Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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May 22, 2018


Law Firm Financial Management – Using Credit Line to Purchase Equipment

Question: 

I am the financial partner with our sixteen attorney firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. The firm has had a rough couple of years. We had several partners leave the firm and they took several corporate clients with them. Unfortunately, this was ongoing consistent retainer and time bill work. While we still have some retainer and time bill corporate work, a much larger mix of our work is now contingency fee work. As a result we have had some cash flow challenges and for the first three months of this year there was no money to pay partner draws. We have a credit line with the bank of $125,000 that we have not used. We only use our credit line for long-term equipment purchases. We would appreciate any suggestions that you have.

Response: 

A line of credit is designed to be used for financing short-term working capital needs – not long-term financing needs such as fixed asset acquisitions. I would use either leases or long-term bank loans for equipment and other fixed asset financing secured by those assets. This leaves your your credit line available for short-term financing needs. While I hate to see a firm use a credit line to pay partner draws, often there is no other choice in law firms that are not adequately capitalized, especially contingency fee firms.  Partners have to eat too. Contingency fee practices can have wide cash flow swings and often have to use their credit lines to temporarily fund payroll and partner draws.

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

 

Apr 25, 2018


Law Firm Management Committee vs Full Partnership

Question: 

I am a partner in a fourteen attorney firm in San Antonio, Texas. We have eight partners and six associates working in the firm. The firm was founded twenty years ago, so we are a first-generation firm. Two of the partners were the founders of the firm and the other six were made partners in later years. Currently our method of governing the firm is handled by the full partnership. While each partner has one vote, we try to manage by consensus. We do not have a managing partner or any committees. We have an office manager that primarily handles the accounting and the staff oversight. The partners meet weekly to discuss issues and make decisions. We are beginning to have issues with our management structure. Partners are not showing up for the weekly meetings and complaining about the amount of time it is taking away from servicing their clients. Should we consider a different approach? We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

You are at a difficult size, still a small partnership but big enough that management by all may no longer be working for you. I believe that you should consider either a managing partner or a management committee of three partners elected by the partnership. For this to work all of the partners must agree to surrender some degree of independence to a managing partner or a management committee. I would start with putting together a list, or job description, for the managing partner or management committee. Partnership agreements often outline management decisions (powers) reserved for the partnership with all decisions handled by the managing partner or management committee. If your partners are unwilling to  surrender some degree of independence then changing to a managing partner or management committee may prove to be wasted effort.

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

Jun 06, 2017


Law Firm Collections/Retainer Management – Using a Retainer Follow-up Report

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a nine attorney general practice firm in the Chicago suburbs. We practice in the areas of estate planning/administration and family law. While our estate planning and uncontested family law work is done on a flat fee basis our estate administration and contested family law work is time billed. We collect initial retainers for these matters but we fail to insure that the retainers are replenished. We are having accounts receivable collection problems as a result. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

This is a common problem that I see in firms doing estate administration and especially family law. The best way of managing your accounts receivable is to have less in outstanding accounts receivable in the first place. You do this by staying on top of your retainer balances compared to your work in process and ask the client for additional retainer before the work in process exceeds the retainer balance. In order to stay on top of retainer replenishment you need to develop what I call a retainer replenishment report and have someone assigned to reviewing the report daily and advising responsible attorneys to contact the client when work in process has hit a certain threshold (percentage of retainer used). Some firm’s present the report at a weekly attorney meeting and determinations are made regarding additional retainers to request. Other firms assign the responsibility to the firm administrator to automatically bill for the additional retainer. It is also important to insure that ongoing work is managed in a way that an excessive amount of work is not committed to a matter until the additional retainer replenishment is received.

A retainer replenishment report is not a standard report in many billing systems. You may have to create a custom report in your billing system using a report writer or in a worst case drop a accounts receivable report to an Excel file and add in some columns for the other information.

Here are the suggested data fields/columns for such a report:

Responsible attorney
Client/Matter name
Retainer Balance (typically this would be the balance in the trust account)
Unbilled WIP Fees
Unbilled Cost
Total Unbilled WIP
75% Retainer Threshold
Amount Over/Under Retainer
Additional Retainer Requested
Total Amount Retainer to Bill (Amount WIP over retainer plus additional retainer requested)

Many family law firms have advised me that after learning the hard way they are now doing a good job at this and advising me that they have minimal accounts receivable issues.

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

 

 

 

 

May 31, 2017


Law Firm Governance – Partner Participation in Management

Question: 

I am the founder, majority partner (80%), and managing partner of a twenty two attorney firm in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm practice is focused in the area of health care. There are twelve equity partners, five non-equity partners, and five associates. I manage the firm as a benevolent dictator. I am becoming overwhelmed trying to manage the firm and practice law and I believe the firm is now at a size where others must become involved in managing the firm. I have been considering forming a committee of all the equity partners to manage the firm. Your thoughts are welcomed.

