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Sep 25, 2019


Succession-Exit Options for Law Firm Solos

Question: 

I am a solo real estate practitioner in Long Beach, California. I have one paralegal that works in the firm. I am 70 years old a would like to retire in the next couple of years. What are my options?

Response:

Solo practitioners have the greatest challenge since they have no associates or anyone in place to transition the practice. Therefore, the practitioner must both hire and groom an associate that could buy the firm or become a partner and buyout the owner’s interests, sell the firm to another firm, or merge with another firm. Other options would be to become Of Counsel with another firm or simply close down the practice. This takes time.

Hiring and Grooming an Associate

Hiring and grooming an associate can be problematic for the solo. If he does not have sufficient business and the associate does not originate business, the associate will be an expense and the owner’s net earnings will suffer. Other issues include:

Sell the Firm to another Lawyer or Law Firm

The owner can sell the firm to another lawyer or law firm. This option works best when the practitioner is actually ready to retire and quit practicing. Often this is not the case and the restrictions on sale of law practice levied by a state’s rules of professional conduct, in particular Rule 1.17, may make this option undesirable. Locating desirable candidates will take time and a well-planned search process may have to initiated. Our experience has been that this can take a year or longer.

Solo practices are often very personal practices with little annual repeat business. Clients of law firms advise us that they hire the lawyer and not the law firm. This makes buyers very cautious due to their concern that the clients and referral sources will not stay and the revenues will not materialize after the owner sells the practice. Therefore, many buyers are not willing to pay cash for a law practice. Our experience has been that most of these practices are sold with payouts over time based upon a percentage of revenues collected over a certain number of years. Usually, the seller stays on in a consulting capacity for a year to help insure that clients and referral sources stay with the new owner.

Merger with another Firm

Merger with another lawyer or law firm is another option. This is often a better option for solos that want to gradually phasedown yet continue to practice for a few more years. In essence, they join another firm as either an equity or non-equity partner, member, or shareholder and subsequently retire from that firm under pre-agreed to terms for the payout. The odds are improved for clients and referral sources staying with the merged firm and the merged firm is more committed that a buyer might be under a payout arrangement based upon collected revenues. The solo practitioner has more flexibility with regard to the ability to continue to practice longer, reduced stress, additional support and resources, and gradual phasedown to retirement.

Of Counsel with another Firm

Forming an Of Counsel relationship with another firm is an option that many solos are taking. Sometimes it is a final arrangement where a solo winds down his or her practice and then joins another firm as an employee or independent contractor. He or she is paid a percentage of collected revenue under a compensation agreement with different percentages depending upon whether the practitioner brings in the business, services work that he or she brings in, or services work that the firm refers to the practitioner. In other situations, an Of Counsel relationship is used as a practice continuation mechanism that provides the solo with additional resources and support if needed. An Of Counsel relationship can also be used to “pilot test” a relationship prior to merging with another firm. We have had several law firm clients that has taken a phased approach to merger with Phase I being an Of Counsel “pilot test” exploratory arrangement and Phase II being the actual merger.

One option is not necessarily better than the other – much depends upon “fit” and individual circumstances as well as a little luck.

Click here for our blog on mergers

Click here for our blog on succession strategies

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

 

Aug 07, 2019


Listening to Law Firm Clients – Number One Marketing Initiative for Institutional Clients

Question: 

Our firm is a sixteen attorney insurance defense in Louisville, Kentucky. We represent approximately twenty-five insurance companies in property casualty and personal injury cases. We handle products liability and medical malpractice cases as well. Our firm is in second generation and all of the founding partners have retired. Virtually all of our clients were inherited and none of the existing partners have brought in any new clients since the founding partners retired eight years ago. While we are trying to do what we can to cultivate new clients we want to insure that we retain our existing clients and don’t have any client defections. Do you have any suggestions?

Response: 

We have done numerous client satisfaction interviews with law firm insurance company clients. The category where most firm rank the lowest is understanding clients needs. For law firms one way of achieving a competitive advantage is to have a better understanding of the wants and needs of clients than does the competition. This understanding comes from an open dialog with your clients. In other words ask them.

Recently I had a law firm client who’s business was suffering due to the client’s operations shifting to adjacent states. The firm was considering an additional office location to serve these clients and was debating where and how to locate this office. I advised, why don’t we ask the clients. In our interviews we asked this question and the clients told us where their needs were and where to locate the office. It was not where the law firm was thinking of locating. Six months later a mini merger was done in the location where the clients advised us there needs were.

This is best accomplished by having an ongoing systematic structured client feedback system that tracks client preferences, desires, and requirements. Here are a few ways that this can be accomplished:

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

Jun 19, 2019


Burning Issues for a New Law Firm Owner Starting Firm After Leaving BigLaw

Question: 

I have recently started a law firm in the suburbs of New Orleans after leaving a large law firm in the city. I was a non-equity partner in the firm and had worked for the firm for fifteen years. I worked in the estate planning group and handled complex estate planning matters for wealthy individual clients. Much of the business was referred to the firm by large bank trust departments. I have been promised referrals from some of these banks. I had other referral sources as well that will be sending business. The focus of my practice will be exclusively on complex estate planning for wealthy clients. A paralegal and an associate from the firm will be coming with me. During my career my focus has been on practicing law and not running a business. What are some of the challenges and burning issues that I will face?

Response: 

You are starting with the advantage of probably having grown up with excellent training and mentoring that larger firms are capable of providing. As a result you probably have an excellent skill set and it sounds like you have learned how to get business and have developed referral relationships. However, you also have been accustomed to firm management and other resources that will not be available to you in a smaller firm. You will have to get your hands dirty and handle much more of the firm management and administrative functions than you had to do in the larger firm.

Some of the challenges and burning issues that will keep you awake at night will probably include:

  1. Hiring, training, motivating, compensating, and retaining attorneys and staff – both those that initially join you and future hires. Small firms often cannot afford to provide the level of compensation and benefits that larger law firms and other businesses provide. You must creative and use other carrots such as flexibility, work-life balance, etc. to be competitive.
  2. Additional sources of business. Even though you have promises from past referral sources to send you business the business may not materialize from these sources for various reasons. You must be prepared to proactively marketing your practice. A content-rich website, client seminars, and additional referral source development should be at the top of your list.
  3. Cash flow will be a challenge and issue, at least initially. Insure that your have sufficient working capital to start your firm and access to adequate credit lines if you need them. Obtain retainers from clients upfront, stay ahead on retainer replenishment, and bill promptly. Watch your spending but focus on revenue generation.
  4. Balancing your time between servicing clients and managing the practice. In your prior firm your primary mission was to practice law and serve clients. Now, as the sole owner of a law firm, you will also have management and administrative responsibilities. Your time between these two areas will require careful balance – neither can be neglected. While you can eventually hire some help you can never relinquish total responsibility for running the business.
  5. Development of systems. Processes and procedures will need to be documented in office policy and procedures manuals. Computer hardware and software will need to be acquired and implemented. There will need to be oversight over these systems. You should at least have a “top level” understanding of these systems.
  6. Client demands. Client demands and workloads can often take a toll on new owners. There will a time will your will be so busy you would like to hire additional help but not so busy that you are ready to or can justify doing so.

These are just a few of the challenges and burning issues that others from BigLaw starting their own practice have discussed with us.

Good luck with the launch of your practice.

Click here for our blog on strategy

Click here for our blog on profit improvement

Click here for articles on other topics

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

Jun 05, 2019


Law Firm Partnership Tiers – Different Qualifications For Equity and Non-Equity Partners

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a six lawyer firm in Nashville, Tennessee. There are two partners in the firm, myself and another partner, and we have four associate attorneys. Two of our associates have been with firm for over ten years. We are trying to put in place a career progression policy for them and we are thinking about having a non-equity and equity tier which would serve as a prerequisite to equity partnership. What are the differences between the expectations and requirements for non-equity and equity partner?

Response: 

The main difference between an equity partner and non-equity or income partner is that the equity partners assumes a higher degree of capability in a lot of areas, not just good lawyering. Equity partners are expected to develop business, to manage large client relationships, and to have a level of commitment that allows them to do all of that and maintain a very full practice load at the same time. Non-equity or income partners are generally lawyers that are excellent lawyers in his or her field but doesn’t satisfy the other requirements required of equity partners. In addition, equity partners usually invest capital in the firm and assume the risks of the office lease, credit line, and other liabilities. Non-equity partners usually have guaranteed salaries and equity partners do not.

Here are a few of the typical hurdles that are required to move up to equity partner:

The primary difference is non-equity partners focus is on lawyering and the focus of equity partners is on lawyering and being a businessperson as well – practicing law and managing a business.

