Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Is

May 29, 2019


Associate Attorney Productivity When Client Work is Slow

Question: 

Our firm is a sixteen attorney municipal law firm in Detroit with six partners and ten associates. Like most firms that do municipal work we must deal with lower billing rates than other firms charge. The volume of our work can also fluctuate at times. All of our work is billed by the hour and billable hours is our most important key performance indicator. Our associates have a billable hour expectation of 1800 annual billable hours and only two of our associates are even close to reaching 1800 hours. Some are not even reaching 1200 hours. Some of the associates have the excuse that they don’t have enough work. We do not believe that this is the case. I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Response: 

This seems to be a common issue. Failure to attain billable hour goals can be caused by any one or a combination of the following:

  1. Work ethic and simply not working enough “worked hours”
  2. Lack of work
  3. Poor time management habits
  4. Poor time keeping/recording habits

I would start by observing the number of worked hours they are putting in. Are the putting in the hours? Observe as well as review their time reports – billable and non-billable time. If you don’t track non-billable time start doing so. Then review and discuss with them their time management and time keeping/recording habits. Questions to ask include:

Review and discuss workload levels of each associate and determine if lack of work is an issue.

I have found that often the cause of the problem is a combination of some or all four of the above listed causes. Lack of work is often one of the causes. My question is then:

The firm should have an established protocol for assignment of work to associates and to whom the associate advises that he or she needs more work. When billable work is slow and not available the associate should be assigned non-billable firm or business development projects  such as developing document templates, writing articles, etc.

If the problem is work ethic appropriate consequences and disciplinary measures may be required.

If the problem is time management and time keeping training and habit building will be required.

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

 

 

 

Feb 20, 2019


Law Firm Growth – Is Growth Always the Best Strategy

Question: 

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?

Response: 

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

 

 

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.

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

Sep 22, 2015


Law Firm Budgeting – Is a Budget Necessary

Question:

I am the managing partner of our six attorney firm in Fresno, California. I recently went to a management seminar that stressed the importance of creating a budget for the firm. We currently do not have one. The budgeting process looks like a lot of work. Is it really worth the effort?

Response:

I believe that a revenue goal budget is the most important aspect of the budget and it does not take that much time to develop. It establishes revenue accountabilities for the revenue producers (attorneys). Insufficient revenue is the most common financial challenge that most law firms face.

While expenses are important and should be managed as well – the bulk of a law firm's expenses are office rent, employee cost, and in some firms marketing expenses. Most of these costs are fixed and once set in motion can't be managed.

Unless you have an office administrator that you want to hold accountable for managing the operations of the firm and the expense side of the ledger – you could start by just budgeting the revenue and see how that works for you. If you have an administrator a revenue and expense budget is important so that you can delegate and allow the administrator to manage operations without having to second guess each and every operational decision that they need to make. The budget provides the accountability tool.

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

Sep 30, 2014


Law Firm Capitalization – What is the Proper Level for Partner Capital Accounts

Question:

I am the chair of the finance committee for our firm – 17 attorney firm in Chicago. We have 6 equity partners in the firm. We are in the process of admitting a new equity partner and are reviewing our capital accounts and trying to determine our capital needs. I would appreciate your ideas and thoughts.

Response:

There are two categories of capital – short-term or working capital which is used to fund daily operations and long term capital which is used to pay for capital assets such as furniture and fixtures, computers and other office equipment. I guess I am old school but I believe that short term working capital should be funded as much as possible with partner capital and long term capital funded with bank borrowing or leases. I have more and more clients that are funding working capital with partner capital and have no bank debt at all. I have other clients that finance all working capital with their bank line of credit – these firms could find themselves in dire straits if bank credit should tighten in the future.

The amount of working capital needed by a firm depends upon your practice, billing and collection cycles, whether you do contingency fee work, and whether the firm is growing and adding attorneys and staff. As a rule of thumb I suggest that a firm have three times one month's expenses excluding draws in working capital. This would need to be increased if the firm has lengthy billing and collection cycles, does contingency fee work, and is in a growth mode.

Partner capital contributions are usually made proportionately based on partner earnings or ownership percentages.

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

Mar 25, 2014


Law Firm Associate and Non-Equity Partner Compensation: Is There a Cap or Ceiling?

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 16 attorney insurance defense law firm in Kansas City. We have two equity partners, four non-equity partners, and ten associates. Only the two equity partners bring in client business. Since our clients are insurance companies most of our work is new business from existing clients. Unlike other firms doing insurance defense work our billing rates are low and we have to put in a lot of billable hours and maintain a high ratio of associates and non-equity partners to equity partners.

In the past our associates stayed for a while and left after several years. As a result about the time they reached the higher compensation levels they left and we replaced them with lower cost associates. In the last few years – with the economy and the oversupply of lawyers – they are staying much longer. While we – the equity partners – want to be fair and are willing to share – we are concerned about our reducing profit margins and at what point an associate or non-equity partner's compensation is "maxed out." We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Law firms of all types of practice are experiencing this dilemma. The problem is even more evident in insurance defense firms where much of the work is routine discovery work that can be handled as well by an attorney with two years' experience as by an attorney with ten years' experience at lower cost. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Use the formula – 3 times salary as a general guide to determine where you are regarding working attorney fee production from each of your attorneys. If you are paying an associate or non-equity partner $100,000 a year salary you should be collecting $300,000. The goal is that 1/3 of each fee dollar goes to association of the attorney, 1/3 to overhead, and 1/3 to profit – this a 30% profit margin.
  2. Dig into your financials and determine your contribution to profit from each of your attorneys. Allocate all direct expenses and indirect overhead and calculate profit margin. Click here for an illustration on how to allocate overhead
  3. Profit margin should be between 25%-30%.
  4. Use the margin to establish a theoretical salary limit in absence of other contributions such as management, client origination, additional business from existing clients, etc.
  5. Cap salaries with the exception of periodic cost of living adjustments.
  6. Use a client or referral commission bonus, production/hours bonus, and bonus pools to reward exceptional performance.

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

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