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Category: Associate

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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

Dec 06, 2018


Hiring an Associate Attorney as a Solo’s Exit Strategy

Question: 

I am a solo practitioner in Central Illinois. I have been in practice for 30+ years and I just turned sixty. I have two staff members and no other attorneys in the firm other than myself. I plan on working another five years and then I would like to gradually exit from my practice and then retire. I want to have a home for my clients and employees and I would prefer to be able to sell my interest to an associate attorney working for the firm. I think we have the work to justify hiring an associate and this is the route I would like to go. I have never had an associate so I am not sure what I should look for. Your thoughts would be most appreciated.

Response: 

I believe that an internal succession/exit strategy is your best option if you can find the right associate. Unlike years ago, there are many associates today that just want a job and work/life balance is more important than taking on an ownership role in a firm. They simply are not interested in the work, stress, and risk that it takes to own and manage a law firm. So it is important when searching for an associate that you really vet out this interest to insure that you are hiring someone that will be willing to buy out your interest when you retire and take over your practice.

I have worked with a lot of firms that think they have an exit plan via an associate only to be told no when approached with a proposal to acquire their practice.  When you interview candidates look into their history and their family history to see if you can find a hint of entrepreneurship. You may want to hire a more seasoned attorney that has a small practice that could expand his or her practice by becoming part of your practice. Hire someone that has an interest in the business of law as well as practicing law.

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

Nov 28, 2018


Associate Attorney Mentoring and Giving Feedback

Question:

I am the owner of an elder law firm in Jackson Mississippi. There are three associate attorneys working in the firm that have been with me under five years. All three were hired directly out of law school. While I try to mentor and train each of the associates as needed in “real time” I also conduct annual performance reviews with each associate and provide them with a written performance evaluation. I am getting frustrated as it seems that the feedback that I provide them does not stick and they continue to make the same errors and mistakes. I welcome any thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

You may need more frequent discussions that are scheduled. I have some law firm client owners  that have an ongoing scheduled meeting with each associate twice a month. You may also want to examine how you actually provide feedback to your associates. Often owners beat around the bush and don’t really provide meaningful feedback.

Giving meaningful feedback contributes an essential component to effective associate management. Whether you give feedback informally, midway through the work or at the end, or formally through a scheduled  evaluation process, it gives you a powerful management tool, assisting individuals in professional development, teaching those you manage to work more effectively, and giving recognition and showing appreciation when deserved.

Effective feedback should be:

Praise you associates when deserved. Praise provides an effective motivator for most associates and should include:

Provide constructive criticism when deserved. It should include the items listed above and you should give it:

Use the following outline when giving constructive feedback:

Try to implement some of these ideas and go from there.

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

Nov 08, 2018


Selling an Owner’s Law Practice to an Associate Gradually

Question: 

I am the owner of an elder law firm in Phoenix, Arizona. I have one full time associate, one part-time associate, and three staff members. I am earning around $300,000 a year from the practice and my full time associate’s salary is $100,000 a year. I am sixty and would like to retire and be out of the practice in five years. I would like to begin phasing down and working part time in the next year or two. My full time associate has been with the firm for ten years and she is an excellent attorney and has an excellent relationship with our clients and referral sources. While she has not brought in many clients through her own referral sources she has done an excellent job signing up new clients from the firm’s referral sources, website, and seminars that she has conducted. I have talked with her in general terms about her buying my practice when I retire and she has expressed an interest.

I feel that I should be entitled to some sweat equity from the practice in the form of retirement compensation or buy-out. With this said I would prefer that my practice “stay in the family” and be sold to my associate rather than selling my practice to an outside buyer. I would appreciate your suggestions.

Response: 

One of the issues today with many associates is they have large student loan debt and have little in the way of capital and little or no borrowing capacity. As a result many firm owners in your situation have to get much of their payout from future earnings after their retirement if they wait too long. Your best bet is to start selling shares as soon as you can based upon a valuation method that you determine. You have five years remaining – ten years would have been better. In essence you determine the value of the firm, determine the price per share, determine how many shares that associate will acquire, and then calculate the price for the number of shares being acquired. For example, let say you practice is valued at $600,000. Divide by 100 = $6,000 per share or percentage point. For an initial twenty percent interest or twenty shares the buy-in price would be $60,000. Then over the next five years gradually sell the associate additional shares. Upon your retirement you would have sold all of your shares.

Typically the problem is the associate does not have any cash or ability to borrow on their own. You may be able to help the associate borrow the money from your bank. If you can – this would be the preferred approach. If the associate cannot raise the capital they you will have to finance the buyout. For a $600,000 buyout a five-year timeline will be impossible for you to have all your cash by retirement. How you structure your compensation as you begin working part time and your associate’s compensation as a partner will have a bearing on capital that your associate will have available. Be careful that you are not funding your own buyout. You will more than likely have to get a large portion of your payout after retirement via a secured promissory note with the associate for the balance.