Click here for our partnership blog

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

Dec 19, 2018


Strategic Planning Retreat – Need for Specific Action Plans

Question: 

Our firm is an eight-attorney firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. We have been together for fourteen years. There are four partners and four associates in the firm. Over the years we have traditionally had a year-end attorney planning retreat with limited success. This year we have decided that we want to dedicate the entire time to developing a strategic plan for the firm. What can we do to ensure that our strategic plan leads to actual implementation?

Response: 

Implementation should be planned in the retreat and the strategic plan itself. One of the biggest problems that firms have with strategic planning retreats and strategic plans is they end up on the shelf and there is no accountability for implementation.

Be sure you come away from the retreat with a strategic plan that includes an action plan section with  a specific plan for follow-up on every strategy/action plan item. Specific strategic plan action items should be broken down into specific tasks. It is critical that individual task assignments and target dates for reporting and completion be made explicit. These assignments should be documented in the strategic plan action plan section and in the retreat minutes or notes. In addition, a system of post retreat follow-up meetings to access progress is suggested to maintain the momentum achieved at the strategic planning retreat.

Many firms benefit by incorporating specific strategic planning action items on a firm master calendar as well as individual calendars and review progress quarterly.

Click here for our blog on strategy

Click here for articles on other topics

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

Oct 10, 2018


Law Firm Merger as an Exit Strategy for Sole Owners

Question: 

I am the owner of a small general practice firm in Novato, California. I have three associates working in the firm, three legal assistants, and one office manager/bookkeeper. I started my practice thirty-five years ago right out of law school. I am sixty years old and wanting to retire within the next five years. None of my associates have the ability or the desire to take over the firm. I believe that my best option is to sell my practice to another practitioner or join another firm through merger or other arrangement. I would appreciate your ideas regarding merging with another firm and how I would be compensated and receive payment for the goodwill value of my firm.

Response: 

Merger or an of counsel arrangement are approaches that many sole owner firms are taking when there is no one on board that is capable or willing to buyout your interest. Often merger or of counsel arrangements look very similar in how they are structured. Typically, the owner joining another firm:

Employees that the new firm has accepted would join the new firm and receive compensation and benefits spelled out in the merger or Of Counsel agreement.

How the arrangement will be structured and how compensation/buy-out will be structured will depend upon the size of the other firm. I assume that you will be looking at a firm similar to your size or a little larger (1-20 attorneys). If this is the case and if the arrangement is structured as a merger you would more than likely be classified as a non-equity partner and not an equity partner. While the other firm could pay you in the same manner that other non-equity partners are paid, often a special compensation arrangement is developed where you are paid a percentage of your collections and if you are lucky a referral fee arrangement for your client origination’s for two or three years after your retirement – typically twenty percent. In many cases if will be difficult to get a goodwill value payment and impossible in mergers or Of Counsel arrangements with large firms.

Another option would be an outright sale to another sole owner or small firm for a fixed price for the goodwill value of your firm and any assets the firm desires to acquire. More than likely this would be with an initial down payment and payments over a three to five-year period. Typically, practice sale agreements have provisions whereby the purchase price can be reduced if revenues fall below a certain level.

Click here for our blog on succession/exit strategies

Click here for our blog on compensation

Click here for our blog on mergers

Click here for articles on other topics

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

Feb 14, 2018


Compensation Ideas for Law Firm Staff – Goal Bonuses

Question: 

I am the firm administrator with a ten attorney firm in Long Beach, California. I really enjoyed reading your blog – Law Firm Compensation – Bonuses for Staff, dated December 27, 2016.  

I really like your approach of tying bonuses to measurable outcomes. Have you used other approaches other than percentage of salary? Can you give additional examples of specific goals that would be appropriate for a bookkeeper, office manager, or firm administrator?

Response: 

Research and experience tells us that employment expect the following five things from management:

  1. Mutual agreement as to what is expected.
  2. The opportunity to exercise his or her ability.
  3. Feedback on his or her performance.
  4. Direction when needed.
  5. Reward – compensation in equal measure to his or her contribution to the firm.

The problem with staff employee is quantifying and measuring performance so that bonuses are not “Santa Clause” bonuses. A bonus system tied to measurable goals/objectives can, as outlined in my earlier blog, eliminate the problem of bonuses being considered by employees as an entitlement.

Other approaches that some of my law firm clients have used is to develop a limited laundry list of goals with a specific dollar amount tied to each goal for specific positions such a bookkeeper, firm administrator, etc. Typically, there is a cap on how much can be earned per year – 5% – 10% of salary. At the beginning of each year the employee selects the goals that they plan on working on for the upcoming year, obtains approval from his or her supervisor, and both parties sign off on a goal plan for the year. The goals must be SMART goals. Bonuses are paid as goals are completed.

