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Apr 30, 2020


How are Law Firm’s Doing During COVID-19

Question: 

Our firm is a four lawyer estate planning firm in Bakersfield, California. As you know our state has been under stay at home orders for sometime. We have everyone except our receptionist and one attorney working remotely from their homes. We are doing much better than I expected. In fact we are getting new clients at close to our usual number per month and our fee collections have actually exceeded our normal monthly fee collections. How are other firms doing?

Response: 

It depends on practice area and firm size. Many of the very large firms are facing dramatic work slowdowns and are laying off attorneys and staff and or cutting partner, associate, and staff compensation. However, many small consumer facing practices such as estate planning/probate, general practice, family law, and personal injury advise us that they are doing well in terms of fee collections and new matter signups. Intellectual property firms also advise us that they are holding their own.

The biggest issues for many of these small firms have been:

Small firms that are “paperless” and are using cloud-based billing and practice management systems are having the easiest time of working remotely.

Don’t get too comfortable based on March and April’s numbers. I believe that May or June will provide you with a better glimpse of the future both in terms of new business and fee collections. There could have been initial client demand based on the need for people to get some things done in preparation for the virus lock-down and you could see in May or June client demand dropping off. Also keep in mind that some of your fee collections were based upon accounts receivable and prior unbilled work in process. In addition, some of the billable work for the past month or so was probably performed on matters or cases that you already had in the pipeline.

May or June may give us all a better picture.

Good luck!

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

 

Apr 16, 2020


Law Firm Planning During COVID-19

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a fourteen attorney business law transaction and litigation firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Our area is in lock-down as a result of COVID-19 and everyone in our firm except for our receptionist has been working remotely. We had planned on putting in place a strategic plan this year and completed a couple of initial meetings. As we move forward how do we plan in this environment or should we even try?

Response: 

These are definitely uncertain times and the legal profession will be facing an uncertain future. I believe that COVID-19 will leave a lasting imprint on the legal profession and will change and accelerate law firms into the digital age. This digital transformation will effect law firm clients, law firms, and the judicial system. Status quo will be altered permanently and new operating procedures will be developed. Entrenched legal service delivery methods will be abandoned. The following practices that we are seeing now will become commonplace:

Competition for legal talent will intensify and commodity work competitive will be greater than ever.

I believe that long range/strategic planning will be more important than ever but more difficult. However, right now everyone is in survival mode with a focus on the day to day. While these are unusual times with a very uncertain future, short and long-term planning will be more critical than ever. Right now I believe your focus should be on short-term tactical operational planning with three month planning horizons. The following are just a few of the topics that you should focus on:

You will need your short-term planning to be flexible as the current situation changes.

Once you have a handle on the short-term you can continue working on your strategic plan. I suggest that it initially be for a five year time period. You should incorporate some degree of scenario planning with different strategies for different future scenarios. While the future may be uncertain an uncertain plan is better than no plan at all.

Finally, if you have people in your firm that are casual users of technology I suggest that this is a good time to push them to get up to speed. Recently I was speaking with the partner of law firm that advised me that he wished he was more comfortable with technology and he is severely handicapped since his IT skills are limited to checking email and browsing the web.

Good luck!

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

 

 

Apr 08, 2020


Law Firm Succession and Exit Planning in the Era of Covid-19

Question: 

I am the owner of a general practice firm in the Southwest Suburbs of Chicago with four associates and four staff members. I am 66 and was planning on beginning to work on my retirement plan this year and approach two of my senior associates regarding acquiring my practice. I was hoping to retire and exit the practice two years from now. Now with the Covid-19 situation I am not sure what I should do. Is this a good time to even think about approaching my associates? While business is slow we are doing fairly well working remotely. I still want to retire and be done in two years. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

One thing is for certain, you will continue to age regardless of the virus and unless you needed higher income in your last year or two, your retirement goal and timeline has not changed. While I would not suggest approaching your associates for the next few months I believe you could begin some of the preparatory work. When I work with law firms on succession planning projects there is a sequence of work steps that take place that take time and often the process can take several months. For example:

  1. Initial call with owner or partners.
  2. Document request to law firm.
  3. Law firm collecting and gathering documents (financial and other) and sending to us.
  4. Financial and document reviews.
  5. Telephone with owner or partners.
  6. Telephone interviews with associate candidates that you are thinking of transitioning the practice.
  7. Preparation of opinion letter (valuation, approach, etc.)
  8. Telephone call with owner or partners re discussion of opinion letter and next steps.
  9. Preparation of proposal to be presented to associate candidates.
  10. Conferences calls.
  11. Presentation of proposal to associates.
  12. Execution of legal documents.

