I am a partner in a husband/wife owned law firm in Seattle, Washington. We have four other associate lawyers in the firm. One of these lawyers is our son and the other is the daughter of my wife’s (who is my partner) brother. We have four staff members of which one is also a family member. We are a general practice firm and we have been in operation for ten years. While the firm has done well over the years we have had our challenges. Office problems seen to follow us home and both staff employees and non-family attorneys are alienated. We have been experiencing turnover of both staff and attorneys. What should we being doing different?
I have seen family practices go both ways – successful and not so successful due to the conflict and drama that can exit in family practices if they are not setup and managed properly. A few of the challenges and issues that can arise in family owned law firms include:
Family practices must first start by recognizing that there are three social systems at play – the family, the law firm business, and overlap of the two. Unless boundaries and rules are established there will be conflict and tension. Family roles and roles in the law firm should be be developed. Here are a few guidelines that family practices should consider adopting:
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
John, where do you begin to get a value on a family law practice? It seems that one times gross revenue is unfair since it is usually one time business. I saw you speak at an ISBA event and this question was not addressed.
Regarding your question – it sort of depends on whether you are buying or selling and where you want to start. In general I agree with you that a multiple of one times gross for a family law practice is probably high. It depends on whether the practice has built up more of a firm brand vs. an individual brand. In other words institutionalized the practice. Also on where and how the firm gets business – advertising, referral sources, etc. A firm that has practice (institutional) goodwill might very well start at a multiple of one whereas a practice where the goodwill is personal goodwill the multiple might be .75 or less – in some cases even zero. I know of a few family law practices in the Chicago area that have been sold for .33 of gross revenue.
Often the initial asking price has little to do with regard to where you end up. Often, due to the concern that the clients and business might not materialize for the new buyer many firms are sold on various forms of an "earn-out" or a small payment at closing with the remainder paid and based on a percentage of revenues collected over a period of time – 3 to 5 years.
I have seen PI and other one shot matter firms sell for one times gross revenues but this is a best case scenario. CPA firms fare much better.
If you are the seller and your practice is a personal practice you probably will have to start with an asking price around .75 or less – if you have branded the practice and have others besides yourself – you might ask for more.
If you are the buyer I would balk at 1 times gross and would want to discuss provisions for reduction in purchase price if revenues fall below a certain level over a certain time period. Better yet – no payment at closing with the payout totally based and paid as revenues are collected in the future.
Getting to "the number" will involve balancing the seller's concern that the buyer will let the practice die on the vine versus the buyer's concern that the clients and referrals with not materialize.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC