Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Firms

May 15, 2019


Challenges in Law Firms that are Family Businesses

Question: 

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?

Response: 

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:

  1. Develop family and law firm charters – sort of like job descriptions – that outlines roles and responsibilities in the family and the law firm.
  2. Establish criteria for who in the family can join the firm.
  3. Determine education and experience requirements for joining the firm.
  4. Determine how titles of family members in the law firm will be determined.
  5. Determine how job performance will be evaluated.
  6. Determine consequences for inadequate performance.
  7. Determine how compensation will be determined.
  8. Leave law firm business at the law firm – don’t bring it home.

Here is a link to an earlier blog in re children of partners who are attorneys working in law firms.

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

 

Mar 06, 2019


Law Firm Financial Management – Managing the Firm’s Inventory

Question: 

Our firm is a eighteen attorney firm in Portland, Oregon and I am the recently hired firm administrator. This is my first law firm. My previous employment was with a small manufacturing and distribution company. I have read some articles that discussed the importance of managing inventory in a law practice. Does a law firm even have inventory? I would appreciate your comments.

Response: 

Inventory (or pipeline) management is a term used in the management consulting profession to refer to the process by which you continually evaluate your active opportunities (prospective clients to booked clients) for their balance of QUALITY and QUANTITY. The goal is to continually stay on top of the overall health which is a full pipeline. Pipeline management allows client relationship managers to more accurately forecast fee revenues, better staff and manage client engagements, and close more client business.

I often also refer to Inventory or Pipeline Management in law firms in the context of using financial dashboards by which the individual charged with financial management responsibilities is continuously aware of significant changes in the firm’s Inventory or Pipeline (from prospects to cash):

By comparing these dashboard statistics to a prior month, quarter, or year – you are able to avoid financial surprises down the road.

Law firms do have inventory and that is their unbilled work in process (matters in process) or in the case of a contingency fee firm I usually refer to work in process as cases in process.

How well this inventory is managed – managing what is in front of you rather than what is behind you is a critical component of financial management and has a major impact upon the profitability of the firm. However, this responsibility falls primarily to the attorneys responsible for the matters. However, in your capacity as administrator you can provide the reports and oversight to help keep them on course.

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

 

 

Oct 31, 2018


What Law Firms Must Do to Remain Competitive in the Internet Age

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a twelve attorney family law firm in Kansas City, Missouri. We have been in practice going on thirty years. Over the last ten years we have shifted more of our advertising from print directories and advertising to the internet. Today virtually all of our work comes from the internet. While to some extent this has been a blessing it has also been a curse as we must continue to make investments in search engine optimization, update the website, pay to be included in online directories, etc. It is a vicious circle and we are losing business to new attorneys just starting out that are putting up first class websites and making online investments.  I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

The internet as well as advances in information technology has and will continue to be the key driver forcing change in the legal marketplace as well as other segments and our daily lives as well. Shopping malls are disappearing from our communities and department stores are struggling for survival. Being the king of the hill or the biggest is not the strategic advantage that it once was. The internet is leveling the playing field in many industries as well as law firms.  There are new opportunities and new competitors. Consider the following:

  1. Everything is being commoditized. More practice areas are moving down the value curve and prices are becoming more price sensitive.
  2. Disintermediation of traditional delivery channels. The internet provides new access to information and is eliminating the middleman. It is impacting how we shop, bank, conduct business, and pay our credit cards and taxes. It is also impacting how clients locate and select lawyers and how legal services are delivered.
  3. Our society is becoming – more and more – a DIY (Do it Yourself) nation.
  4. Lawyers competitors are just a click away whether they be legal process outsourcing providers (LPO) in India, other lawyers in your state – but further away and servicing clients remotely, legal publishers, or online form providers.
  5. New client opportunities for your may also be just a click away.

Challenges and Questions to Think About

  1. How do you deal with commoditized transactions?
  2. How do you tie yourself to your client in an online world?
  3. How do you compete with new models and approaches to the delivery of legal services?
  4. How do you compete with virtual law firms?
  5. Would you consider adding a online delivery component to your traditional brick and mortar practice?
  6. Should you consider other practice areas?
  7. Should you consider expanding your geographical reach in areas where you are licensed and other areas by forming relationships with licensed attorneys in those areas.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. For your practice area you should continue what you are doing and maximize your online and electronic marketing investments.
  2. Online reviews are becoming more and more important. Have a protocol in place that asks clients for reviews upon completion of their matter. Make it easy for them by providing them with appropriate online links.
  3. Your website does not do enough to demonstrate expertise. I do not see any evidence of attorneys publishing any articles, serving on law related committees, or chairing such committees pertaining to family law. There are no testimonials from past clients or others on the website. Get your attorneys writing articles, get them published where you can, and get them posted to your website. Get testimonials from past clients and referral sources and post them to your website. Also get your attorneys involved in bar and other law related associations. Do more to build the brand of the firm and the individual attorneys. Many of my family law firm clients still receive a bulk of their business from past client referrals and referrals from other attorneys.
  4. Consider satellite offices in some of the suburban communities in Missouri and Kansas. I have family law firm clients that have been quite successful with multiple offices – staffed and not staffed.

Even in the age of the internet expertise, professionalism, and reputation is important. Do all you can to convey this through your website and your initial communications with clients.

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

Jan 23, 2018


Client Satisfaction Surveys in Law Firms

Question: 

Our firm is a seventeen attorney firm is San Diego. We are a boutique business litigation firm and we represent companies of all sizes. We represent several Fortune 500 companies. I am a member of our three member marketing committee and during our last meeting one of our members suggested that we consider a formal survey of our clients. What are your thoughts regarding client satisfaction surveys? Is this something we should consider?

Response: 

Personally, I believe that if you represent institutional clients such as yours, that soliciting feedback from clients and acting on that feedback is one of the best marketing/client development investments that a firm can make. During a recent client satisfaction telephone interview with a corporate client of a law firm a client told me, “If our lawyers would pay just a little more attention to us, take us to lunch once in a while – without billing for the time . . .if they would treat us like they care … I’d give them all of our business in the entire state of California.” Statements of this sort are not at all uncommon in client satisfaction interviews. Of all investments of a  firm’s marketing budget, none is as cost effective as a client satisfaction survey.

A law firm’s existing clients are important source of continuing and new business for the firm. The most efficient way to bring in business is to sell additional work to existing clients.

Surveying the firm’s clients is an effective method of monitoring satisfaction. It is the first step towards improving client relations and increasing revenue from the current client base. A well-designed client satisfaction survey can help a firm do the following:

For firms that represent institutional clients I believe that structured telephone interviews are the best survey method.

I have had situations where law firm clients have advised me that they had stopped sending files to the firm due to a relationship issue with a particular partner and the law firms, after being appraised of the issues, were able to resolve the problem and repair the relationship.

There are several articles on our website – see links below – that discuss client satisfaction survey programs and how to get started.

Click here for our blog on client service

Click here for our article on client satisfaction

Click here for our article on client surveys 

Click here for our article on analyzing survey results

Click here for our article on developing your client service improvement plan

Click here for our article on tips for rewarding and recognizing employees

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

 

Feb 14, 2017


Law Firms Moving to the Cloud

Question: 

Our firm is a twelve-attorney business litigation firm in Sacramento, California. I am one of three members on our technology committee. Our IT infrastructure consists of an in-house Microsoft file server, a separate Microsoft Exchange e-mail server, document management as well as time billing and accounting software. Our documents are stored locally and managed by the locally installed document management software. Several of our partners have talked with other firms that are operating totally in the cloud. We would appreciate your thoughts on whether moving to the cloud is something that we should consider?

Response: 

It would be interesting to know the size of firms that your partners have been talking with. I am seeing many solo and very small firms operating completely in the cloud using cloud-based time and billing applications such as Clio, Rocket Matter, and QuickBooks online with their e-mail hosted using Microsoft Office 365. Some are using products such as DropBox and Microsoft One Drive to store their documents in the cloud. These billing applications do not provide the functionality and reporting that larger firms require and as a result larger firms are still using systems that firms have been using for years. Some firms that are using these systems are having them hosted in the cloud. These firms have no premises file servers. All of their data is hosted in the cloud – applications, documents, and e-mail. (Note this is different that cloud-based applications).

Firm’s your size are taking a more cautious approach to moving to the cloud. Many firms have large investments in their existing hardware and software and also have concerns about security and confidentiality issues. While it is tempting to look to the cloud as our savior from constant hardware and software upgrades as well as IT providers, moving to the cloud should not be explored without doing your homework.

Personally, I believe that in many cases the cloud may be more secure than the security that exists in many law firms on premises systems. Law firms and law departments are increasingly adopting the cloud. Fifty-six percent of the Am Law 200 firms polled in the Partnership Perspectives Survey use some form of cloud computing and 47 percent of those polled in the 2016 ITLA/InsideLegal Technology Purchasing Survey predicted that over a quarter of their firm’s software and service offerings could be cloud-based in the next one to three years. Sixty-one percent of small firms polled in the ILTA survey said that over half of their firm’s software could be cloud-based in the next one to three years.