The sooner you start the better your chances for a successful outcome.

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

Sep 26, 2018


Associate Attorney Compensation – Five Approaches

Question: 

I am the owner of a six-attorney firm in the western suburbs of Chicago. There are five full-time associate attorneys working with the firm. Two have been with the firm over fifteen years, two over ten years, and one seven years. All are being paid salaries in excess of $100,000 per year and none are even close to generating $300,000 or more in working attorney fee collections per year. Their billable hours are dismal as well. While I have a 1200 annual billable hour expectation none are meeting that expectation. My income is suffering as a result. In addition to salaries they sometimes receive a discretionary bonus. I am at my wits end. What are your thoughts?

Response: 

First of all I think that a 1200 annual billable hour expectation is too low and should be more like 1600 annual billable hours. For years the national average annual billable hours reported in surveys has been 1750 and this was the expectation for many firms for many years and still is for many firms. In the past few years, due to lack of work and other factors, some firms have lowered the annual expectation minimum to 1600. Litigation firms, especially insurance defense firms, currently have minimal expectations ranging from 1800 to 2000 hours. Firms that represent individual clients such as general practice firms, family law firms, and estate planning/administration firms currently have minimal expectations ranging from 1400-1600.

It looks like you are not enforcing the 1200 annual billable hour expectation that you have. However, you need to look into your situation and determine the reasons. It could be that they are not putting in the work because the firm does not have enough work for them to do. Look into the following possible causes of their low billable hours and take corrective action:

An approach that many firms are taking is to incorporate performance bonuses such as the following to motivate additional production. Usually these are on top of a base salary. Here are some examples:

  1. Base salary plus 5% of base salary if the billable hour expectation of 1600 is attained, discretionary bonus, and a 15% client origination bonus for bringing a client to the firm. The bonus is for the first year only.
  2. Base salary plus $50.00 per billable hour actually billed to clients that exceeds 1750 annual billable hours. 10% bonus on the collected revenue from other timekeepers that work is delegated to.
  3. Base salary plus 20% bonus for collected working attorney fees in excess of three times salary during the year. For example, an associate that is paid $100,000 would have an working attorney collection expectation of $300,000. If the associate had collections of $400,000 he or she would receive a bonus of $20,000. The associate also is entitled to receive a client origination bonus of 10% for business brought to the firm.
  4. Base salary, 1200 annual billable hour minimum expectation, quarterly production bonus of 40% of working attorney collected fees less salary paid for the quarter, and 20% client origination bonus for work done by others in the firm.
  5. Base salary plus 1/3 of hourly billing rate for hours billed to clients that exceed 1800 annual hours billed to clients.

Some firms have lowered base salaries when incorporating new performance bonus systems when the current expectation is far below expectation. Other firms are terminating under-performing associates.

Many firms are finding that many associates in small firms that have salaries of $100,000 or more are content and are not motivated by the bonuses available to put in the time to earn the bonuses. Work life balance is more important that earning additional income. The bonus systems work better for associates that are still hungry or have lower base salaries.

Firms that have had the most success in getting associates past the “entitlement mentality” are those that incorporate goal setting, accountability, and individual twice a month coaching meetings with associates in addition to the performance bonuses.

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

 

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

Apr 04, 2018


Associate Attorney Motivation

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen attorney firm in Chicago. There are nine partners and five associate attorneys in the firm. Our practice is limited to insurance defense. I am one of the founders and senior partners in the firm and have been practicing for 35 years. We are having problems getting our associates to produce at the levels that we need for the firm to be profitable. We have a 1800 annual billable hour requirement and several of our associates aren’t even close. We have a bonus system that pays associates a bonus based upon billable hours exceeding 1800 billable hours. What are we doing wrong?

Response:

It often takes more than setting up a bonus system and then leaving it on autopilot. I am finding that the intrinsic reward of doing a good job and meeting the expectations of the firm’s partners are as important as the bonus system. In client law firms that have had similar problems we have found that by supplementing the bonus system with monthly reviews and coaching sessions with associates not meeting their targets has made the difference. Here is an outline of the process:

  1. Review you monthly billing/hours reports for all associates each month.
  2. Identify those are below targets and expectations.
  3. Meet with those associates that are below targets and expectations.
  4. Discuss why there are having problems meeting expectations. Lack of work, not working enough hours, poor time management habits, or poor timekeeping habits.
  5. Identify solutions to the above problems.
  6. Monitor and follow-up.
  7. Continue to meet every month until such time as the associate is meeting targets and expectations.

The bonus rewards those that want to push beyond the 1800 billable hours but does nothing to solve the problem of those not meeting the 1800 billable hour expectation.

