Our firm is a personal injury plaintiff firm in Topeka, KS. Until two years ago we had two attorneys (both partners) and two support staff members. In early 2012 we added an associate attorney, increased our marketing investment, moved our offices and took on additional space, added five additional support staff members, and implemented a case management system. We currently have 500 open cases – up from 200 cases 2+ years ago. Revenues are up – but the two partners are each taking home $40,000 less than they were before the expansion. Our home grown office manager manages and runs the office. What should we be doing differently?
My first thought is that your revenues have not caught up with the overhead and the growth investments that you have made. (You should review your reports and verify this) Personal injury cases have a much longer revenue lag than does work that gets "time-billed" monthly. Some cases may be in progress for two years or so. So be patient but don't be complacent.
You do need to be proactive in managing your case pipeline and your team. Someone needs to mind and manage the store. You are a larger firm now and you can't assume that your team is working to maximum effectiveness and efficiency. Insure that you actually need all of these people and that people are working smart. Roles for each member of the team should be created and performance standards and expectations established. Goals (cases) should be created for each team member, metrics and measurements established, standard reports created – generated – and used, and team members held accountable for results. Use the reports that the new case management system provides to measure goal accomplishment and performance.
Evaluate whether your office manager has the leadership skills that the firm now requires.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm has been struggling for the past couple years. We have lost three key institutional clients, had partner defections to other law firm, and have suffered financially. We were a 40 attorney firm- six years later we are ten. We simply must improve profitability. What areas of our overhead should we attack first?
Many law firms waste considerable time trying to find ways to cut a pie that is too small up differently by implementation of new compensation systems or increasing the size of the pie by decreasing costs. While unnecessary expenses should be reduced – once they are reduced a repeated effort to slash costs proves fruitless as a strategy to increase the firm pie. The vast majority of law firm expenses are fixed or production-related. The percentage of costs that are discretionary is low, typically in the 20-30 percent range, and the number of dollars available for savings is small. The available dollars available for reduction disappear after a year or two of cost-cutting, leaving the firm with dealing with the effects of further cuts on production capacity. For example:
§ Should a firm eliminate staff positions if the result is additional administrative burden on lawyers and paralegals thereby reducing the revenue capacity of the firm.
§ Should the firm cut lawyers continuing legal education if improving an attorney's level of expertise is important to increasing revenue production.
§ Should a firm cut the marketing budget?
Once a firm has eliminated wasteful spending and made appropriate adjustments to the budget, further cost reductions often results in the firm reducing the possibility of turning the firm around, improving financial performance, and increasing the pie.
Increasing revenue, while maintaining the same expense structure, is the most powerful approach to improving firm profitability. Additional revenue goes directly to the bottom line and makes a significant impact on partner profits. If the firm is able to increase revenue by10% while maintaining the same cost structure, 100 percent of the additional revenue dollars will go to the partners.
So think revenue – not costs!
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm, a 12 attorney firm in Detroit, needs to find a way to improve fee revenues and financial performance in 2012. We do not have a business or strategic plan, have never had a retreat, and we don't even have a budget. We believe that we must do something for 2012 and yet we are out of time since 2012 begins next week. Any suggestions?
Generating adequate fee revenue is the primary challenge for most law firms and this is where I would start for 2012.
I am a strong believer in the power of focused goals and objectives when integrated with a system of accountability. I have clients that have improved fee revenue by 20% (over a two-three year period) with existing headcount simply by establishing production goals for each attorney and paralegal in the firm – reporting, measuring and reporting goal v.s. performance monthly using simple reports, and follow-up with individuals behind on their goal attainment. Solo practitioners can use the same system and use a staff member, spouse, or coach to serve as an accountability partner. You might want to consider the following:
Try to get this in place by January 1, 2012 and see how this works for you and consider this your first baby step. Down the road you might want to consider a firm budget and eventually a strategic plan. See Helen Gunnarsson's article on strategic planning in the November issue of the Illinois Bar Journal.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm does mostly flat fee work. I am the sole owner of the firm and am considering hiring my first associate. Each of us work as a team and do a lot of cross-over work on all client/matters. I have two paralegals. We don't keep timesheets on our flat fee cases. Do you have any suggestions as to how to proceed with the hiring of this associate?
It sounds like your firm is relucantly approaching the next step in its growth. Adding your first associate will change the dynamics of your firm and will require you begin to implement more formal approaches to performance management for all members of your team – the new associate, your staff, and yourself. I would start by thinking through the exact tasks and roles that you would like the associate and other staff members to perform. In other words define the associate position. Do to expect the associate to bring in business? Are you willing to train a new associate without experience or are you looking for someone with experience. Can you structure work so there is less crossover of team members on files? If not, how are you going to measure their performance and production? (Time, their production fee dollars, file or case counts, etc.) Are you going to incorporate a variable pay or incentive bonus component into the compensation plan for the associate as well as the other staff members? (More firms are doing this) Define the position first and then decide on the "who".
I encourage you to begin establishing production (performance) goals for all employees and then measure performance against these goals. Tied at least a portion of compensation to accomplishment of these goals. More firms are starting to pay for performance and less for simply showing up.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
We are a five attorney firm in Detroit. Our firm does exclusively elder law and estate planning and most of our fees are based upon flat fees. Business has been steady and solid in spite of the recession. In an effort to improve profitability we are considering raising our fees but are concerned about adverse effects that it may have upon our competitiveness. We are already at the high end of the fee scale. Do you have any thoughts?
Raising fees is one approach to improving profitability. Clients are starting to push back more and more concerning legal fees. If you are at the high end of the rate scale I suggest that before charging off and raising rates you step back and conduct a process review by using an approach similar to the following:
Keep in mind that raising fees is one way of improving profitability. There are other ways as well. In today's competitive environment. Working smarter, efficiently, and more effective is another.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
As the managing partner of a 12 attorney I have been asked to see what the firm can do to improve profitability by reducing costs. Do you have ideas or recommendations in this area?
In most law firms the real problem is insufficient gross income and lack of sufficient investment (spending and time) on marketing and initiatives designed to stimulate client and revenue growth. For most firms increasing revenues is the most effective way of impacting the bottom line. However, we do find that there is waste and unnecessary overhead that eats away at profits and a cost control program is also recommended and implemented. During recessionary times such as we are currently facing – drastic cost control are often the only option. Reducing overhead can immediately and effectively improve a firm’s bottom line.
The first step in an expense control program is to identify those areas where potential savings exist. Review your profit and loss statement. Resist the temptation to arbitrarily cutting costs which could cut the muscle with the fat and result in revenue loss as well. You have to spend money to make money – so if cost cutting is the appropriate strategy – cut the right costs. Think strategically about cost reduction.
After you have identified areas where savings can be made prioritize and develop specific strategies and implement action plans to achieve the savings.
Here are a few ideas:
STRATEGY #1: Reduce Headcount
This is the largest area for potential savings. Downsizing is a strategy that has been used by many firms this past year. However, it can have long term negative consequences for revenue and talent management. Consider all levels – non-productive partners, associates, paralegals, and staff. Be prudent and sensitive in implementation.
STRATEGY #2: Reduce Compensation
Obviously one way is to cut salaries – a strategy to be used as a last resort. A better approach is to reduce fixed salary (paying people for showing up) and add a variable pay component which will allow employees to earn additional compensation in the form of bonus for results achieved. Another approach is to freeze salary increases.
STRATEGY #3: Benefits
A major area for cost savings – especially health insurance. Determine which programs are most important to employees. Do your best to protect those and reduce or eliminate programs that are less important. Consider offering more than one health insurance plan. Pay the premium for the lowest cost plan and provide options for employees to “opt up” to the better plans by paying the additional premiums. Consider increasing deductibles and requiring employees to pay a portion of the base premiums.
STRATEGY #4: Outsource
Examine potential for outsourcing – from copy services – IT management – to your legal team.
STRATEGY #5: Occupancy
Review your lease invoices and question increases and escalators for which you have been charged. Consider renegotiating your lease and ask for a lower rate. Reduce excess space either through a renegotiated lease or through sub-leasing.
STRATEGY #6: Telephone Service
Scrutinize your bills and examine rate tariffs as well as items that have been tagged to your bill by third parties. Negotiate and ask refunds for any discrepancies or abuse found. We have seen firms receive thousands of dollars in refunds.
STRATEGY #7: Virtual Office
Do you need an office at all. Many solos are working out of virtual and home offices or a combination of same. Some larger firms are reducing the size of their primary expensive downtown offices by having some attorneys work from home offices or other locations.
STRATEGY #8: Marketing
Many firms actually need to spend more money on marketing. However, this does not mean that it should be wasted on sacred cows. Review marketing investments, eliminate feel good items, and insure that they are producing results. Reallocate funds.
STRATEGY #9: Supplies and Other Purchases
Eliminate waste and unnecessary expenses. Consolidate with fewer vendors and solicit discounts for exclusive relationships.
STRATEGY #10: Develop a Budget and Financial Plan
If you don’t have one – develop a budget and financial plan and work the plan.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am the managing partner of our firm of 17 attorneys. Our practice is concentrated in insurance defense litigation. In an effort to provide the best services possible and differentiate ourselves we have been discussing whether we should implement a project management system. I have been reading more lately about legal project management and hearing more about it. Do you have any thoughts along this line?
