Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Growth

Feb 20, 2019

Law Firm Growth – Is Growth Always the Best Strategy


I am the sole owner of a five-attorney litigation firm in Mesa, Arizona. I started the firm twelve years ago after leaving a large firm where I worked for a very large national firm in Phoenix. I was an income partner in that firm. For a few years I operated as  a solo with a legal assistant. Then I began adding associates and staff. Now we have me and four associates, a office manager/bookkeeper, two paralegals, and two legal assistants. Our annual gross fee revenues are around 1.2 million, the overhead is high, my net income is not all that much more than what I was making as a solo. My associates aren’t willing to put in the time to generate the billable hours that we need and then there is the time and stress of managing all of this. Is growth a good thing?


Not always – depends upon your goals and your area of practice. If your area of practice is a low billable rate ($150-$175 per hour) practice area such as insurance defense or municipal law, it will be difficult to reach a desirable personal income level without associate attorney leverage. However, if you are in a practice area with bill rates of $300 to $500 per hour you may be able to attain the personal income levels that you desire without associate leverage and growth. It all depends upon your personal income goals, your ability to support and handle the work that you have, and your ability and desire to manage a group of attorneys.

Growth requires that you manage others as well as yourself. More office space is required – more overhead to support the additional people. Growth puts a strain on cash flow and requires additional working capital. A new set of skill sets (people skills) is now required.

Some Lawyers Never Develop the Skills Needed or Desire to Go to This Level and Firm Growth is Restricted as a Result.

I refer to this phase as Sole Owner Phase. I have client law firms in this phase than consist of an attorney owner, a handful of employed associates, paralegals, and staff. These firms may have 3 to 4 people or ten or more. I have sole owner law firms with over 100 employed attorneys and staff. I work with other sole owners that choose to remain solo (without other attorneys) and are quite successful. It all comes down to what you are comfortable with.

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



Jan 29, 2019

Law Firm Structure and Growth


I am the administrator with a firm in Buffalo, New York. We have fourteen attorneys – seven partners and seven associates. We are an eat-what-you kill law firm. All the partners have to weight in and agree on any and all management decisions. Our management team consists of “all partners”. While I have been hired as the administrator to management the firm, I have very little authority to do anything. The partners all have the freedom to do as they please and there is very little accountability to each other. Recently we have been discussing the pros and cons of why we might want to change our governance and overall structure. I would be interested in your thoughts.


I believe that law firms that are “firm first” team based firms and organized along these lines have (or will have) a competitive advantage with respect to clients, legal talent, and merger partners. As law firms grow the “lone ranger” confederation approach no longer works. Decision-making is too time consuming, partner time is wasted, and opportunities are missed. Synergy (where one plus one equals three or four) is not achieved and the firm achieves little more than any one of the attorneys could achieve in solo practice.

Recently I was working with a similar size firm in Chicago that was looking for a merger partner. When the other firm learned that my client was a “lone ranger” firm they discontinued discussions. Larger firms that are “team-based” are not interested in merging with “long ranger” firms – they tend to cherry pick key talent from these firms rather than pursuing mergers or combinations.

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

Mar 28, 2018

Law Firm Growth Planning


I am a partner in a six lawyer firm in Jackson Mississippi. There are three partners and three associates in the firm. The firm is a insurance defense litigation firm. Our firm has been at its present size for many years, revenues have been flat, and profits have been shrinking. The partners have been discussing the pros and cons of growth and we would like to significantly grow the practice. A couple of our insurance company clients have asked us to open offices in other states and we are giving this consideration. Initially, we would open two other offices and we anticipate that this would require us to hire six additional attorneys. We appreciate any thoughts that you have.


This is a huge step and I suggest that you give it careful thought. Here are a few of the issues you should consider:

  1. Firm Size – opening two branch offices and hiring six additional attorneys all at once is a major undertaking. This would double your firm size. A twelve attorney firm is quite different that a six attorney firm and requires a different approach to management, structure, etc. This would tough enough if the expansion were not in remote offices but in remote offices I believe the growth is too aggressive. I would start with one branch office and phase in the work and attorneys. Hopefully, you have a commitment from more than one client to send you work for a given location.
  2. Branch Office Staffing – staffing the office, especially with attorneys, will be a major issue. Unless you have attorneys in your office now that are licensed in these states you are going to have to hire local talent. How will you integrate the cultures of the two firms, prevent the remote offices from operating as separate silos, and keep the new offices from splitting off in a few years and starting a competing firm. Quality attorney talent will be hard to find and those that you do find will be reluctant to want to work for a small firm with no footprint in the local area. It is always preferable to staff a branch office, at least initially, with attorneys from the home office.
  3. Structure and Management – a larger firm will require a more sophisticated structure and approach to management. Will the attorneys hired for the remote offices be partners or associates? Will you need to create a non-equity tier? Who will manage the remote offices? Will you need to hire a firm administrator?
  4. Cash Flow – Growth will put a strain on the firm’s cash flow and will require additional working capital. Your partners will have to invest additional capital or the firm will have to take on debt.
  5. Systems – Growth will require you to examine your IT systems and software that you are currently using. They may not be sufficient. Consider how you will connect the computer system of the main office to the remote offices. How will phone systems be connected?
  6. Policies and Procedures – policies, procedures, and protocols will need to be developed and documented.
  7. Compensation – You present attorney compensation system may no longer be adequate. Consider whether a new approach will be required to attract new attorney talent.
  8. Financial Management – Your approach to financial management may need to be more formal that it is now. Budgeting will be a necessity.
  9. Facilities – Office space will have to be located and leases signed unless you start out with an executive suite type of arrangement, such as a Regus office. There are pros and cons to starting this way. One the one hand it provides a low risk way to enter a new market but on the other hand it signals that you are not committed to the market and you have just one toe in the water.

These are just a few of the issues that you will need to consider. Do your homework and due diligence on this before you jump feet first.

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




Nov 22, 2017

Law Firm Growth – Partnership/Merger


I am the sole owner of a six attorney energy law practice in Houston. I have had my practice for twenty years and have enjoyed the independence of being the boss but I am tired of being solely accountable for the success of the practice, having to do all the management, and having all the worry and stress. I believe I have reached the point where I am ready for a partner or partners and I believe that the practice can be positioned for growth if I bring in a lateral partner, make a couple of my associates partners, or merge with another firm. I welcome any suggestions that you may have.


Whether you bring in a lateral partner, elevate your associates to partnership, or merge this will be a major step for you and you will need to do some serious soul searching. Here are some general thoughts:

Partnership is like a marriage. You must marry the right person or persons. Most partnerships that fail do so as a result of partnering up with the wrong partners. Compatibility is critical. Consider:

  1. Long term goals of both parties
  2. Work ethic computability
  3. Common interests
  4. Money and compensation

Thinking of merging? Research indicates that 1/3 to 1/2 of all mergers fail to meet expectations due to cultural misalignment and personnel problems. Don’t try to use a merger or acquisition as a life raft, for the wrong reasons and as your sole strategy. Successful mergers are based upon a sound integrated business strategy that creates synergy and a combined firm that produces greater client value than either firm can produced alone. Right reasons for merging might include:

  1. Improve the firm’s competitive position. Increase specialization – obtain additional expertise.
  2. Expand into other geographic regions.
  3. Add new practice areas.
  4. Increase or decrease client base.
  5. Improve and/or solidify client relationships.

Reasons for wanting to merge and your objectives. Ask yourself the following questions?

  1. Do you want to practice in a large firm? If not, what is the largest firm that you would want to practice in?
  2. What is driving the desire to merge?
  3. If the desire to merge is being driven by a desire to retreat from internal problems – what have you done to address these issues internally?
  4. Is your name being part of the firm name important to you?
  5. What are your expectations and objectives for a merger?
  6. What are you looking from a merger partner?
  7. Make sure that you look for a complimentary fit. If you are weak in firm leadership, management and administration – look for a partner that is strong in these areas. Strong leadership, management, and administration may be hard to find in a firm under 25 attorneys.

Partnering up with others can be a great move for you if you make the right people partners for the right reasons or merge with the right people for the right reasons. Due your due diligence and your homework.

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


Aug 31, 2016

Law Firm Lateral Growth Strategy – One Plus One Equals Three


Our firm is a sixteen lawyer firm – eight partners and eight associates located in Memphis. We handle business transactional work and litigation for small to mid-size companies. However, for the past forty years our mainstay has been small community banks. With recent bank mergers and new banking regulations our banking business has dropped off significantly. We have reached a desperate stage and we must replace this business quickly or consider possible dissolution. We have talked with a possible lateral partner that has a $300,000 book of debtor bankruptcy business. Is adding a lateral partner a good strategy for us?


Lateral partner acquisition is a growth strategy being used by many firms today. However, many lateral hires are not successful as a growth strategy. In a recent survey conducted by Lexis-Nexis and ALM Legal Intelligence only 28 percent of the respondent law firms found lateral partner acquisition a "very effective" strategy for growth.

I suggest you start with the following two questions:

  1. Does the lateral candidate's book of business fit within your strategic plan? If you do not have a strategic plan develop one. A strategic plan can be a useful guide in keeping the firm focused on the right opportunities. It can help the firm clarify the type of work that it does not do.
  2. Does One Plus One Equal Three. This question should be asked when considering any lateral or merger candidate. In other words is there is business case? How will the addition of the lateral result in more business than either the firm or the lateral currently has separately? Does the lateral have enough business to keep himself or herself busy plus a couple of associates?

I would question whether debtor bankruptcy fits within the firm's overall business strategy. I also don't believe a $300,000 book of business satisfied the one plus one equals three rule.

A lateral strategy may be a good strategy for the firm. However, I believe you need to expand your search and it may be difficult to attract candidates given your present financial situation.

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

Apr 05, 2016

Law Firm Debt – Impact of Debt and Other Liabilities Upon Future Growth Options


I am a member of a three member management committee of a 16 lawyer firm located in Akron, Ohio. We have 10 partners and 6 associates. Several of our partners are in their 50s and 60s. Recently, we have had discussions with a couple of potential merger partners and laterals and in all cases they have backed out advising us that they were uncomfortable with our balance sheet. What can we do to better position ourselves. We desperately need to bring in new talent with books of business?


First there are the obvious balance sheet items – bank debt, large tapped out credit lines, equipment leases and other liabilities. Then there are the items that are not recorded on the balance sheet – namely unfunded partner retirement buyouts and long term real estate leases. These are often major deal breakers in mergers and scare away laterals. If you have bank and other debt on the balance sheet work at cleaning it up. More importantly if you have unfunded partner buyouts begin either rethinking the desirability of these programs or begin funding this liability now with a goal of the liability being totally funded over the next five to seven years. Then shift to a retirement program that is totally funded. Unfunded partner retirement programs are becoming a thing of the past.

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


Oct 06, 2015

Law Firm Growth – Associate Hiring and Retention


Our firm is a two partner firm located in Rochester, MN. We have been approached by a solo practitioner that wants to sell us his practice. The price and terms seem fair but we are concerned about staffing and managing the other office. His practice consists of himself and two staff members. We would have to maintain a second office, hire an associate or two for the office, and then manage both operations. We have recently tried to hire an associate without success by reaching out to targeted lawyers that we knew in our local area. Frankly, acquiring this practice is a little daunting. We would appreciate your thoughts.


I believe the first issue is whether you are looking to grow the firm and are willing to undertake the additional management responsibilities that comes with growth. Some firms are ready for growth and others are not. Larger is not necessarily better. 

I would not let your unsuccessful associate hiring attempts discourage you from acquiring the practice if you desire to grow and the price and terms are acceptable. You may need to cast a wider net and be more focused in your efforts. Recently a two attorney firm in Mid-Missouri hired an associate from St. Louis. A two attorney firm in Central Kentucky hired an associate from Lexington, Kentucky. It may take some time but a concentrated recruiting effort usually pays off regardless where you are located – even in small communities. 

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



Sep 09, 2014

Law Firm Staffing and Growth Models – Lateral Partners & Of Counsel

Two weeks ago I was asked by the managing partner of a 16 attorney insurance defense firm about staffing and growth models for an insurance defense firm and I listed the following models and discussed the first model – grow your own associate staffing.

Attorney staffing/growth models include:

  1. Grow Your Own Associate Staffing
  2. Lateral Associate Staffing
  3. Contract – Staff Associate Staffing
  4. Lateral Partners (Equity or Non-Equity)
  5. Of Counsel (Various Approaches and Purposes)
  6. Mergers (Or Small Firm Acquisitions)
  7. Branching

This week I will outline the pros and cons for number 4 and 5 – Lateral Partners (Equity or Non-Equity) and Of Counsel.

Lateral Partners (Equity or Non-Equity


  1. Maybe a quicker way to increase profitability and cash flow.
  2. Allows the firm to acquire talent that it may not have time to grow or develop.
  3. Allows the firm to expand into new areas if the candidate has said experience and brings a book of business with him or her.


  1. Desired compensation may not fit within the firm's existing compensation structure.
  2. Clients may not come or materialize.
  3. May be issues with cultural fit.
  4. Costs may not be justified.

Of Counsel – Various Approaches and Purposes

  1. Allows the firm to acquire partner level talent, business, etc. without offering partnership.
  2. Provides the firm with a way to acquire a practice of someone wanting to retire.
  3. Provides the firm with a way to pilot test new lateral partner candidates and evaluate in a first-phase approach.
  4. Provides the firm with a way to partner with other firms.
  5. Provides a way for the firm to enter more new market areas.

Other models to be discussed in upcoming posts.

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



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