So as you can see there is a lot of pre-work that needs to be done before you even approach your associates. Slow times are a good time to work on non-billable administrative and management projects and unless you have changed your mind on your retirement and exit goals this might be a very good time to begin working on your succession and exit planning.

Since legal skill, client, and management transition takes times you don’t want to wait too long otherwise you may have to move your retirement timeout out further.

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

 

Mar 26, 2020


Law Firms Working Remotely During Covid-19

Question:

I am the sole owner of an estate planning firm in downtown Chicago with four other attorneys and six staff members. Since we are considered by the state of Illinois to be a  necessary business service most of us are still working at the office. I know that many firms are working remotely. How is that working out and what are the specifics of how to make that work – new client intake meetings, work on client matters, coordination with attorney and staff team, and client document signings?

Response: 

It is working out very well for many firms and better than expected. Here is what one of my estate planning law firms with four attorneys and seven staff members is doing:

  1. The firm has the receptionist at each of its two offices working at each office.
  2. The receptionist at each office answers the phones, makes appointments for new clients, and since the firm has landlines emails remote attorneys and staff their phone calls/messages who in turn return phone calls.
  3. The receptionist at each office receives mail at the office, scans the mail, and emails to appropriate attorneys and staff. Incoming client documents are scanned to client files. Vendor invoices are scanned and emailed to the firm administrator who in turn updates the billing and bookkeeping systems.
  4. The receptionist at each office makes remote bank deposits using the remote deposit scanner provided by the bank. A copy of the deposit report is emailed to the firm administrator who updates the billing and accounting systems.
  5. All new client intake interviews are being done over the phone or via Skype, Zoom, or GoToMeeting.
  6. Client document signings are being postponed or done at the office in a special sanitized room after clients are screened.
  7. The firm has been paperless for some time and attorneys and staff are able to access form documents and client files remotely. GotoMyPC was setup on each attorney and staff member’s PC in the office and access is obtained to the firm’s server via GotoMyPC.
  8. The firm administrator initiates the billing process by generating prebills in pdf and emailing to attorneys who in turn markup with comments on the pdf. The administrator makes changes, generates final invoices, email to clients that receive email invoices, and emails to the receptionist at each office who in turn mails to those clients that receive paper invoices.
  9. Virtual team meetings are held weekly.
  10. A new employee hired before Covid-19 will be trained virtually

This approach is working pretty well. The firm has sufficient work in process to keep people working and the firm, although new client calls are down, the phone is still ringing are the firm is signing up new business.

It would have been easier had the firm had cloud-based billing and accounting systems as well as VOIP phone system. However, the procedures and protocols the firm is taking is working reasonably well.

Personally, our firm went remote 20 years ago and we don’t miss the days of high office space cost, overhead, wasted commute time, etc. At that time I built out and dedicated 1,000 square feet of space in our home and we have all the systems (phones, file servers, conference room, etc.) that would be found in a typical office. We supplement this with a virtual arrangement with Regus.

Good Luck to all during this challenging time.

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

 

Mar 04, 2020


Law Firm Short-Term Succession Planning

Question: 

I am the owner of a six lawyer business transnational law firm in South Florida. I have been practicing law for twelve years and I started my present practice nine years ago. I am 42 years old.  The five attorneys that work for me are all associates of which two are very experienced seasoned lawyers and three have less than five years experience. Since I am still a young attorney I am not concerned about retirement or long-term succession planning, maybe I should be, but I am concerned about the short-term. What would the firm do if I got hit by a bus?

Response: 

Your concern is the concern of many solo practitioners and sole owners of firms that have several associates but no equity partners. In fact many state bar associations are beginning to require attorneys in private practice to have written succession plans or in the very least a designated representative authorized to act on a limited and short term basis to protect the rights and interests of lawyers and lawyers’ clients in the event of an attorney’s death, disability, disappearance, practice abandonment, or any other similar event.

