I am a partner in a firm in Los Angeles. We have nine attorneys – four partners and five associates. We are a young firm in that we have only been in business for four years. The four partners started the firm together, we are equal partners, and we split the profits equally. When we started the firm we each made equal capital contributions. We do not have a partnership agreement. We are thinking about bringing in two associates as equity partners and are trying to think through the mechanics and one of our questions is whether there should be a buy-in and if so how should we determine it. We would appreciate your thoughts.
Law firms have different viewpoints on this subject. I have worked with some larger firms that are in second generation or later that do not require a capital contribution at all. They use end of the year distribution hold backs and credit lines to fund their working capital requirements. Other firms do require capital contributions upon being admitted as a partner and additional contributions over time when additional capital is needed or when partners acquire additional capital interests.
Smaller firms tend to require new partners/shareholders to pay for their interest in the firm. The buy-in can provide additional capital for the firm or can be used to compensate the existing partners/shareholders for their investment and sweat equity in creating the law firm or in growing it to its present size. One approach that some firms use it to include in the partnership/shareholder agreement the formula for determining the value of the firm, to which the new partner’s/shareholder’s percentage interest can be applied. This could include non cash-based assets such as accounts receivable, unbilled work in process, and goodwill. Another approach is to base the buy-in or capital contribution upon a the cash-based capital based upon the number of ownership shares a partner receives. Most firms allow for a buy-in over several years. Firms that do have a buy-in provision also typically provide for a payment to partners/shareholders upon departure for the value of their capital account. In recent years, an increasing number of large firms have adopted a free buy-in. Under that approach, there are no payments to departing partners/shareholders.
I believe that you should require at least a capital buy-in based upon the cash-based capital on the books and the number of ownership offered. This assumes that the partners still have capital accounts on the books. I also think you might consider them buying into the accounts receivable and unbilled work in process as well or be excluded from participating in compensation from those receipts. You should also get a partnership agreement in place as well.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am the chair of the finance committee for our firm – 17 attorney firm in Chicago. We have 6 equity partners in the firm. We are in the process of admitting a new equity partner and are reviewing our capital accounts and trying to determine our capital needs. I would appreciate your ideas and thoughts.
There are two categories of capital – short-term or working capital which is used to fund daily operations and long term capital which is used to pay for capital assets such as furniture and fixtures, computers and other office equipment. I guess I am old school but I believe that short term working capital should be funded as much as possible with partner capital and long term capital funded with bank borrowing or leases. I have more and more clients that are funding working capital with partner capital and have no bank debt at all. I have other clients that finance all working capital with their bank line of credit – these firms could find themselves in dire straits if bank credit should tighten in the future.
The amount of working capital needed by a firm depends upon your practice, billing and collection cycles, whether you do contingency fee work, and whether the firm is growing and adding attorneys and staff. As a rule of thumb I suggest that a firm have three times one month's expenses excluding draws in working capital. This would need to be increased if the firm has lengthy billing and collection cycles, does contingency fee work, and is in a growth mode.
Partner capital contributions are usually made proportionately based on partner earnings or ownership percentages.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC