask problem partners to leave.

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

Apr 24, 2019


Law Firm Training Tools – Documentation of Processes and Procedures in Firm Procedural Manuals

Question: 

I am the sole owner of a six attorney personal injury firm in San Francisco with five support staff. My father started the firm twenty-five years ago and has since retired from practice. I took over the practice five years ago. At the time I took over the practice we had just my dad, myself, a couple legal assistants, and no technology. Since then I have done a lot to grow the practice including adding attorneys and staff as well as implementing technology. My biggest problem is training new attorneys and staff. We have no written documentation as to how we do things so training has to be done orally by myself or others every time a new attorney or staff member joins the firm. Can you offer any suggestions?

Response: 

Sounds like you don’t have a written employee handbook or procedures manuals. These are essential tools that every law firm regardless of size should have. These tools dramatically reduce time that has to be spent by others to on-board new employees and can facilitate bringing on lower cost employees with less experience such as recent law graduates or paralegal graduates.

The employee handbook outlines the firm’s employment policies and contains sections such as:

An operation or procedures manual is the firm’s how-to-do-it guide. It defines the purpose of work, specifies the steps that need to be taken while doing the work, and summarizes the standards associates with both the process and the result. Your operation or procedures manual specifies this is how we do it here. Every process in the firm should be documented in your manual – from marketing – to accounting –  to IT – to legal case work. Sections in your manual might include:

Procedures manuals are often a list of steps in outline form. The American Bar Association has a book – The Law Office Policy and Procedures Manual that may help you get started. 

In my earlier life I spent nine years in the United States Air Force Judge Advocate Generals (JAG) office and there I learned the importance of policy and procedures manuals and I carried this into both law firms where I worked prior to starting my consulting practice thirty-four years ago.

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

 

 

 

 

Mar 20, 2019


Associate Attorney and Non-Equity Partner Compensation

Question: 

I am the owner of a seven lawyer insurance defense firm in downtown Chicago. Two of the lawyers are non-equity partners and four are associates. Currently I pay the associates a set salary and a performance bonus based upon annual billable hours over 1800. Until last year non-equity partners were paid in the same fashion, however non-equity partners received a few additional perks such as a firm credit card and a country club membership. Last year I changed the non-equity partner compensation system to focus on collected receipts rather than billable hours. Non-equity partners receive a salary and a performance bonus based upon working attorney collected received above a established threshold and a delegation bonus.

Currently all of the non-equity partners are paid salaries above $100,000 and two of the associates are above $100,000.

My results with the two bonus systems are dismal at best. My objective was to motivate my attorneys to bill more hours. However, they don’t seem interested. Very few have received bonuses. Last year I had several lawyers that did not even bill 1500 hours. What have a done wrong?

Response: 

There is noting wrong with your approach to compensation. You may have the wrong people on the bus. They simply aren’t hungry and this is not something you can teach. You are paying them salaries high enough that they can pay their bills – they are content and don’t want to put in the additional work to earn the extra income. Work-life balance is as important to more and more young attorneys as is money. If your attorneys are simply meeting the thresholds (billable hour or revenue expectations) and not exceeding them that is one thing. However, if your attorneys are not meeting the minimal expectations (hours or revenue thresholds/expectations – this is another issue as they are not producing at a level to justify the salaries they are being paid. Salary adjustments downward may be in order or simply terminating them. I don’t know many insurance defense firms that will tolerate less than 1800 billable hours.

While you must get compensation right in order to acquire and retain top lawyer 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 not only about the money or compensation package.

Jim Collins sums it up best in the following quotes from Good to Great (p 10-13)

“First who – then what”

“They get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

“People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”

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

Mar 13, 2019


Law Firm Attorneys Overuse of Email and Text Messaging

Question: 

I am the owner of a four-attorney firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. The firm has three associate attorneys plus three paralegals and three other staff members. One of my attorneys recently advised me that he wanted to do more work remotely. The next day I emailed him my thoughts and advised him that I would not let him work remotely. He then emailed me that he was giving me his two weeks notice. What should I have done differently?

Response: 

You should have met with him personally and discussed the matter face to face. Email has its uses but I find it is often overused and used in situations where it should not be.

Note the following scale of communication media and richness.

1. Face to face
2. Telephone
3. Email and texts

Face to face is the richest form of communications and should be used for sensitive communications such as performance reviews and other such discussions concerning performance, praise, training and mentoring, etc. It should have been used in the situation you discussed in your question.

Telephone is the second richest form of communications and should be used for less sensitive communications or for face to face situations discussed above when a face to face meeting is physically not possible.

Email, text, and other written communications should be used for routine communications such as assignment of projects and tasks, work instructions, etc.

Sensitive and difficult communications should be communicated through a rich medium such as face-to-face meetings and routine communications through a lean medium such as a memo.

Media richness is determined by the speed the media provides, the variety of communications channels on which it works, the extent of personal interactions allowed, and the richness of language it accommodates. As tasks become more ambiguous, you should increase the richness of the
media that you use.

