Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Apr 17, 2019


Law Firm Merger/Acquisition – Should We Merge or Acquire

Question: 

I am the managing partner of an eight attorney firm in Dayton Ohio. We have two equity partners (both in our early fifties), two non-equity partners, and four associates. Our practice is a very niche specific practice and there are only three or four other practices in the state that do the work that we do. There is another firm in Cleveland, Ohio that has approached us regarding possible merger or acquisition. The firm does similar work that our firm does but this firm also handles some areas that we don’t handle but would like to get into that falls within our niche area. There are two founding partners in the firm – one in his late sixties and the other in her early seventies, one associate attorney, and four staff members. The two partners are planning on moving towards retirement and are looking for a succession strategy. They have not shared with us their timeline or any financial information. We have had one face-to-face meeting and several phone calls. We would appreciate your take on this, next steps, and whether we should pursue further.

Response: 

You have not indicated whether your firm has a strategic plan? If you do my next question is whether this practice area and having another office three and one half hours away supports the vision of your firm?  Often, but not always, a merger will emerge as a way to achieve some aspect of the firm’s vision. For example, a merger might help the firm:

The above would be right reasons to consider a merger or acquisition.

You should take pause if the reasons you are considering merging or acquiring the other firm include:

If your firm does not have a strategic plan you may want to at least engage in some form of internal self-analysis to insure that you are looking through a clear lens, are building a sound business case for the merger or acquisition, and are identifying the characteristics of the ideal merger/acquisition candidate.

In your situation you are looking at actually acquiring a practice three and a half hours away with two senior partners that will be retiring. Obviously, there are risks but the devil will be in the details that will come out of a thorough due diligence examination which I believe is your next step. Here is a link to a prior post concerning information that you should ask the other firm to provide. 

Your due diligence examination should focus on:

Right up front you should ask the partners in the other firm their specific timeline for retirement and how long they will be available for client and management transition. A key issue will be whether clients will remain with the firm when they retire? Are there others in the firm, non-equity partners or associates, that the clients have confidence in to the extent they would remain with the firm or will this all be on your shoulders as owners of the acquired firm? The other question you should should ask up front is what the partners of the other firm are looking for in the form of purchase price or compensation for the firm.

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

 

Jan 09, 2019


Law Firm Management – Held Hostage by Office Manager or Bookkeeper

Question

I am a partner is a small family law firm in Tucson, Arizona. There are two partners in the firm and two associates. We have an office manager/bookkeeper, a receptionist, and two legal assistants. The office manager was hired one year ago. The other partner is retiring next year and I am purchasing the practice from him. I became a partner last year. I am new to the management side of the practice and have been relying on the office manager who also serves as our bookkeeper. I am at my wits ends with our office manager and I believe that she is not suited for the position. She has no organizational skills, she misses deadlines, vendor bills are not paid on time, and client bills are not sent out accurately and timely. I have counselled her on numerous occasions to no avail. I believe we need to replace her but I am reluctant since no one else here knows what she does or how she does it. A new billing and accounting system was implemented last year and she was the only one trained on the system. What do we do if we terminate her or she quits? We are hostages. I would appreciate any ideas of thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

I understand and appreciate your situation. It sounds like you have not documented your procedures in the form of a firm procedures manual and everything is in the office manager’s head. This makes it difficult for someone to take over her responsibilities if she leaves the firm for whatever reason but not impossible. It will probably be difficult to get her to develop one now as it may signal to her that her time with the firm is short and she may start looking for another position. You may have to just bit the bullet, terminate her, restaff the position, and go from there.  It won’t be fun but you will make it though. You might consider the following:

  1. The office manager probably has handwritten notes, etc. that she has used to roughly document how she does things. Collect these and review these.
  2. Contact your billing and accounting software provider and have them help you will any training needs you have as well as procedural issues. Back in my old life when I did software work with law firms I often was called and assisted firms with such situations.

After you get the position staffed and past the crisis develop a detailed written manual of procedures for the office. Not just the office management side but the client service side – attorneys and paralegals as well.

I believe that it is imperative that owners and partners in a law firm have access to financial information on a timely basis, understand the information, and use the information in a proactive way to manage the practice. I suggest:

  1. The owner, or an appointed partner(s) in larger firms, obtain a basic level of understanding in basic accounting/bookkeeping and law firm financial management.
  2. The owner, or an appointed partner(s) in larger firms, obtain detailed training on the accounting software system(s) along-side the bookkeeper when the system is implemented. In addition to general operation of the software, special training should also be obtained on interpretation and use of the management reports.
  3. Insure that you have accounting controls in place and appropriate segregation of accounting duties.
  4. Outline your expectations and requirements of the office manager/bookkeeper, meet with her/him, and communicate appropriately.

Click here for a bookkeeper listing of duties.

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

 

Aug 07, 2018


Firm Administrator vs Director of Administration or Chief Operating Officer

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen-attorney firm in South Florida. I am the senior member of a three member executive committee. Our firm is in the second generation of partners. The founders retired five years ago. Upon their retirements we changed our governance from a managing partner to an executive committee model supplemented with a office administrator – some refer to the position as the office manager. Our executive committee model has worked relatively well. The administrator that we hired five years ago is still in place but we are not satisfied with his performance. We believe that this is in part due to the fact that our expectations have changed. When we hired him we thought that we needed an office administrator primarily to manage the office staff and the billing and bookkeeping function. So we hired an administrator that had worked, as his first job out of junior college, as an office manager in an eight-attorney firm for two years and had an associates degree in accounting. He has does a good job with managing the staff and the billing and bookkeeping. However, we have now discovered that we want more – we want executive level leadership. We want someone that is respected by all the attorneys and can:

  1. Provide overall leadership
  2. Help lead the executive committee
  3. Develop create solutions to problems
  4. Lead the associates
  5. Serve as marketing director, etc.
  6. Take the lead in strategic planning and implementation of a strategic plan

I welcome your thoughts and opinions.

Response: 

Yes your expectations have indeed changed. Your administrator has not been able to grow in the role expectations that you now have for the position and does not have the education or experience to meet your new demands.

My observations are as follows:

  1. You would like your administrator to act and think like an owner/partner.
  2. You would like your administrator to be a quick learner.
  3. You would like your administrator to provide a higher level of management insight and bring business training and experience to the table.
  4. You would like your administrator to be accepted as a peer professional by all the attorneys in the firm.
  5. You would like your administrator to be innovative and willing to question the status quo.
  6. You would like your administrator to provide recommendations concerning new methods for  improving the firm’s operations and profitability.
  7. You would like your administrator to be able to resolve most administrative issues with minimal guidance from the executive committee.

I believe that you would like an administrator to serve more in the role as a Director of Administrator or Chief Operating Officer and your present administrator simply does not have the education, experience, and maturity to function in this capacity. If you want someone to serve in this capacity you will have to hire someone with degree credentials – such as a MBA or CPA, that will facilitate the candidate’s acceptance by other attorneys in the firm as a peer professional as well as provide the candidate with the academic tools needed to carry out the expectations of the position. In addition, you need to hire someone that has ten years plus as a director of administration or chief operating officer position in a similar size firm or company – preferably a firm that provides professional services such as a law firm, accounting firm, engineering firm, etc. You will have to look beyond the titles that candidates have had and inquire into the specific duties and roles performed. You will need to back up this inquiry with solid reference inquiries.

A director of administrator or chief operating officer position is rare in a fourteen-attorney firm. Many firms your size have administrators or office managers similar to the office administrator that you currently have. The downside to establishing such a position in your firm will be the salary that you will have to pay – more than many of your attorneys and even some partners are being paid – and turnover in the position when an opportunity from a much larger firm comes along.

Click here for our blog on governance

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

Aug 01, 2018


Law Firm Merger or Of Counsel Arrangement and Due Diligence Information from Larger Firm

Question: 

I am a solo practitioner in upstate New York and I hope to retire three years from now and move to Florida and spend my retirement years there with my family. I have been talking with a larger firm, twenty-attorneys, in Albany that has an interest in me either merger my practice with their firm or joining as Of Counsel. My plan would be to work three more years, gradually phase back, and transition clients and referral sources.

I have had several meetings with the partners in the firm and they are now asking me for detailed due diligence information – tax returns, financial statements, etc. I have no problem providing these documents however I was wondering if I should be asking them for information. What do you think?

Response:

I believe that you are entitled to similar due diligence information from the other firm. You need to see what you are getting into.

Usually the smaller firm gets less – but they should share some information with you as you have with them.

I would ask for the following from them (or discuss with them):

  1. Five years profit and loss statements, balance sheets and tax returns.
  2. Lawyer and staff headcount for each of those five years.
  3. Current hourly billing rates.
  4. Description of practice area mix of clients by dollars collected – practice type and office location.
  5. Description of how the firm bills (hourly, flat rate, contingency)
  6. Copy of all leases (office space, equipment)
  7. Copy of malpractice insurance policy and last application.
  8. Salaries and benefits for equity and non-equity partners.
  9. Any governance plan or agreements.
  10. Copies of all partnership agreements or operating agreements for all business entities.
  11. Any documents pertaining to the retirement of partners including information as to obligations for partners who have already retired and those nearing retirement.
  12. Compensation data for equity and non-equity partners.
  13. Copy of the written compensation plan for equity partners if one exists or if not a discussion of how the compensation system works.
  14. Information on the line of credit and copies of all debt agreements.
  15. Copies of third party vendor agreements (equipment leases, subscriptions)
  16. Copy of the firm’s present malpractice insurance policy and most recent application.
  17. List of benefits provided.

I presume that you all have discussed any potential client conflicts of interest, etc.

You need to zero in whether the arrangement is going to be a merger or Of Counsel arrangement. If the arrangement is to be an Of Counsel arrangement the firm will be less likely to be willing to share all the information on the list and you will have less need as well. However, I believe you should at least have the basic financial and compensation information.

Click here for our blog on mergers

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

 

Oct 21, 2014


Law Firm Insurance Defense Work – Opportunity or Commodity?

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 5 attorney general practice firm in Kansas City, Missouri. My book of business is down and I have been considering taking on insurance defense work. During the past year  I had the opportunity of working as co-counsel on a couple of insurance defense matters and enjoyed the experience and the work. It seems to me that representing insurance companies would represent a steady flow of work. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Insurance defense work can be a blessing and a curse. Working for insurance companies often does result in a steady flow of work but at the following costs:

  1. Low billing rates – often in the range of $145 – $175 for partners and even lower for associates – auto mechanics and plumbers often fare better
  2. Unrealistic controls.
  3. Mandated billing guidelines regarding what can, what cannot, and how much time can be billed
  4. Strict litigation guidelines that dictate how the case is handled and managed.
  5. Case budget requirements
  6. Audits of your legal bills
  7. Limited loyalty and inability to develop close relationships with the client due to centralized claims offices and restrictions on social activities

So, in exchange for a flow of cases you may be selling your freedom, independence, and your soul. It is hard to be successful if you dabble in insurance defense. You either need to be in or out and if you are in you would have to leverage the practice in order to be profitable at the lower billable rates. Be careful about relying on a large volume of work from one just one company. Consider diversifying your case portfolio to include a mix of higher stakes cases, if you are able, such as professional liability, products liability, medical malpractice, commercial litigation, and major construction defects.

Realize going in that insurance defense work is commodity work and insurance companies are shopping for the best deal and the best price – so is your competitive strategy to be a low cost provider?

https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/blog/category/strategy/

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

Apr 01, 2014


Law Firm Governance – Firm Administrator With Managing Partner or Management Committee

Question:

I am a partner in a 9 attorney firm in Topeka, Kansas. There are three active partners in the firm. For years day to day management has been the responsibility of a managing partner that we appoint from time to time. We have just hired our first firm administrator - starts in two weeks – who is experienced and has worked in other law firms. Should we continue to have a managing partner or consider a different structure?

Response:

Typically firms your size that have professional firm administrators empower the firm administrator to manage the business side of the law firm and have either a managing partner, management/executive committee, or all partners manage the client service side of the practice. The firm administrator typically reports to the managing partner, management/executive committee, or all partners. In essence there are three levels of management – the partnership which services like a board of directors, the managing partner or management/executive committee that oversees the professional side of the practice, and the firm administrator that manages the business side of the firm.

I find that in firms your size with firm administrators a three member management/executive committee is more common. Since your firm only has three partners – initially your management/executive committee would be all three partners. As you add more partners you would move toward electing your management/executive committee.

While either form would work in your situation – I suggest you consider eliminating the managing partner position and having the three partners serve as the management committee and have the firm administrator report to that group.

Click here for our blog on governance

Click here for my article on leadership

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

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