Legal project management has become the hot topic of late and we are seeing articles, workshops, and seminars on the topic. Over the years project management has evolved into its own discipline with its own jargon, tools, methodologies, software, etc. Project management as a discipline can become quite technical and complex. Many of the techniques such as PERT and CPM came from the department of defense and were initially utilized to manage projects such as the Polaris Submarine and space projects. The construction industry makes extensive use of project management techniques.
Considering that a legal matter is a project, particularly a large litigation matter, with many moving parts there has been a push by clients and an effort by law firms to look for ways to improve the management of matters and related resources, costs, timelines, etc. and to improve and streamline the overall process. Legal Project Management is a customized approach to matter management borrowing and applying some of the principles of project management and incorporating into a simpler and leaner model. Numerous workshops, training seminars, and publications are being offered on the topic.
The Hildebrandt Instute if offering a workshop in Chicago on June 21-22, 2011. Here is a link to more information on the workshop. Here is a link to more information on the workshop. Ark Group also has a new publication out called – Project Management for Lawyers as well. Another good book, which can be ordered from Amazon, is Legal Project Management: Control Costs, Meet Schedules, Manage Risks, and Maintain Sanity, by Steven Levy.
As more clients push for improved processes and outcomes in the area of matter management and force various forms of fixed-pricing – law firms will find they need to utilize more sophisticated tools to ascertain matter risks, price services, and manage matters.
So I suggest you at least begin to evaluate some of the tools and approaches being used and get educated on them. However, be careful of getting into overly complex approaches and methods that are simply trying to push generic project management for it's own sake.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm is a 12 attorney general practice firm located in the Phoenix metropolitan area. In additional to general practice, we do a fair amount of insurance defense work as well. In an effort to improve firm profitability we have been considering alternative fee arrangements – particularlly contingency fees – with some of our existing clients as well as venturing into personal injury plaintiff work. Can we improve profitability by doing more contingency fee work?
The CEO of the Howrey LLP, when interviewed about the law firm's recent dissolution, advised that deferred profits from contingency fee work led to the firm's demise. Howrey is a good illustration of what can happen when the risks of contingency fee work is not considered or managed. Contingency-fee work can pose major risks for law firms, as they earn no fees if they lose those cases and sometimes have profits deferred in protracted litigation. In addtion, cases can be lost with no fee whatsoever recevied. Whether your firm is considering "big deal" litigation or bread and butter run of the mill personal injury litigation you may want to consider the following:
In essence the fundamentals of risk and return is at work and should be considered when accepting contingency fee work. You are betting that you can beat your hourly rate that you receive (or would receive) on hourly work. Contingency fee work often involves the risk of no fee at all, financing the case, long time periods before the case is concluded and fees are received, client advance investments, etc. For these risks the firm should be able to expect a premium. In other words – the effective rate on contingency fee cases should (on average) be greater than that for hourly work.
Many law firms are not receiving a "risk premium" at all and are often, on average, obtaining an effective rate close to their bill rate. So, do consider the risk involved and evaluate methods of mitigating the risk as much as possible. In general – don't dabble – but work to a portfolio of cases large enough to diverisfy your risks.
Herbert Kritzer has done extensive academic research over the years on contingency fees which can be found in his book – Risks, Reputations, and Rewards: Contingency Fee Legal Practice in the United States. The book can be ordered from Amazon.com. Link to Amazon
While I have outlined a cautious approach here I want to also clarify that I have many clients that are doing very well and making a lot of money doing contingency fee work. It is the firms that did not grow up doing contingency fee work that "dabble" where I see the problems.
So proceed with caution – but go for it if it makes strategic sense for your firm.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am a partner in an 8 attorney firm in the Chicago suburbs. Our firm has started having discussions about what we need to be doing differently. This is huge for us – one meeting a year is our typical meeting frequency and then only to discuss how we are going to cut the pie. How have other firms done during the recession? What are you seeing?
In general small firms in the midwest have fared pretty well during the recession. Last year some firms had the best year ever while others experienced flat or 10% revenue declines. Small firms that had the biggest problems were those that had issues before the recession or were in problem practice areas. Big law firms have had to face unique challenges.
Small firms that have weathered the storm and fared the best were those that:
I believe that law firms that fail to focus their practices, set goals, measure accomplishments, and foster accountability will fall short and not meet their financial objectives. Law firms that fail to plan are planning to fail.
Law firms as well as solo practices need to begin focusing their firms and practices, setting firm and individual production goals, measure accomplishment and implementing systems to instill accountability from all members of the team – attorneys and staff alike.
Consider using budgeting which is a tool that can be used to measure goal attainment and how well the firm is doing.
What gets measured is what gets done.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
How can the new technology help law firms improve profitability?
What Does Your Law Firm Need From the E-Marketplace: More Clients, More Business, More Income?