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

Feb 27, 2019


Law Firm Succession and Transition – All Three Partners Retiring at the Same Time

Question: 

Our firm is a personal injury plaintiff litigation firm in Denver, Colorado. I am one of three partners in the firm. We have one associate that has been with us for twelve years and three recent law grad associates with less than three years experience.  The three partners started the practice together over thirty years ago and we are all in our early sixties. Our lease expires in three years and we need to think about the future of the firm. All three of us are not ready to retire but none of us want to sign another lease. When we do retire we would want to retire at the same time. Do you have any suggestions?

Response: 

I believe your first step would be to agree on your timeline for the group’s phase-down and eventual exit from the practice. It sounds like three years, while it may not be the date that you want to exit from the practice it may be the date that you sell your partnership interests or begin the transition of your interests. Many firms that have other attorneys working in the firm prefer an internal succession strategy as opposed to an external strategy – selling or merging the practice. An internal strategy will depend upon:

I believe your second step is to reach a conclusion as to the above three questions. You may have to have some candid discussions with you associate to determine his or her interest level and his or her readiness to take over the practice. If you determine that your senior associate is your succession strategy you need to decide whether you are willing to start selling the associate shares sooner than later and admit the senior associate as a minority interest partner. As part of this partnership admission you would also execute an agreement for the purchase of additional shares over the next few years and upon your actual retirements. This way you get your associate committed and begin executing a transition plan focusing on additional legal and business skill development as well transitioning client and referral source relationships and firm management responsibilities.

If you determine that your senior associate is not your succession plan you will have to consider other options such as bringing in a seasoned lateral attorney that has the needed skills and desire to take over ownership of the firm, selling the firm to another firm, or merging the practice.

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

Jan 29, 2019


Law Firm Structure and Growth

Question: 

I am the administrator with a firm in Buffalo, New York. We have fourteen attorneys – seven partners and seven associates. We are an eat-what-you kill law firm. All the partners have to weight in and agree on any and all management decisions. Our management team consists of “all partners”. While I have been hired as the administrator to management the firm, I have very little authority to do anything. The partners all have the freedom to do as they please and there is very little accountability to each other. Recently we have been discussing the pros and cons of why we might want to change our governance and overall structure. I would be interested in your thoughts.

Response: 

I believe that law firms that are “firm first” team based firms and organized along these lines have (or will have) a competitive advantage with respect to clients, legal talent, and merger partners. As law firms grow the “lone ranger” confederation approach no longer works. Decision-making is too time consuming, partner time is wasted, and opportunities are missed. Synergy (where one plus one equals three or four) is not achieved and the firm achieves little more than any one of the attorneys could achieve in solo practice.

Recently I was working with a similar size firm in Chicago that was looking for a merger partner. When the other firm learned that my client was a “lone ranger” firm they discontinued discussions. Larger firms that are “team-based” are not interested in merging with “long ranger” firms – they tend to cherry pick key talent from these firms rather than pursuing mergers or combinations.

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

Jan 16, 2019


Improving Productivity and Profitability in a Sole Owner Six Attorney Insurance Defense Law Firm

Question:

I am the owner of a six attorney insurance defense firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started the practice twelve years ago with myself and a paralegal and have grown the firm to where is is today – six attorneys, two paralegals, and two other staff members. While I have done well, and am taking home around $350,000 a year, I am not sure if we are attaining the numbers that we should be. I have a fifteen hundred billable hour expectation with a per hour bonus payable for each billable hour exceeding fifteen hundred. I do not have any attorneys that have reached this expectation. Our billing rates average around $150 per hour. I am wanting to put in place a partnership track and am not sure where to start. You thoughts would be appreciated.

Response

Let me first illustrate the profitability levers for law and other professional service firms:

R – Rate – billing rate (effective rate, realization rate, etc.).
U – Utilization – the number of billable hours.
L – Leverage – the number of associates/paralegal, etc. to owners or equity partners.
E – Expenses – office overhead
S – Speed – time it takes from the time work is done to when cash comes in the door.

With the low billing rates that are prevalent in insurance defense firms the primary profitability levers that can be managed in an insurance defense practice are utilization, leverage, and expenses. Insurance defense firms need 1800 – 2000 annual billable hours from their associates, a high leverage ratio of three or four associates for every equity partner, and low expenses  – i.e. no frills office space.

You are doing fine now with regard to compensation but this would not be the case if you had partners – the profits would not be there to pay higher salaries. Less than 1800 annual billable hours is not acceptable and it sounds like there are no consequences for non-attainment of the 1500 hours. You need to look into the reasons as to why your associates are not attaining the 1500 hours. Possibilities could include:

If there is enough work you need to focus on the other factors and let everyone know what the consequences are for not attaining the billable hour expectation. Start with the 1500 hour expectation as an initial baby step but then increase the expectation to 1800 hours as soon as your can.

As you think about a partner track keep in mind the issue of leverage and don’t be temped to make too many partners.

Keep an eye on your expenses.

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

 

 

 

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