At the personal level a concern would be your personal income. If you are a major producer of revenue in the firm, which I assume you are, there would be a major impact on revenue and your personal income as well. Covering firm overhead would be an issue as well. Part of this can and should be covered with insurance. You might want to consider:

The second level of concern will be at the firm level, particularly if you were to become disabled either for an extended period or permanently or die. In this situation a key question would be whether or how the firm would sustain itself or even continue. Will the work continue to come in and who would do the work? If you have a firm administrator he or she would be there to manage the business-administrative side of the house but who (lawyer) would manage the client/project side (client service side) of the firm? This would generally fall to the other partners, but until such time as you have partners another attorney in the firm needs to be identified and groomed for such a role. If you decide that a non-equity partner tier is appropriate for your firm this role might fall to a non-equity partner until such time in the future that you have, if you have, other equity partners.

You would want a succession plan or what I call a practice continuation arrangement. A practice continuation arrangement is an arrangement – typically in the form of an agreement or contract -made between you and an attorney or attorneys in the firm or outside lawyer or law firm. The arrangement would describe a course of action to manage and cover and possibly transfer your practice and sets payment for its value. In the event of temporary or permanent disability, or death, a practice continuation arrangement protects the practice, the your business interests or your clients and your and your family’s financial interests.

Your plan should include records pertaining to client identity and financial records as well a list of passwords and other security protocols necessary to access the attorney’s electronic business files, calendar, and other law office related records in a location known and accessible by the attorney’s designated representative or office personnel.

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

 

 

Feb 13, 2020


Law Firm Marketing – Internet Strategy Crucial to Retail Practices Such as Family Law and Estate Planning

Question: 

I am a family law practitioner in the western suburbs of Chicago. I have been in practice for thirty years. I have two associate attorneys and two staff members. In the past I had other partners but that was many years ago. Over the last few years our business has been declining. Our financial performance last year was terrible and I made less than my associates. If this continues I may have to lay off an associate or two. Recently we have made some improvements to our website but I am not sure we have not done enough. I have noticed that more business seems to be coming from the website and less through referrals. I would appreciate any thoughts your may have.

Response: 

We are finding that law firms that serve retail consumer clients in practice areas such as personal injury, family law, elder law, and estate planning are becoming more and more dependent on the internet for their business. Family law firms especially are becoming more dependent on the internet for business and a sound internet strategy and investment is crucial for success. This is especially true in the larger cities and metropolitan areas. Less business is coming from traditional referral sources and more from the internet. I have family law clients in your area that tell me they are receiving ninety percent or more of their business from the internet.

A few suggestions that you might want to consider:

I hope this helps and good luck!

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

Jan 08, 2020


Law Firm Partner Compensation and Performance Reviews

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen partner firm in the northern suburbs of Chicago with ten partners and four associates. We are a general practice firm with different partners focusing on specific practice areas. Our partner’s compensation is determined by a three member compensation committee.  The compensation committee uses a combination of quantitative data based upon working attorney fee collections and client fee originations and makes a subjective determination regarding other contributions that a partner has made to the firm. The problem that we have is the compensation committee does not have a way to effectively measure the other contributions that are being considered subjectively. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Your problem is a common problem. While it is easy to measure working attorney, responsible attorney, and originating attorney fee collections, billable hours, realization rates, and other hard measures of short-term financial performance, (it is hard to capture the subtler aspects of partners’ contributions such as mentoring new lawyers, firm management, idea development) and its virtually impossible to measure the long-term present value of each partner’s work and contribution.

The key is to make the subjective considerations more measurable. Many firms are supplementing the easily measured economic contributions per partner with additional measurements to determine the actual value per partner and incorporating into their compensation systems. Some firms:

Partner performance reviews are often avoided like the plague by many firms. They are time consuming and it is hard to give candid feedback to colleagues. However, without partner performance reviews neither the partners nor the firm will reach full potential. When partner performance reviews are used not only to review performance but to set measurable goals this data can be incorporated into the compensation system and provide additional hard data for providing a true measure of partner contribution and value.

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

Dec 31, 2019


Law Firm Management – What Will Be Keeping Owners and Managing Partner Awake at Night in 2020

Question: 

I am the owner of a twelve attorney business litigation law firm in Northern, California. I started the firm fourteen years ago after practicing ten years in a large law firm. While the practice has been fulfilling both professionally and financially, the management side is often a challenge. As I sit here on December 31, 2019 thinking about management challenges that I may face next year I was wondering what you envision the challenges will be in 2020.

