Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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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 a 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

Oct 03, 2019


How to Handle the Messaging and Public Relations When a Law Firm Partner Leaves

Question:

Our firm is a twelve attorney litigation defense firm in Phoenix, Arizona. We have eight partners in the firm and I am a member of our executive committee. Yesterday at a partner meeting we were advised by four partners that they were leaving, would be starting a new law firm, and would be taking several key clients that they handle with them. A couple of associates and staff members will be going with them. What do we tell people and how do we go about it? You suggestions are most welcomed.

Response: 

My first suggestion is to move very quickly otherwise the rumor mill will get started and rumors will get ahead of you. You must get in front of the message to all audiences. The remaining and the departing partners should meet immediately, come to terms and agreement with the message, and be prepared to answer the following questions:

  1. Who is leaving
  2. Why following
  3. Whether the relationship is contentious or amicable
  4. How the departure is going to effect clients
  5. Whether the departing partners are named partners
  6. Future name of both firms
  7. Where the two firms will be located
  8. Contact information

I further suggest that you:

  1. Plan and advance and drill
  2. Identify your audiences and appropriate messages for each
    1. Clients
    2. Employees
    3. Legal community
    4. General public community
  3. List anticipated questions that your audiences will have
  4. White out the answers to the questions
  5. Write out the message for each audience
  6. Designate a single spokesperson to respond to the press and others so that messaging remains consistent from firm management.
  7. Identity clear lines of authority.
  8. Ensure that you follow the rules of professional responsibility in regarding client communications.

Situations such as this can be very stressful for all concerned. Try not to let your personal feelings cloud your vision and get in the way of a properly planned transition. There will be a lot of work to be done on the part of the remaining partners and departing partners. A well designed project plan will be helpful in managing all the tasks that will have to be handled and managed. The public relations should be at the top of the list.

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

Sep 25, 2019


Succession-Exit Options for Law Firm Solos

Question: 

I am a solo real estate practitioner in Long Beach, California. I have one paralegal that works in the firm. I am 70 years old a would like to retire in the next couple of years. What are my options?

Response:

Solo practitioners have the greatest challenge since they have no associates or anyone in place to transition the practice. Therefore, the practitioner must both hire and groom an associate that could buy the firm or become a partner and buyout the owner’s interests, sell the firm to another firm, or merge with another firm. Other options would be to become Of Counsel with another firm or simply close down the practice. This takes time.

Hiring and Grooming an Associate

Hiring and grooming an associate can be problematic for the solo. If he does not have sufficient business and the associate does not originate business, the associate will be an expense and the owner’s net earnings will suffer. Other issues include:

Sell the Firm to another Lawyer or Law Firm

The owner can sell the firm to another lawyer or law firm. This option works best when the practitioner is actually ready to retire and quit practicing. Often this is not the case and the restrictions on sale of law practice levied by a state’s rules of professional conduct, in particular Rule 1.17, may make this option undesirable. Locating desirable candidates will take time and a well-planned search process may have to initiated. Our experience has been that this can take a year or longer.

Solo practices are often very personal practices with little annual repeat business. Clients of law firms advise us that they hire the lawyer and not the law firm. This makes buyers very cautious due to their concern that the clients and referral sources will not stay and the revenues will not materialize after the owner sells the practice. Therefore, many buyers are not willing to pay cash for a law practice. Our experience has been that most of these practices are sold with payouts over time based upon a percentage of revenues collected over a certain number of years. Usually, the seller stays on in a consulting capacity for a year to help insure that clients and referral sources stay with the new owner.

Merger with another Firm

Merger with another lawyer or law firm is another option. This is often a better option for solos that want to gradually phasedown yet continue to practice for a few more years. In essence, they join another firm as either an equity or non-equity partner, member, or shareholder and subsequently retire from that firm under pre-agreed to terms for the payout. The odds are improved for clients and referral sources staying with the merged firm and the merged firm is more committed that a buyer might be under a payout arrangement based upon collected revenues. The solo practitioner has more flexibility with regard to the ability to continue to practice longer, reduced stress, additional support and resources, and gradual phasedown to retirement.

Of Counsel with another Firm

Forming an Of Counsel relationship with another firm is an option that many solos are taking. Sometimes it is a final arrangement where a solo winds down his or her practice and then joins another firm as an employee or independent contractor. He or she is paid a percentage of collected revenue under a compensation agreement with different percentages depending upon whether the practitioner brings in the business, services work that he or she brings in, or services work that the firm refers to the practitioner. In other situations, an Of Counsel relationship is used as a practice continuation mechanism that provides the solo with additional resources and support if needed. An Of Counsel relationship can also be used to “pilot test” a relationship prior to merging with another firm. We have had several law firm clients that has taken a phased approach to merger with Phase I being an Of Counsel “pilot test” exploratory arrangement and Phase II being the actual merger.