Electronic business to business web sites can now offer law firms the opportunity for quicker, cost effective and, more targeted client contacts. They basically do all the marketing and business aspects of client contacts while lawyers are able to do the legal part. They are geared to provide the following:
Shifting From The Old Legal Business Paradigm to The New Legal E-Market Paradigm
Everyday we read about or directly experience the rapid changes that occur in law firms, professional careers, and business cycles. Change is occurring more and more quickly! Today you see law firms downsizing, going out of business or merging with other law firms. You also observe professional lawyers experiencing a significant decrease in their income or sometimes leaving the profession and entering other career fields. Therefore, it becomes incumbent upon you to keep abreast of the changes that can critically effect law firm practices.
Comparing the old legal business paradigm to the new E-Market paradigm brings out the painful and positive realities facing many law firms today. Look at the differences below.
|Factors of Old Legal Business Paradigm||Factors of New Legal E-Market Paradigm|
|1. Advertise in phone book & other media||1. Web site distributes your services 24/7|
|2. Costs of a full time office staff||2. E-Market does much your office work|
|3. Have files full of papers||3. Become a more paperless firm|
|4. You bill your clients||4. E-Market bills your clients|
|5. You collect from your clients||5. E-Market collects from your clients|
|6. You deposit money into bank account||6. E-Market electronically transfers funds|
You can quickly see that the old legal business paradigm is more labor intensive and costly to maintain. On the other hand E-Markets are more accountable, productive, reliable, and cost effective. They provide you with more time to practice law and less time managing office problems and costly office staff (not to mention rapid staff turn-over rates and required training). At the very least E-Markets should become a necessary adjunct to your practice because it can require minimal input from you with greater payoff.
Do You and Your Staff Have The Basic Computer and Internet Skills Necessary to Meet the 21st Century Business Challenge?
Below is a short assessment of both computer and Internet literacy.
Being computer literate is a necessity today. It is a new skill that must be attained by all professionals in order for them to be fully functional in their jobs and at work. They can be handicapped by not being computer literate and as a result be unable to meet the demands of the E-Markets and business to business relationships.
New Professional Skills and Competencies Needed By Today's Lawyer
To maximize and optimize your opportunity as a successful lawyer in a law firm you will need to add these skills to your existing skills.
What It Takes to Create a Successful Law Firm Practice
In a few words, it takes…awareness, planning and follow through to begin to expand and improve your law firm. Most human beings talk a good game about being successful, but very few ever succeed. Our society teaches us to talk about ideals, but very few live up to the expectations of our words. Human nature is such that we want and expect the best; we work for mediocrity, and settle for very little. Once we establish old antiquated habits, it becomes extremely difficult to convert to new updated habits; that is because the old habits served us well during a specific time frame, but new habits need to be adopted to serve us during current times.
Creating and Reinventing a More Successful Law Firm for the 21st Century
It will take both the understanding of the new business model, and the implementation of current computer technology to be able to use the power of the Internet to your advantage. Below is a list of action plans that you need to address:
A Current List of E-Marketplaces for Your Review Check out the different E-marketplaces listed below. See which ones best fit with your law firm's needs and business plan. These sites are very consumer friendly and willing to answer your questions.
iBidLaw.com -a web site that plans to go after big-ticket assignments. It is still under construction at the time of this writing.
eLawForum.com-a global business to business web site where corporations seek outside counsel by posting an RFP. Fee structures, whether fixed, contingency, or hourly, are stipulated by the corporation.
LegalPath.com-a web site that offers business to business exchange based on corporations seeking outside counsel. It currently focuses on smaller assignments in three areas: work-medical malpractice, insurance defense, and debt collection. Law firms are part of the registry and can gain visibility with prospective clients.
LegalMatch.com-The web site connects lawyers with people. Lawyers can review cases in their practice area and location and inform desired clients of their professional interest.
Lawcommerce.com-This web site is an online center for the legal profession to access. You can access forms, checklists, agreements, locate CLE training and research cases.
Niku.com-This web site helps law firms to become more competitive by exploring the full power of the Internet.
FirmSeek.com-This web site allows potential clients to submit an RFP and law firms can view these and respond to them. You can do legal research, get legal forms, and look at law firm rankings as well as see professional activities for lawyers.
Predicting The Future Labor statistics and experience tells us that professionals, including lawyers, will change jobs many times and careers several times in their lifetime. What does this mean for lawyers and law firms? Basically it means that you must constantly reinvent yourself and your law firm to stay abreast of future change.
Allow us to speculate for a minute about the future. From now till the year 2020 we are able to predict with a certain amount of confidence some of the following changes lawyers may experience in their jobs and careers.
Possible career changes where you can become a:
Possible job changes:
It becomes quickly evident that E-markets and E-business have a very profound effect on what lawyers will be doing in the future. Practicing law is only one option among many possibilities.
Dr. Thomas J. Venardos is an adjunct management consultant with Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, St. Louis, MO, and President of Venardos Management Group, Organizational Performance Consultants, located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dr. Venardos may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.