Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Nov 21, 2018


Client Feedback from Law Firm Clients

Question: 

I am the owner of a four attorney, myself and three associates, estate planning firm in Charleston, West Virginia. I spend the majority of my time managing the business and developing business and very little time servicing clients. This has been intentional as I enjoy the business aspects of the practice more than providing legal services. I conduct comprehensive written and face-to-face performance reviews with my associates annually and in real time as needed. These reviews are used as an associate performance management tool and a client service quality control tool. While the performance reviews include a performance rating category for client satisfaction I have no real way of determining client satisfaction. Do you have any thoughts on how to measure this?

Response: 

Much can be learned by soliciting feedback from your clients. Structured telephone interviews and other forms of surveys conducted by a neutral third party can provide many surprises as well as answers. Client satisfaction surveys can be the best marketing investment that you can make. In addition, client satisfaction surveys can be used to quantify and measure client satisfaction with individual attorneys in your firm.

Our law firm clients have found their clients to be impressed that the firm cares about their opinions. It is good business to listen to your clients. Understanding what bugs people about your services and those of your competition can be the most valuable input to strategy development you can get your hands on.

Many of our law firm clients that represent individual clients use a short two page survey document that is mailed or provided online at the conclusion of a matter. The survey poses a series of specific questions that addresses performance in several categories and rates performance on a 1-5 scale which allows a performance grade to be calculated for the firm and the attorney handing the matter. The survey also includes an area for comments. Paper surveys mailed back from clients are compiled in spreadsheets and a running score determined for the firm and individual attorneys.

If you use a paper survey mailed to clients I suggest:

  1. Send a cover letter with the survey attached with a postage paid return envelope.
  2. Thank the client for their business.
  3. Ask them to think of you again when they have future needs.
  4. Ask them to refer business to you.
  5. Ask them to complete the survey and return to your office.

A better approach, if your clients are e-mail and computer friendly is to use an online survey tool such as Survey Monkey and send clients an email with the contents listed above with a link to the online survey. Client feedback would automatically be compiled and would save you the cost and effort of mailing out surveys, postage, staff cost of compiling the surveys in a spreadsheet, and make it easier for clients.

Click here for our blog on client service

Click here for our article on client satisfaction

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Click here for our article on analyzing survey results

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

Aug 01, 2018


Law Firm Merger or Of Counsel Arrangement and Due Diligence Information from Larger Firm

Question: 

I am a solo practitioner in upstate New York and I hope to retire three years from now and move to Florida and spend my retirement years there with my family. I have been talking with a larger firm, twenty-attorneys, in Albany that has an interest in me either merger my practice with their firm or joining as Of Counsel. My plan would be to work three more years, gradually phase back, and transition clients and referral sources.

I have had several meetings with the partners in the firm and they are now asking me for detailed due diligence information – tax returns, financial statements, etc. I have no problem providing these documents however I was wondering if I should be asking them for information. What do you think?

Response:

I believe that you are entitled to similar due diligence information from the other firm. You need to see what you are getting into.

Usually the smaller firm gets less – but they should share some information with you as you have with them.

I would ask for the following from them (or discuss with them):

  1. Five years profit and loss statements, balance sheets and tax returns.
  2. Lawyer and staff headcount for each of those five years.
  3. Current hourly billing rates.
  4. Description of practice area mix of clients by dollars collected – practice type and office location.
  5. Description of how the firm bills (hourly, flat rate, contingency)
  6. Copy of all leases (office space, equipment)
  7. Copy of malpractice insurance policy and last application.
  8. Salaries and benefits for equity and non-equity partners.
  9. Any governance plan or agreements.
  10. Copies of all partnership agreements or operating agreements for all business entities.
  11. Any documents pertaining to the retirement of partners including information as to obligations for partners who have already retired and those nearing retirement.
  12. Compensation data for equity and non-equity partners.
  13. Copy of the written compensation plan for equity partners if one exists or if not a discussion of how the compensation system works.
  14. Information on the line of credit and copies of all debt agreements.
  15. Copies of third party vendor agreements (equipment leases, subscriptions)
  16. Copy of the firm’s present malpractice insurance policy and most recent application.
  17. List of benefits provided.

I presume that you all have discussed any potential client conflicts of interest, etc.

You need to zero in whether the arrangement is going to be a merger or Of Counsel arrangement. If the arrangement is to be an Of Counsel arrangement the firm will be less likely to be willing to share all the information on the list and you will have less need as well. However, I believe you should at least have the basic financial and compensation information.

Click here for our blog on mergers

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

 

Feb 06, 2018


Partner Withdrawal from a Law Firm

Question: 

I am a partner in a law firm in Walnut Creek, California with four other partners and three associates. We are a general practice firm and our clients are primarily individual clients. I have a good relationship with my other partners. I have decided to leave the firm and join a larger firm in San Francisco. I have notified my partners in writing of my intention to leave and they are supportive of my decision. Therefore, I anticipate a amicable withdrawal. Since this is the first time that a partner has left the firm for any reason we are not sure what the next step is. Please share with us any thoughts that you have.

Response: 

It sounds like you will be fortunate enough to have an uncontested withdrawal. Leaving a partnership takes planning and foresight. If your firm has a partnership, shareholder, or operating agreement your have a starting point. However, even if you have such an agreement, I have found that in most cases there are still a myriad of issues and details that still have to be resolved. You and your partners will still need to negotiate the terms for your withdrawal and ultimately sign a withdrawal or separation agreement. Your partners may be unhappy about certain issues, or in you leaving, but in the end, will do the right thing either because they have to or because they want to.

While there are a lot of moving parts and details to tend to the major issues that have to be resolved when a partner withdraws from a partnership involve:

I suggested you start by developing a project plan outlining all the tasks and sub-tasks with start dates, target completion dates, dates competed, and to whom is assigned to each of the tasks that are going to have to be accomplished. At the top of the list will be to negotiate a withdrawal or separation agreement that addresses the above issues and minimizes your risks and future liability. Here is a checklist you can use to get started:

  1. Review the firm’s current partnership, operating, or shareholder agreement to ensure that you follow any and all withdrawal requirements.
  2. Identify all assets and liabilities, on and off balance sheet, and come to an agreement with your partners on the status of those assets and liabilities and any ongoing responsibility that you may have.
  3. Identify all contracts, liens, mortgages and other obligatory documents that name you personally or where you otherwise act as a personal guarantee or surety.
  4. Based on the above information, negotiate withdrawal terms.
  5. Have yourself removed from all obligatory documents and/or where you a personal guarantee or surety.
  6. Draft a withdrawal agreement that documents everything, and have it executed properly by each of your partners.
  7. If there is a long-term commitment by the firm to you to pay you money over time, or retire some form of debt, consider mechanisms to enforce those commitments, including the right to audit or security interests.
  8. Make sure your name is removed from all firm formation documents, including to the Operating Agreement (for an LLC), Partnership Agreement, Shareholder Agreement or Bylaws, Corporate Register (if a C-Corp or S-Corp, Articles, and with the IRS, if your name was used as the responsible party when your FEIN was obtained.

Once you have a withdrawal agreement in place you can begin to address some of the other tasks that will have to be addressed. Review your state’s rules of professional responsibility concerning withdrawal – particularly those pertaining to client notification, conflicts of interest, etc.

Click her for our blog on partnership matters

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

 

 

 

 

 

Jul 20, 2016


Law Firm Compensation – Moving From an Eat-What-You-Kill System to a Totally Subjective System

Question:

I am a partner in a 20 attorney firm in San Francisco. We have five partners. Two of the five partners are founders and the other three were made partners five years ago. Our firm was started twenty years ago by two partners of our existing partners. From day one our compensation system has been an eat-what-you-kill compensation system based on a formula with two factors – working attorney collections and client origination. While the system worked okay for the founders, it is not working for the present firm. The newer partners are unhappy with the system and believe that it does not consider other factors that a partner contributes to the firm. Some of the partners are hoarding work, refuse to serve on committees, and don't want to do anything but bill. A couple of my partners suggested that we move to a totally subjective system. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

More and more firms are moving to more subjective based systems for some of the reasons that you have outlined – especially larger firms. Success of such a system is dependent upon the compensation committee that is put in place (typically a three- member committee elected by the partnership) and the level of trust that partners have in the partners serving on the committee. With only five partners you don't have a large enough partnership to put in place such a committee. It would have to be a committee of the five which would probably not be feasible. In addition, your culture may not be conducive at this time to such a system. Your founders have grown up under the present system and will more than likely resist such a formidable change. I suggest that you make some changes to the existing system and see how that works. For example:

  1. Include responsible attorney as well as working attorney and originating attorney fee collection in the equation with a possible weighting of 60% working attorney, 20% responsible attorney, 20% originating attorney.
  2. Factor in overhead or if not have a reduction provision for attorneys that are consuming un-fair share of overhead.
  3. Factor in effective rate/realization and reduce compensation for realization that is below a certain threshold.
  4. Setup a bonus pool (15% – 25% of firm net income) for exception performance decided by the five partners. If there is no exceptional performance or the partnership cannot agree the funds are cycled back into net income and distributed in accordance with the formula.
  5. Provide production credit or paid special compensation for serving on management committee or as managing partner.
See how modifications to the present system work and consider a subjective system down the road as the firm's partnership ranks gets a little larger.
 

 

Mar 22, 2016


Law Firm Partner Retirement Buyouts – How to Keep from Breaking the Bank

Question:

Our firm is a 14 lawyer firm in the Boston suburbs with 4 founding partners and 10 associates. Two of the partners are in their 50s and two are in their 60s. Several years ago we adopted a retirement buyout plan for the founding partners where each partner upon retirement is paid the balance of his cash-based capital account and a multiple of one times an average of his last three years earnings paid out over a five year period. I am concerned that when partners begin to retire the retirement payouts will place undue stress on operating funds and the firm's ability to continue to be successful. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

If nothing else you should consider a cap that places a limit on how much can be paid out in a single year where aggregate payments to all retired partners in any one year are capped at 10 percent or less of distributable net income. Any obligations that cannot be paid in one year as a result of the cap would be rolled forward to the next year also subject to the same cap.

Unfunded plans can present problems down the road if they become unaffordable for the next generation of attorneys as they have to be funded out of future earnings. You should look into ways to fund your partner's retirements as much as possible through 401k and other retirements plans, life insurance policies (on each of the partners that can fund the buyout in the event of death or where paid up cash values can be used upon retirement to apply toward buyouts, and sinking funds (Rabbi Trusts, etc.) where funds have been set aside out of current earnings.

We all have been witnessing what is happening with governmental unfunded pension programs. The same thing is happening with law firms that have unfunded retirement programs as baby boomers are retiring in record numbers.

Click here for our blog on succession

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

Dec 22, 2015


Law Firm Financial Management – Protecting the Firm from Employee Embezzlement

Question:

I am a partner in a eight attorney firm in downtown Chicago. Last week you participated in a discussion at an Illinois State Bar Association meeting where you indicated that four out of ten of you law firm clients have had an employee embezzlement at some time or another. I would appreciate any thoughts you may have on how we can protect ourselves.

Response:

Even though a firm trusts their accounting staff segregation of duties is appropriate and should be implemented in firms of all sizes. Here is an overview of such a system that we generally suggest:     

Internal Control is the plan of organization and all of the coordinate methods and measures adopted within a business organization to safeguard its assets, check the accuracy and reliability of its accounting data, promote operational efficiency, and encourage adherence to prescribed managerial policies.

The four basic elements considered essential in a satisfactory system of internal control are:

  1. A plan of organization that provides appropriate segregation of functional responsibility and duties.
  2. A system of authorization and record procedures adequate to provide reasonable accounting control over assets, liabilities, revenues, and expenses.
  3. Sound practices to be followed in performance of duties and functions of each of the organizational areas.
  4. A degree of quality of personnel (competency) commensurate with responsibilities.

Here is a link to an article outlining specific steps:

The goal is not to catch an employee that is stealing but to have a system of checks and balances in place so they will not even consider stealing.

Click here for our financial management topic blog

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

 

Jul 07, 2015


Law Firm Ownership – Acquiring a Founding Partner’s Interest – Question from a Reader

Question:

I have a quick question on a recent column of yours that appeared on last week's blog and Illinois State Bar Association (in an ISBA email).

You refer to the following:

“One to one and a half times the owner's average earnings for the past five years is typical. "Does this mean the total firm revenues or the amount the owner attorney received as income? I thought I have seen that multiplier to be on total firm revenue.

Thank you!

Response:

I was speaking in terms of net profit or earnings – not gross fee income.

It is true that we often speak in terms of a multiple of gross fee income when trying to value a firm. Typically a best case is a multiple of 1.0 – often less – .60 – .75 or even less. Downward adjustments are made to the multiple based upon practice risk, how high the overhead is, likelihood of clients or referral sources remaining etc. 

For example:

Law Firm A – has $1,000,000 in gross income and the net earnings of the owner is $600,00

 vs.

Law Firm B – is a collections practice – very high overhead intensive practice- has $1,000,000 in gross income and the net earnings is $150,000.

Using a multiple x gross has to be discounted substantially for law firm B due to risk, overhead, etc.

It is sometimes simpler to think in terms of net profit – with the typical ranges between 1.5 – 2.0.

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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