One option is not necessarily better than the other – much depends upon “fit” and individual circumstances as well as a little luck.

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

 

Aug 21, 2019


Law Firm Strategic Planning in a One Day Planning Retreat

Question: 

Our firm is a twenty-attorney litigation firm in Miami, Florida. We are managed by a three-member management committee supported by a firm administrator. While our committee and our firm administrator are entrusted to make many of the operational decisions, all partners must weight in on and vote on all major decisions as outlined in the firm’s management plan. Currently we do not have a strategic plan and our firm administrator has suggested that we can accomplish this in a one day off site retreat with all the partners. Is this realistic?

Response: 

This is a little bit aggressive and optimistic. The strategic planning process is as important as the end result – the strategic plan document, so you don’t want to rush the process. Two sessions a few weeks apart would be better as it would give some time for the ideas and discussion from the first session to cook and simmer until the second session. However, you might find that one session is all that you are going to get. If this is the case you need to do some homework before the retreat. I suggest the following:

  1. Solicit feedback from all your partners using a questionnaire. An online questionnaire such as SurveyMonkey would be preferred. Questions should include general attorney demographic information as well as issues and challenges facing the firm and suggested solutions, future direction of the firm, succession planning, talent management, practice area expansion or contraction, etc.
  2. Develop a retreat planning session agenda and workbook with all relevant supporting materials such as questionnaire results, financial reports, recent relevant articles, draft strategic plan with at least a mission, vision, goals, objectives, and issues sections completed in rough form. This should be developed by the management committee beforehand.
  3. Provide all your attorneys with the agenda and workbook at least two weeks prior to the planning retreat to allow them to come to the retreat fully prepared.
  4. Keep the retreat focused on strategic issues with day to day operational items discussions being off limits. Discuss the questionnaire results then use the draft Strategic Plan as an outline for the session. Try to get consensus on mission, vision, goals, objectives, and issues by the halfway point of your session. Focus the remainder of the session on developing specific strategies dealing with issues and goals outlined.
  5. After strategies have been developed, develop specific action items for each strategy with start and completion target dates for each action item with the name of the person that will be responsible for completion.

Once the retreat is over the management committee should finalize the rough notes from the planning session into a initial draft of the strategic plan and circulate to all partners for review and comment. Hopefully, the management committee based upon comments can finalize and launch the strategic plan within thirty days, if not a partner meeting should be scheduled for additional discussion.

Using an approach to similar to what I have outlined will improve your chances of a successful one day planning retreat.

Good luck.

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

Aug 07, 2019


Listening to Law Firm Clients – Number One Marketing Initiative for Institutional Clients

Question: 

Our firm is a sixteen attorney insurance defense in Louisville, Kentucky. We represent approximately twenty-five insurance companies in property casualty and personal injury cases. We handle products liability and medical malpractice cases as well. Our firm is in second generation and all of the founding partners have retired. Virtually all of our clients were inherited and none of the existing partners have brought in any new clients since the founding partners retired eight years ago. While we are trying to do what we can to cultivate new clients we want to insure that we retain our existing clients and don’t have any client defections. Do you have any suggestions?

Response: 

We have done numerous client satisfaction interviews with law firm insurance company clients. The category where most firm rank the lowest is understanding clients needs. For law firms one way of achieving a competitive advantage is to have a better understanding of the wants and needs of clients than does the competition. This understanding comes from an open dialog with your clients. In other words ask them.

Recently I had a law firm client who’s business was suffering due to the client’s operations shifting to adjacent states. The firm was considering an additional office location to serve these clients and was debating where and how to locate this office. I advised, why don’t we ask the clients. In our interviews we asked this question and the clients told us where their needs were and where to locate the office. It was not where the law firm was thinking of locating. Six months later a mini merger was done in the location where the clients advised us there needs were.

This is best accomplished by having an ongoing systematic structured client feedback system that tracks client preferences, desires, and requirements. Here are a few ways that this can be accomplished:

There are several articles on our website – see links below – that discuss client satisfaction survey programs and how to get started.

Click here for our blog on client service

Click here for our article on client satisfaction

Click here for our article on client surveys 

Click here for our article on analyzing survey results

Click here for our article on developing your client service improvement plan

Click here for our article on tips for rewarding and recognizing employees

Jul 17, 2019


Law Firm Succession – Pros and Cons of Hiring an Associate as My Succession Plan

Question: 

I am a sole practitioner in San Diego, California. My practice is mostly general practice with some emphasis on commercial real estate. I am 64 years old and am looking for a way to transition and exit my practice in the next three to five years. I am the only attorney in the firm however there are three legal assistants that work for me. I have been considering hiring an associate so that I have someone to sell my interests to in the next three to five years. I have never had an associate so I would appreciate your thoughts concerning the wisdom of hiring an associate at this stage of my career.