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

 

Dec 27, 2017


Associate Attorneys as a Succession/Exit Strategy

Question: 

Our firm is a Tucson, Arizona business litigation firm. We have four founding partners and four associates. The partners are in their late fifties and early sixties. All four of us are contemplating retirement in the next eight to ten years. We are assuming that our associates will be willing to step up and buy-out our interests. We have not had any discussions with our associates concerning this. Your thoughts will be appreciated.

Response: 

Do you have the right associates on the bus for the long term? In other words, has the firm hired associates that want to be business owners and own a law firm? Many owners and senior partners in law firms are approaching retirement age and are beginning to think about succession strategies. As they examine their associate lawyer ranks, some partners are often surprised to learn that there may be few takers. While their associates may be great lawyers, they may not bring in business or even be able to retain clients that the firm has. They may not be interested in ownership or partnership. Such firms have hired a bunch of folks that just wanted jobs and have no interest in owning a law firm. While this hiring approach may have satisfied the firm’s short-term needs – it may fall short in the long term.

While partnership/ownership is still important to many – do not assume that all your associates will even want to be equity partners – especially if it means a hefty capital contribution and signing personal guarantees for a large amount of firm debt.

I suggest that you talk with your people – individually and as a group – and see where they really stand. Help them to begin developing client development and business skills. Depending on you and the other partner’s retirement timelines – you may have to consider other options such as laterals or merging with another firm.

A key suggestion is to look for entrepreneurial associates when hiring future associates. The desire for ownership of a business is often in a person’s blood. Do not start the interview with a discussion from law school until the present. Dig deeper into hobbies, family, etc. that will provide clues as to whether you may be hiring someone that just wants a law job or someone that eventually wants to own or be a partner in a law firm.

The sooner you begin the better off you will be especially if several partners are close to the same age and looking to retire about the same time. Not only does it take years for associates to be groomed for management and client transition it can also take years for them to be able to pay for their ownership interest.

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

 

Dec 20, 2017


Law Firm Associate Billable Hours – Estate Planning and Probate Firm

Question: 

Our firm is a six attorney estate planning/probate firm in Mesa, Arizona. There are three partners and three associates in the firm. We have had associates for the last eight years and have never made money from our associates. Last year we decided to implement a billable hour expectation of 1800 hours for the associates. A year later no one is even close. Only one associate will even reach 1500 hours. Is our expectation reasonable? You insight is appreciated.

Response: 

The national norms for all practices is in the 1700 range for associates. Litigation firms range from 1800-2000 hours and up with most firms having a 1800 or 2000 minimum billable hour requirement.

I believe that 1800 billable hours is high for a small estate planning/probate firm if the attorneys are only expected to work forty hours a week and the firm does not charge for initial consultations or intake interviews. Many of the estate planning/probate law firm’s that I am working with are struggling to get to 1500 billable hours – many associates and partners alike are under 1400 hours. I believe that an estate planning/probate practice should be able to expect 1600 billable hours.

I think that a forty hour work week expectation for attorneys is part of the problem. Most professionals service providers (attorneys, CPA’s,  management consultants, etc.) work more like fifty hours – not forty. It is hard to be a successful professional with a forty hour a week attitude. In addition to billable hours non-billable time has to be spent on client development, continuing professional education (CLE for attorneys), and firm administration.

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

Nov 28, 2017


Business Development for New Associate Attorneys

Question: 

I am a partner in a fourteen attorney firm in Denver, Colorado. We have six equity partners and eight associate attorneys in the firm. Our practice is limited to health care law. We represent many of the local hospitals in the area. Our associates range from associates that have been with the firm less than a year to associates that have been with the firm for over fifteen years. None of our associates have developed business development skills and none of them have ever brought in a single client. Most of our associates would not even be able to retain our existing clients if the partners for one reason or another left the firm. This is in part our fault. When we hired them we told them that we had plenty of client work and their mission was to “bill hours” and service our clients. However, as we the partners age and consider the future of the firm we are beginning to realize that this was a mistake. How can we turn this around?

Response:

The earlier that attorneys start to build client development into their weekly routines, the easier it will be for them to bring in business later. Many successful rainmaking attorneys began their business development efforts early in their careers, usually during their first year or two as attorneys. This is a pattern that you want your attorneys to emulate. The firm should set expectations about the kind of effort the firm is looking for at each level in an attorney’s career. It should then support these expectations with appropriate training for each level. Training should begin as soon as an attorney is hired. During the initial firm new associate training session, provide an hour’s instruction on client development. That will help new associate hires realize that they will have to bring in business later in their careers and they can start building a foundation  for later business development efforts immediately. The quantity of education on client development should increase as an attorney advances within the firm. This should be reinforced by mentors assigned to associate attorneys.

When your associates reach the point in their careers when they should be bringing in business, the focus on business development needs to increase. Business goals should be developed and attorneys at this level should be required to prepare annual personal business development plans. These goals and plans should be linked performance reviews and to compensation.

It will take time to create this culture in your firm.  It may be too late for some. I would announce that it is a new day, launch a program, and stay on top of it.

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

 

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