Here are my thoughts and suggestions:

  1. Don’t rush off without doing due diligence on the application or hosting vendor. Checkout their security both while your data is in transit and at rest on their computers. Read all their whitepapers and contracts. Check references.
  2. Be careful of implmenting existing billing and accounting cloud-based applications. You may be going backwards until these systems mature and incorporate many of the features and reporting needed by larger firms.
  3. Don’t go with the new kid on the block. Insure that you go with a vendor that has staying power in the market.
  4. Take baby-steps – you might want to start with:
    1. Having your e-mail hosted.
    2. Later – implement a cloud-based document managment system.
    3. Later – have your existing billing and accounting applications hosted with a cloud provider.
  5. See where the time-billing and accounting cloud-based applications are in a few years and whether you should consider moving to such a system.

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

 

 

 

Dec 08, 2015


Law Firm Merger – How Do Firms Handle Integration of Assets

Question:

I am the managing partner of our six attorney civil litigation firm in Lexington, Kentucky. We are in the early stages of merger discussions with a fourteen attorney firm in Lexington. My partners have asked me how other firms integrate their assets when the merger become effective.  We would appreciate your thoughts?

Response:

A variety of approaches are often taken in upstream mergers.

One approach is to transfer all of the assets and liabilities to the other firm and receive a credit to your capital accounts for the value of the contributed assets/liabilities with a check from the other firm if the value of the assets contributed exceed the required capital contribution based upon the ownership shares that you are being offered in the merged firm.

The more common approach that I see taken in upstream mergers is for the smaller firm to retain the firm cash accounts, accounts receivable, work in process, and sell the fixed assets (furniture and equipment) to the other firm for cash or receive a capital account credit for the value of the fixed assets contributed. If additional capital is required, each partner would write a check to the merged firm for their capital contributions. Your existing firm would be responsible billing out old work in process and collecting old receivables and when the income is received these funds would be deposited in your existing bank accounts and entered in your old books. You firm would also be responsible for accounts payable and other liabilities that exit prior to the merger.

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Click here for our article on mergers

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

 

 

Aug 04, 2014


Law Firm Client Telephone Satisfaction Interviews in Insurance Defense Law Firms

Question:

I am the chair of our firm's marketing committee. We are a 24 attorney insurance defense firm in Houston. While we solicit feedback from some of our larger insurance company clients at lunch and face to face meetings – the sessions are not structured, data is not really tabulated, and only a handful of clients are usually involved. We have been thinking of embarking on a more structured process. I would appreciate your thoughts:

Response:

Our firm recently completed client satisfaction interviews for several of our insurance defense law firm clients. Here are a few quotes and a summary of what these insurance company law firm clients told us:

Much can be learned by talking to your clients. Structured telephone interviews conducted by a neutral in-house law firm marketing employee or outside third party can provide many surprises as well as answers. Client satisfaction interviews can be the best marketing investment that you can make.

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

 

Jul 22, 2014


Law Firm Attorney Retirement – How Law Firms Are Coping With Aging Attorneys

Question:

I am the Director of Administrator in a 45 attorney law firm in Miami. Twenty of these attorneys are partners and ten of the partners are in their late fifties and mid to late sixties. While we have a semi-retirement program in place it is not mandatory and many of our senior attorneys are unwilling to address issues pertaining to succession and transition of their practices. Do you have any thoughts or ideas you can share regarding creating incentives for senior attorneys to address and deal with the issue of retirement?

Response:

Larger law firms are moving away from mandatory retirement. However, many large law firms still have mandatory retirement. According to a recent survey approximately 57% of law firms with over 100 attorneys have mandatory retirement programs. At the other end of the spectrum many smaller firms that never had mandatory retirement are beginning to incorporate some form of mandatory retirement in their agreements. In firms of all sizes and whether they have mandatory retirement programs or not – getting senior attorneys to deal and cope with aging is a challenge. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Begin planting seeds to get senior attorneys thinking about retirement and the next stage of their lives.
  2. Conduct educational programs designed to help senior attorneys visualize their retirement years.
  3. Help provide senior attorneys with a reason to want to retire.
  4. Provide career life coaching services to senior attorneys and help them develop other interests and hobbies.
  5. Help senior attorneys develop individualized retirement/succession plans.
  6. Provide financial incentives to those that retire by say age 70 in payout agreements.
  7. Implement phased retirement/wind-down options/approaches.
  8. Consider optional roles in the firm for senior attorneys after they retire and surrender their equity interests.
  9. Insure that the firm has in place competency/peer reviews for all attorneys including senior partners and Of Counsel attorneys.
  10. Insure that the firm has a program that effectively deals with underperforming attorneys.

Aging is a difficult time for all of us and it is normal not to want to think about age related issues much less to begin planning. Your role will be to help senior attorneys take baby steps and come to terms with aging in general.

Click here for our blog on succession

Click here for out articles on various management topics

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

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