Response: 

In general I prefer an internal succession strategy when the firm has an attorney or attorneys in place that are willing to step up to ownership and take over the firm. Often this is easier said than done. Issues you will face will include:

  1. Unless you are loaded with work that you are unable to handle or you hire an attorney that can bring work with him or her you will be increasing your expenses and reducing your income/compensation.  Since you have operated all these years with just one attorney I assume that there is only enough work to support one attorney. If you are ready to slow down to a reduced work schedule and take less compensation that is another matter. If not, you may want to look for an experienced attorney with some business rather than hiring a lawyer fresh out of law school or wait a little longer till you hire someone.
  2. Associates require care and feeding – in other words training, mentoring, etc. A certain amount of training and orientation will be required even with an experienced attorney. Revenues may lag from one to two years and your will be saddled with their compensation and other related expenses. You have no experience with mentoring attorneys and this may be something that you are ill equipped to do or don’t want to do.
  3. You may end up hiring and training in an associate only to have them leave the firm in a year or so to join another firm and possibly take clients with them.
  4. The associate you hire may only be looking for a 9-5 lawyer job and have no interest in owning a law firm.
  5. The associate you hire may expect to have you hand them your practice for free and he or she may be unwilling to pay you for your practice.

Many firms have had positive experiences with transitioning their firm to associates. Just be aware of the possible pitfalls. You may be better off going a different direction.

Click here for our blog on succession

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

Jul 11, 2019


Law Firm Operating Metrics and Statistics

Question:

I am the newly elected managing partner in our twelve-attorney firm in Chicago, Illinois. Our firm is a business transaction firm that was started by the present four partners ten years ago. While we have an office manager that does the bookkeeping, prior to this year all four partners as a group managed the firm. This year the firm decided to create the managing partner position. Since this is new to me I am trying to learn all that I can about law firm management. My first priority is to help the firm improve profitability and I would like to know what the key operating metrics and statistics are that I should be monitoring. You suggestions will be appreciated.

Response:

Law firm operating statistics represent an important management tool. They highlight superior performances and they flag below average performances. They provide law firm management with the key information needed to manage the firm’s business. In addition to measures such as firm fee revenue collections, firm profit/net income, profit per equity owner, billable hours, fee revenue collected per attorney, operating statistics found in law firm management reports typically include information on:

The first three statistics represent factors that relate to earning the firm’s revenue. Responsibility for earning the firm’s revenue rests with the firm’s partners. Consequently, it is important to assign this responsibility to specific partners – typically the responsible/billing attorney.

In recognition of the assigned responsible attorney concept, many firms choose to present revenue-related operating statistics reports in a format that focuses on each partner’s responsibility. This gives the management group the ability to access each partner’s “business” performance.

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

Jun 26, 2019


Law Firm Succession Strategy When Candidate Associate Attorney Says No to Your Proposal

Question: 

I am the owner of a law firm in Mesa, Arizona. I started the firm twenty-five years ago. Our focus is exclusively on estate planning and we serve clients throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area. There are three other associate attorneys working in the firm as well as staff. One of the associates has been with the firm for ten years and the other two are right out of law school – one was hired this year and the other one year ago. I am sixty-three years old and I would like to retire and exit the practice within the next three years – the sooner the better as I have other interests that I would like to pursue.

For several years it has been my goal to transition my practice to my senior associate and he and I have discussed this vaguely over the years – just the idea in general – no specifics. Recently, I made a proposal to him where he would gradually buy my shares over the next three years and have all my shares paid for by the time of my retirement which would be three years from now. To my surprise he refused. Where do I go from here?

Response: 

Getting a “no” is not unusual. We are experiencing this quite frequently in our succession planning projects. Often this results in the firm exploring external succession strategies and having to merge with another firm or selling the practice. First of there is not the hunger for “equity” that there was thirty years ago. This is due in part to the fact that in many firms – large and small – there is now a non-equity partner status with the recognition of partner status, additional compensation and perks, and none of the risks of equity partnership. In addition, work life balance is important to many attorneys and many are unwilling to give up work life balance in exchange for the stress of equity partnership. Finally, many candidate associate attorneys either don’t have the capital/financial resources often required to obtain equity or don’t see the payback or return on their investment should they buy-in.

