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May 07, 2019


Law Firm Succession Planning in a Fourteen Attorney Firm – Internal vs External Strategy

Question:

I am the managing partner in a fourteen attorney firm in Austin, Texas. Our firm represents hospitals in their defense against malpractice claims. We have four equity partners, six non-equity partners, and four associates. The four equity partners started the firm thirty years ago and we are all in our late fifties and early sixties. We plan on working another eight years and then plan on retiring approximately at the same time. We may remain on as Of Counsel. Of our six non-equity partners, five are in their early and late sixties. We are considering making one an equity partner in the near future. Our associates are all recent law graduates that we hired right out of law school and all have been with the firm less than five years. What is our best succession strategy – merger or growing our own future partners?

Response: 

Most firms, and I agree with this, prefer an internal strategy and would like to grow their own and leave a legacy of the firm. Mergers can be fraught with problems and are often not successful. Depending on the size of the other firm, many firms are not willing to provide any compensation for practice goodwill beyond the compensation and benefit package. It sounds like you have had your independence for thirty years and you may not be comfortable giving that up and working in a merged firm environment for eight years.

However, a merger is often easier. You have a challenge on your hands since you have to replace four partners and only have one possible future equity-partner candidate on deck. In part it will depend upon the age and the experience of the one non-equity partner. Is he even willing to step-up to equity, invest in the firm, and buyout your interests? My experience these days is that a lot of non-equity partners are saying “no” to equity. With your type of clients you probably need at least three or four seasoned partners in order to convey to the clients that you have adequate “bench strength”. When the four of you retire unless you can build up the bench strength the firm will be also lacking leadership and firm management experience.

You have five years in which to build up your talent pool. You will have to first see if you can recruit and bring in some lateral talent – attorneys in their forties with fifteen to twenty years experience. Look for attorneys that want to be more than just worker-bees – that want to have future equity interest in a firm. If this strategy works out, begin bringing them into equity as soon as possible to ensure that the commitment is there by having them buy shares upon admission. Begin client and management transition no later than three years prior to your retirements.

If you are not able to bulk-up your talent pool or you have no one interested in equity ownership, then you will have to consider a merger strategy. I would begin a merger search three years prior to your retirements.

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

May 01, 2019


Law Firm Associate Bonuses – Problems Measuring Flat Fee Work Working Attorney Fee Allocations

Question: 

Our firm is a four-attorney estate planning firm in Rochester, New York. We are a general practice firm and we handle a lot of estate planning work and estate administration as well. While some of our work is handled on a time bill basis a lot of our work is handled on a flat fee basis. Recently we switched our time billing system from a desktop-based system to a cloud-based system and we having trouble getting the reporting that we need out of the system. We do keep time on flat fee cases. Our bonus system is based on working attorney fee collections and the new system does not allocate fees correctly for flat fee cases when multiple attorneys and or paralegals work on a matter. Any suggestions?

Response: 

I have heard this complaint from many firms using both desktop and cloud-based billing systems. However, it does seem that cloud-based systems are lacking in the level of reporting that desktop-based systems have. Here is what some firms have or are doing:

  1. Working with the software vendor to determine what the issue is – is it your procedures or is it the software. In some situations, fee allocations are effected by the manner in which payments are entered when partial fee payments are made, whether such payments are first deposited in the trust account and then later applied after all time has been billed and adjusted, etc.
  2. If the issue is lack of software reporting capability try to get the software company to add this function to the software.
  3. Manually making the allocations in a spreadsheet for flat fees cases when all else fails.
  4. Changing the bonus system and basing bonuses on responsible attorney collections rather than working attorney collections. Many personal injury plaintiff firms that don’t keep time-sheets take use this approach. This approach works best if the attorneys primarily work on their own matters. One advantage of this approach is that it encourages delegation and discourages hoarding of work.

When evaluating these newer cloud-based billing systems don’t just look at the bells and whistles – determine your reporting needs and insure that the software meets these needs.

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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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

Mar 14, 2018


Attorney Career Progression – Competency Model

Question: 

I am a member of a three member executive committee with our twelve-attorney firm in San Antonio, Texas. One of our responsibilities is oversight of our career development program for associates and non-equity partners. We  have been discussing our policy of admitting associates to non-equity partner and non-equity partners to equity partner. Presently, we do not have anything in writing regarding timeline for consideration or what qualifies one to move to the next level. Associates and non-equity partners are unhappy with the present process. They want more clarity concerning their career advancement within the firm. You advise would be helpful to us.

Response: 

Several of my clients are developing career advancement programs that incorporate a competency-based approach that  outlines specifically what is takes to be successful and advance from associate to non-equity partner and from non-equity partner to equity partner. Rather than leaving the formula for success in the minds of the equity partners, a competency model gives each attorney in the firm an understanding of how he or she will need to perform in order to be perceived as progressing, an ultimately, as successful. Competency models offer transparency and clarity. The model outlines specific behavioral observations as the primary source of performance information. Benefits are as follows:

Associates are presented with clear information on expectations for their level of experience and a road map of what is expected as they progress. Specific expectations are laid out for progression to non-equity partner as opposed to a specific timeline.

Non-equity partners are presented with clear information on expectations for their level of experience and a road map of what is expected as they progress. Specific expectations are laid out for progression to equity-partner as opposed to a specific timeline.

Equity partners and senior lawyers benefit from a consistent description of performance standards that allow them to access performance, assign work effectively, and offer more meaningful career guidance.

The firm has a consistent methodology for making and compensation decisions.

In order to work, a competency model should be integrated with attorney recruiting, performance evaluations, training, and compensation systems. Associates and partners must invest time in attorney development.

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

 

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