Response: 

While I believe that you are of a size that warrants broader participation in the governance and management of the firm you can go too far. Broad participation in decision making and consensus building slows things down. It can also make it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion. Getting all the partners to agree takes time. Broad participation can also diffuse responsibility. If everyone is in charge no one is in charge. In law firms whose partners are overly deferential to their partners’ views, the decision-making process often seizes up. Unless firm partners who, when necessary, will assert themselves and use their influence to press for action, the only decisions it’s likely to make are decisions not to decide.

I believe that you should stop short of broad participation by all the equity partners. Consider a three member executive committee elected by the equity partners on three-year staggered terms. This committee would have responsibility for the general management of the firm not delegated to your firm administrator if you have such a position in your firm. Committee responsibilities would include financial management, human resource management/oversight, client development, IT systems oversight, procedures and policies, etc. Establish proper structure for the committee with a chair, identified roles and duties for each member, defined meeting schedule, and agenda and meeting minutes. Define in your partnership agreement those powers that are restricted to a vote by the full partnership and the rules for voting – one partner one vote or vote by percentage interest. Other than those powers restricted to the full partnership partners should let the executive committee manage the firm and not second guess.

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

Apr 11, 2017


Client and Management Transition in a Larger Law Firm

Question:

I am a member of the executive committee of a seventy-five attorney firm in Houston, Texas. We are a first generation firm. Several of our founders are in their sixties and we have recently begun discussing succession planning and how clients and management duties will be transitioned. We would appreciate your thoughts in these areas.

Response:

In larger firms, clients are more likely to be large sophisticated clients, possibly Fortune 500 companies, which refer many matters to the firm during the course of a year. Often such clients may be both a blessing and a curse for the firm. A blessing in that their business provides the firm with huge legal fees during the course of a year. A curse in that their business represents a large percent of the firm’s annual fee collections and a significant business risk if the firm were to lose the client. An effective client transition is critical, takes time, and must be well planned.

Successful client transition – moving clients from one generation to the next – is a major challenge for larger firms. Shifting clients is not an individual responsibility but a firm responsibility. To effectively transition clients the individual lawyer, with clients, must work together with the firm to insure the clients receive quality legal services throughout the transition process. Both the individual lawyer and the firm must be committed to keeping clients in the firm when the senior attorneys retire. Potential obstacles include:

In larger firms, partners may have management responsibilities as well as client responsibilities. A retiring partner may be a managing partner, executive committee chair or member, or serve as a chair or member on other firm committees. Retiring partners will have to transition these responsibilities to other partners in the firm.

Transitioning client relationships and management responsibilities effectively can and where possible should take a number of years – preferably five years – typically not less than three years. For this reason, many firms use five-year phase down programs for retiring partners. These plans provide detailed timelines and action steps for transitioning client relationships and management responsibilities.

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

 

Dec 27, 2016


Law Practice Management – Goals for 2017

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for a Personal and Professional 2017

As 2016 comes to an end we begin with a clean slate for 2017. As with anything new – the uncertain future can be scary and exciting at the same time. Year-end provides an opportune time for reflection on the past year and setting goals for the next year – both personal and professional. Goal setting can improve your personal life and your practice.

Here are a few ideas for 2017:

  1. Whether you are in a small firm or a large firm have a sit-down with your team and discuss the past year business results, (successes and failures), what went right and what went wrong, what can be done this year to improve over the past year, and aspirations for the upcoming year.
  2. If billable hour/revenue goals are not set for attorneys and paralegals set expectations for each individual, measure accomplishment, and provide feedback monthly on how they are tracking toward expectations/goal.
  3. Writing and speaking are excellent ways for attorneys to develop their referral networks and enhance the firm’s brand as well as their individual brands via their bios on the firm’s website. Published articles – on the firm’s website and elsewhere – lead to speaking opportunities as well as interviews by reporters and writers as sources for articles that they are writing for other publications. Multipurpose your articles in more than one publication and venue. Turn an article into a webinar, webcast, or live presentation. Commit to writing one article a quarter in 2017 (4 during the year). If you have been writing four articles a year consider writing a book in your field of expertise.
  4. Consider adding a new skill set this year. It may a new legal skill set such as a LLM in tax, litigation, etc. or it may be a non-legal skill set such as in management, counseling, medication, etc.
  5. For attorneys in their late fifties or early sixties give some though this year to your retirement/succession/transition goals.

Best of luck for a prosperous 2017!

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

 

Nov 29, 2016


Law Firm Retainer Management – Replenishment

Question:

Our firm is a five attorney estate planning/administration practice located in Kansas City. Our estate planning work is handled on a flat fee basis for our clients. We collect one half of the fee upon acceptance of the signed engagement letter and the other half upon signing of the estate planning documents. This has worked well for us. However, we are not doing so well with our estate administration work. This work is time billed against a retainer. We do a good job collecting the initial retainer but then we fail to ask for replenishment retainers and when we bill for the remaining work we have collections problems. We have are over six hundred and fifty thousand dollar in accounts receivable over 120 days old. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

This is a common problem that I see in estate planning/administration and family law practices. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Assign someone in the firm to review a Summary Work In Process Report or similar report that shows the dollar value of unbilled work in process and the dollar value of used retainer at least once a week. (Some firms do this daily)
  2. Flag matters that are at 90% of retainer (unbilled work value to unused retainer) and bill clients for retainer replenishment in accordance with firm policy.
  3. Advise responsible/billing attorney of the retainer status, that a bill has been sent for replenishment, and again when the payment of the additional has been received.
  4. Responsible/billing attorney should consider the retainer balance status when scheduling work on specific matters that have reached 90% of retainer balance.
  5. Send retainer replenishment bills as frequent as necessary. It is easier for clients to pay small bills than very large bills.
  6. Stay on top of your receivables – smile and dial (call) after bills have been outstanding for thirty days. Reminder bills and statements are a waste of time.
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

Oct 25, 2016


Law Firm Management – Excessive Collaboration

Question:

I am a partner in a twelve attorney general practice firm in Upstate New York. There are eight partners and four associates in the firm. Our firm was formed five years ago when we broke off from another firm in the area. That firm was led and managed by a dictatorial founder and other attorneys in the firm including partners had no say in management matters whatsoever. When we formed this firm we decided that all attorneys including associates would be included in the decision-making process. All management decisions must be passed by all attorneys in the firm. When we were smaller this worked okay but not that we are larger we are having problems. I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Response:

I concur that a collaborative culture should be a desirable goal. However, your approach takes too much time, wastes attorney time, takes too long for routine decisions to be made, and can lead to less than optimal results. I suggest that you separate management decisions into the following three categories:

All partners will still have control of the major issues and be spared from the day-to-day management and administrative decisions. A managing partner or three member management committee can be elected to handle the management decisions and an office manager/administrator can be hired or promoted from within to handle the day-to-day administrative decisions. Associates can attend periodic firm meetings, service on ad hoc committees, etc.

An approach such as this can still preserve the collaborative culture and you have strived to develop and improve overall management of the firm.

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

Oct 11, 2016


Law Firm Management – Valuing a Personal Injury Practice

Question:

I am the firm administrator for a small personal injury five attorney practice in Des Moines, Iowa. The firm's owner is approaching retirement and is planning on approaching other law firms regarding sale of the practice or merger. He has asked me for reports in order that we can value the practice. QuickBooks is the only software that we use. What reports should I use to establish a value for the practice?

Response:

You will want to start by generating a profit and loss statement and a balance sheet from your software. I would run five years of profit and loss statements and the most recent balance sheet. The profit and loss statements will help you illustrate the revenue, expenses, and profit picture for the past five years. The balance sheet will provide a current financial snapshot of the firm's cash-based financial position. However, since most law firms keep their books on a cash-based basis the largest asset – contingency fee cases in progress – is not reflected on the balance sheet. Neither is any value for practice goodwill. Since you do not have a case management system you will have to setup a spreadsheet with columns for the name of the case, date opened, estimated settlement, estimated fee, client costs/advances, and projected date of receipt of fee. You will have to have the attorneys managing the cases help you with the estimates. These will be the key reports you will need initially.

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

Aug 17, 2016


Law Firm Financial Management – Monday Morning Report

Question:

I am the owner of a seven attorney firm in New York City. I have a bookkeeper that handles the accounting function. I receive monthly financial reports – but I believe I need a better tool to stay on top of my firm. I feel that I am lost, I don't want to take time to access different software modules such as our billing system, accounts payable system, general ledger system, etc. to get the information that I need to effectively manage the firm. We use Timeslips for billing and QuickBooks for bookkeeping. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

I hear what you are saying. Most software program are good at giving you reams of paper in the form of reports but not so good at giving you the summary reports you need. Software companies are beginning to develop dashboards in their systems but the lower end systems do not give you what you need. You might consider tasking your bookkeeper with providing you with a Monday Morning Report (created in Excel) every Monday morning with the following summary information:

  1. Cash in bank balances for each account
  2. Bills due this week (vendors, payroll, taxes, draws)
  3. Anticipated payments from clients (new engagement retainers – flat fee and time bill)
  4. AR Balance
  5. Work in process balance
  6. Number of new retained matters for the month
  7. Total billable hours for each timekeeper (month and year to date)        
If after reviewing the Monday Morning Report you have questions ask for a more detailed report.
 

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

 

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