Here are a few thoughts concerning your situation:

  1. Reevaluate your proposal. Is the price you are asking for your shares reasonable and affordable for the candidate based upon the actual profits (your earnings) generated by the firm? If the price is not reasonable or affordable for the candidate consider providing an alternative proposal.
  2. Even if the price is reasonable and affordable, three years may not be a long enough period. You may have to settle with getting some of the value say three to five years after your retirement. Consider this as an alternative.
  3. Your associate may be reluctant not because of the terms but because he does not really want to own a law firm – he just wants a job as a lawyer. If this is the case it does not make any difference what you propose and you need to examine other options such as bringing in a lateral that is willing to take over your practice or a merger or sale of the practice.

Click here for our blog on succession

Click here for out articles on various management topics

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

Jun 19, 2019


Burning Issues for a New Law Firm Owner Starting Firm After Leaving BigLaw

Question: 

I have recently started a law firm in the suburbs of New Orleans after leaving a large law firm in the city. I was a non-equity partner in the firm and had worked for the firm for fifteen years. I worked in the estate planning group and handled complex estate planning matters for wealthy individual clients. Much of the business was referred to the firm by large bank trust departments. I have been promised referrals from some of these banks. I had other referral sources as well that will be sending business. The focus of my practice will be exclusively on complex estate planning for wealthy clients. A paralegal and an associate from the firm will be coming with me. During my career my focus has been on practicing law and not running a business. What are some of the challenges and burning issues that I will face?

Response: 

You are starting with the advantage of probably having grown up with excellent training and mentoring that larger firms are capable of providing. As a result you probably have an excellent skill set and it sounds like you have learned how to get business and have developed referral relationships. However, you also have been accustomed to firm management and other resources that will not be available to you in a smaller firm. You will have to get your hands dirty and handle much more of the firm management and administrative functions than you had to do in the larger firm.

Some of the challenges and burning issues that will keep you awake at night will probably include:

  1. Hiring, training, motivating, compensating, and retaining attorneys and staff – both those that initially join you and future hires. Small firms often cannot afford to provide the level of compensation and benefits that larger law firms and other businesses provide. You must creative and use other carrots such as flexibility, work-life balance, etc. to be competitive.
  2. Additional sources of business. Even though you have promises from past referral sources to send you business the business may not materialize from these sources for various reasons. You must be prepared to proactively marketing your practice. A content-rich website, client seminars, and additional referral source development should be at the top of your list.
  3. Cash flow will be a challenge and issue, at least initially. Insure that your have sufficient working capital to start your firm and access to adequate credit lines if you need them. Obtain retainers from clients upfront, stay ahead on retainer replenishment, and bill promptly. Watch your spending but focus on revenue generation.
  4. Balancing your time between servicing clients and managing the practice. In your prior firm your primary mission was to practice law and serve clients. Now, as the sole owner of a law firm, you will also have management and administrative responsibilities. Your time between these two areas will require careful balance – neither can be neglected. While you can eventually hire some help you can never relinquish total responsibility for running the business.
  5. Development of systems. Processes and procedures will need to be documented in office policy and procedures manuals. Computer hardware and software will need to be acquired and implemented. There will need to be oversight over these systems. You should at least have a “top level” understanding of these systems.
  6. Client demands. Client demands and workloads can often take a toll on new owners. There will a time will your will be so busy you would like to hire additional help but not so busy that you are ready to or can justify doing so.

These are just a few of the challenges and burning issues that others from BigLaw starting their own practice have discussed with us.

Good luck with the launch of your practice.

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

Jun 05, 2019


Law Firm Partnership Tiers – Different Qualifications For Equity and Non-Equity Partners

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a six lawyer firm in Nashville, Tennessee. There are two partners in the firm, myself and another partner, and we have four associate attorneys. Two of our associates have been with firm for over ten years. We are trying to put in place a career progression policy for them and we are thinking about having a non-equity and equity tier which would serve as a prerequisite to equity partnership. What are the differences between the expectations and requirements for non-equity and equity partner?

Response: 

The main difference between an equity partner and non-equity or income partner is that the equity partners assumes a higher degree of capability in a lot of areas, not just good lawyering. Equity partners are expected to develop business, to manage large client relationships, and to have a level of commitment that allows them to do all of that and maintain a very full practice load at the same time. Non-equity or income partners are generally lawyers that are excellent lawyers in his or her field but doesn’t satisfy the other requirements required of equity partners. In addition, equity partners usually invest capital in the firm and assume the risks of the office lease, credit line, and other liabilities. Non-equity partners usually have guaranteed salaries and equity partners do not.

Here are a few of the typical hurdles that are required to move up to equity partner:

The primary difference is non-equity partners focus is on lawyering and the focus of equity partners is on lawyering and being a businessperson as well – practicing law and managing a business.

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

 

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