Response: 

The following were the common challenges that owners and managing partners advised us that they faced in 2019:

  1. Talent Management – Attorneys and Staff
    1. Hiring
    2. Training
    3. Motivating
    4. Compensating
    5. Keeping (retaining)
  2. Firm Succession and Transition
  3. Getting and Keeping Clients and Additional Sources of Business
  4. Managing Cash Flow
  5. Satisfying Hard to Please Clients
  6. Balancing Time Between Servicing Clients and Managing the Firm
  7. Getting Paid
  8. Competition from Other Law Firms and Non-Law Firm Service Providers
  9. Proving High Quality Legal Services at an Affordable Price and Avoiding Malpractice Claims
  10. Finding Time for Personal Life and Family

In 2019 the number one challenge was talent management and I believe this will continue to be the case in 2020. The other challenges that I have listed will continue to be the major concerns of owners and managing partners in 2020.

Here are some links to a few of our resources that you might find helpful:

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Click here for our blog on profit improvement

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

 

 

 

Dec 11, 2019


Law Firm Financial Management – Financial Red Flags

Question: 

Our firm is a twelve lawyer firm in Chicago and our practice is a business litigation firm. We have eight partners in the firm and we are managed by a three-member management committee that was just formed this year. I am a member of the committee and I am responsible for the general financial oversight of the firm. I am trying to get a handle on law firm financial metrics and especially what are the financial warning signs that I should be aware. If you have an outline or list that you would be willing to share we would appreciate it.

Response: 

Here is a short list of what I call financial red flags that you might find helpful:

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

Nov 12, 2019


Partner Compensation in Law Firms – Objective vs Subjective Approaches

Question: 

Our firm is at a crossroads concerning partner compensation. We are a twelve lawyer firm in Richmond, Virginia with nine partners and three associates. We are in our second generation of partners as the original founders have retired over the years. We do not have a managing partner or management committee – management decisions are made by all the partners. Our compensation is based upon compensation participating percentages set at the beginning of each year based upon the recommendation of a rotating member compensation committee recommendation which must be approved by the full partnership. These percentages are then used to allocate each partner’s share of firm profit. Monthly draws are taken against projected allocations and the calculations are trued up each quarter and at the end of the year. There is nothing in writing and it is unclear what is taken into consideration by the compensation committee. However, in general the primary metric is individual working attorney production collections. Supposedly, other metrics and subjective factors are taken into consideration but no one knows what they are. The majority of the partners have been relatively happy with the system but a few are not due to the vagueness of the system. I am wondering whether we should move more to a formulaic approach. What are your thoughts?

Response:

The trend in compensation, particularly in larger firms, is toward subjective or hybrid approaches and a movement away from strictly formulaic – eat-what-you-kill – objective systems. These systems are fine in “lone ranger” firms but often are unsuccessful in firms that are or want to be “firm first” or “team based” firms. The unhappiest partners that I see are in some of the firms with eat-what-you-kill objective systems. It sounds like your system has worked fairly well and a majority of the partners have been satisfied with the system. However, it may not be reinforcing the behaviors that you would like to instill in your partners if the only metric used, or is perceived as the only metric being used, is working attorney collections. Your firm is very partner top heavy and I would not be surprised if your utilization of paralegals as effective billable revenue producers is minimal. You are encouraging personal production period. What about delegation, new business origination, leadership, contribution to firm management, mentoring and training of associates, etc? Subjective or hybrid approaches often do a better job of dealing with overall contribution to the firm if they are setup properly.

I would suggest you fine tune your existing system. Consider the following:

  1. Put your system in writing. Outline the performance factors that are considered and the general importance or weights of each. This includes objective or directly measurable factors and the more subjective or harder to measure factors.
  2. Make more of the intangible or subjective factors measurable by requiring that a personal plan be submitted by each partner and reviewed with and approved by the compensation committee. This plan should contain specific measurable goals and objectives that are specific, measurable, attainable, rewarded in the compensation system, and on a specific completion timeline.
  3. Require that the compensation committee conduct personal partner interviews each and every year prior to their deliberations on compensation. This interviews should be mandatory. Self evaluations with related narrative should be provided by the partner being interviewed prior to the interview and the approved plans should form the basis for the discussion and reviews.
  4. The full partnership should either approve – up or down the compensation committee recommendation – not be allowed to pick apart or modify. If the partnership does not approve the committee’s recommendation the committee starts over and submits another recommendation. There should be a provision for what happens if a decision cannot be make – for example used last year’s percentages, etc.
  5. There should be an appeal process if a partner has a complaint with regard to the decision concerning his or her compensation.
  6. Consider extraordinary bonus pool for exceptional performance rewards.

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

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