Here are some additional examples:

Bookkeeper 

  1. Reduce accounts receivable over 90 days by 25%
  2. Write and implement an accounting manual by December 31 of this year.

Firm Administrator 

  1. Manage the firm within the approved expense budget for the year.
  2. Reduce staff turnover during the year by 25% below an average of the past three years turnover history.
  3. Reduce headhunting fees for staff by 40% below an average of the past three years.
  4. Write and implement an Employee Handbook by December 31 of this year.
  5. Implement a new time and billing system by December 31 of this year within time and cost budget.

The key to the goals is that they are important to the firm and are measurable.

Click here for our blog on compensation

Click here for articles on other topics

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

Jan 31, 2018


Law Firm Leadership – Profile for a Legal Administrator for an Eight Attorney Firm

Question: 

Our firm is an eight attorney estate planning firm in the Chicago area. Our firm has grown from two attorneys to our present size in four years. We have five partners and three associates. Currently management is handled by a managing partner. The partners have been discussing hiring a legal administrator. We were thinking of hiring someone with experience in managing law firms and a solid background in human resources and bookkeeping/accounting. One of our clients suggested that we hire someone with a strong academic background, MBA, CPA type that has served as the CEO of a mid-size corporation. What are your thoughts?

Response: 

I think you are too small to justify hiring a person with this background that is currently employed in such a role. Such a person would be unaffordable and if you could locate such a person your firm would probably be a stepping stone until they find a position elsewhere. If you were able to find someone that is retired and willing to work in a small firm setting that could be a possibility. Another option would be to hire someone that has served as CEO, COO, or CFO of a smaller company – with or without MBA, CPA designation. You could also look for an experienced legal administrator that has worked in a larger firm – possibly with a CPA or MBA. Again affordability will be an issue as well as long term retention. Personally, at your current size I think you should look for someone with BA or MBA degree in business, with a strong background in accounting and human resources, and experience as an administrator in a law or other professional services firm such as an accounting firm, consulting firm, engineering firm. Look for someone that has worked in a firm with 15-35 attorneys/professionals. Be careful of applicants that have worked in very large firms – i.e. 50+ attorney firm for example, as they may only stay a short while in a firm your size and move on to a larger firm when a position becomes available. They may also not be the “hands on jack of all trades” administrator that you need in a firm your size.

Click here for our blog on governance 

Click here for articles on other topics

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.

Click here for our blog on marketing

Click here for articles on other topics

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

 

Oct 31, 2017


Law Firm Strategy – What is a Strategy for a Law Firm?

Question: 

We are an Oklahoma City law firm of seventeen attorneys – ten of which are partners. Our firm does a little of everything. We have a three-member management committee of which I am a member. The firm was founded by four of the present partners twenty-two years ago. For many years the firms was very successful, however for the last five years financially we have been hard pressed and we have been stagnant. We have been discussing what to do about the situation. One of our partners suggested marketing and another suggested that we needed a new strategy. We do not have a marketing plan and I didn’t know we even had a strategy. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

A strategy is the firm’s decision on what services to sell, to whom to sell these services, and on what basis to sell these services. In other words a law firm must determine what legal services to be provided, to which clients and in what geographic locations, and how these services will be differentiated from those provided by other law firms. Law firms can choose a broad or narrow range of clients. Law firms can compete either on the basis of price, quality of service, or expertise. Firms compete on price by charging lower fees than their competitors. If the firm’s clients perceive that the firm has unique advantages over its competitors in the way services are provided, then the firm is competing on the basis of quality of service. If the firm offers its clients a superior knowledge base, it is competing on expertise.

Your strategy or lack of a strategy has been broad. A narrower strategy is appropriate in today’s competitive legal marketplace.

Here are a few suggestions for narrowing your strategy:

  1. Commit to one mode of competition – price, quality of service, or expertise.
  2. Select a strategy compatible with industry conditions.
  3. Select a unique niche.
  4. Diversity practice area risks.
  5. Select a strategy compatible with the firm’s internal environment.
  6. Look for practice areas in which the client is at great risks.
  7. Turn away clients.

I suggest that you study up on the strategic planning process and engage all of your partners in the process and comes to terms with an appropriate strategy for your firm. Then develop a strategic plan and use as your roadmap for getting there.

Click here for our blog on strategy

Click here for articles on other topics

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

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