Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Partners

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Aug 15, 2018


Six Worries That Keep Law Firm Managing Partners Awake at Night

Question: 

I am a new managing partner in a thirty-five attorney firm in Tucson, Arizona. I replaced the previous managing partner who retired. He was the firm founder and had been in the position since the firm’s inception. I have had this position for six months and I am finding the job overwhelming – trying to serve my clients and managing the firm at the same time is very difficult. What are the major challenges that managing partners are having.

Response: 

I understand and appreciate your situation. Managing partners advise me that the following challenges are what keeps them awake at night:

  1. Managing cash flow. Investments in technology, higher salaries for attorneys and staff, and longer collection cycles are all having a negative impact upon cash flow. Contingency fee firms have additional cash flow challenges. Managing partners must insure that client bills are going out promptly, client payments are deposited promptly, and vendor bills are paid “just in time.” Cash shortfalls will have to be financed with additional partner capital contributions or bank loans.
  2. Satisfying hard to please clients. Institutional clients are demanding more from their law firms in terms of service offerings, geographical coverage, responsiveness, and fee arrangements. Law firms are finding that the market for legal services is a buyers market and that they must continually innovate in order to continue satisfying client demands. Many are conducting client satisfaction interviews with these clients in order to measure client satisfaction and identify needed improvement areas and new opportunities.
  3. Competition from other law firms and non-law firm service providers. The oversupply of lawyers, advertising, and the internet has increased competition between law firms. In addition to the competition between law firms, law firms also also facing competition from other service providers as well. Managing partners are finding they have to allocate more resources to advertising and marketing. Websites, internet search engine optimization, and pay-per-click internet advertising is becoming the norm for many firms.
  4. Getting new clients and keeping existing clients. Today clients are less loyal and more likely to switch law firms than in years past. Managing partners are having to work harder to retain existing clients and acquire new clients. Acquisition of new institutional clients often requires responding to request for proposals, bidding for engagements and projects, preparation of quality proposals, and making presentations to prospective clients.
  5. Succession and retirement of senior partners. Many law firms are experiencing a “bunching” of numerous senior partners approaching retirement at the same time. Succession and transition planning is critical to the continued success of these firms. Getting partners to openly discuss their retirement plans is a major challenge that managing partners are facing.
  6. Getting and retaining top talent. Acquiring and retaining top lawyer and staff talent is becoming more difficult and more costly for law firms. Even though there is an oversupply of lawyers on the market there is still a shortage of experienced lawyer talent in many practice areas. Lawyer search timelines and recruiting cost are on the rise.

 

 

 

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

Jul 24, 2018


Law Firm Succession Planning – Getting Partners to Discuss their Future Plans

Question: 

I am the firm administrator for a twenty-five attorney firm in Baltimore, Maryland. We have fourteen partners and nine are in their sixties. We have no succession or transition plans in place for senior partners. Every time I bring up the topic there is a resistance to even discuss the topic. I would appreciate any help that you can provide.

Response: 

A decade ago, only the more proactive, well-managed law firms had in place programs and provisions for senior partner succession and transition. A majority of firms simply had not addressed or even given serious thought to the eventual retirement and exit of their senior partners. However, in the last five years, I have seen a lot of interest in succession, transition, and exit planning. The avalanche of baby boomers reaching retirement age has fueled this interest. Firms from the largest to the smallest are getting proactive and actively addressing succession and transition of senior partners. Some are putting in place formal programs, while others are at least addressing succession and transition informally using ad hoc approaches.

A recent Altman Weil Transition Survey gives us a glimpse of what other law firms are doing. Here are a few highlights from their survey concerning responding law firms.

Many other law firms are finding it a major challenge to get senior attorneys to talk and share their plans concerning retirement. In many cases the families of senior attorneys are having the same challenges. Coming to terms with aging is a difficult topic. In the case of law firms, often senior attorneys simply don’t know their future plans themselves, need the income, fear that others shareholders/partners will steal their clients, or the firm simply does not have a mechanism in place that mandates transition planning. Some firms are implementing mandatory retirement and others are putting in place financial incentives to motivate early transition of clients. Client loss is the most significant concern.

Keep at it and don’t give up but it may take a series of baby steps. Educate your partners on the risks of “doing nothing”. Provide them with articles and other resources and keep the topic on the agenda.

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

Aug 22, 2017


Measuring Law Partners’ Performance

Question: 

I am a partner in a twelve attorney firm in Houston. The firm has five partners and seven associates. We are a first generation firm and we, the partners, have never practiced in other law firms. Currently, the partners have equal ownership interests and are compensated equally. We are experiencing issues with the present method of partner compensation and we are giving some thought to considering other approaches. One of the issues that we are trying to get our heads around is how to measure each partners’ performance – value – and overall contribution to the firm. Do you have any suggestions?

Response: 

The first step in a partner’s compensation plan is to develop a system for measuring each partner’s performance. Measuring performance involves selecting the appropriate: (1) performance measurement factors, (2) performance measurement programs, and (3) performance measurement reports.

Performance Measurement Factors 

Each firm must decide on its own particular basis for rewarding quality performance by its partners. Factors must be selected against which each partner’s performance can be measured. Then the firm must decide how much weight to assign to each performance factor. The performance factors commonly used to measure partner performance include: (1) professional competency, (2) business development, (3) productivity, and (4) profitability.

Professional Competence 

A partner’s professional competence is usually the most important factor in measuring partner performance and is the most difficult to measure because it cannot be easily quantified and it has to be determined subjectively. In addition to technical proficiency professional competence also includes leadership ability, associate mentoring and development, management contribution, and other contributions made to the firm.

Business Development 

In many firms a partner’s ability to generate new business is an important performance factor in measuring partner performance. Client origination can be measured in terms of fees generated from new clients and fees generated from new business for existing clients.

Productivity 

A partner’s productivity can be measured by determining a partner’s: (1) chargeable hours related to client matters and (2) nonchargeable hours related to those firm matters which the firm has recognized an important partner responsibilities. Another approach is measuring billed or collected fees. Another measure of a partner’s productivity is his or her pyramid of responsibility – the number of associates chargeable hours or collected fees for which the partner is responsible.

Profitability

A partner’s profitability can be measured using three factors: (1) fees billed to clients, (2) realization of fees billed and (3) speed of collection of fees billed. Other measures include collected, effective rate per hour, etc.

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

 

Jan 17, 2017


Law Firm Structure – Sole Owner vs Having Partners

Question:

I am the owner of an eight attorney insurance defense firm in San Antonio, Texas. I have been practicing fifteen years. I am forty-five years old. Many of my peers in firms my size are in partnerships. Is my situation unusual? Should I consider having partners?

Response:

Years ago I would have said that a firm such as yours would be a partnership or other organizational form with multiple equity owners. This has changed. I am working with more firms your size and larger with sole owners and no other equity owners. One such firm has twenty-five lawyers and seventy-five support staff.

I am assuming that this has worked well for you. You have the benefit of financial leverage and not having to share the pie with other equity owners. You call the shots and don’t have to share decision making with others. You probably are earning a nice income.

At your present age there is nothing wrong with continuing this for awhile. However, eventually you will have to consider your succession strategy, how you will exit the practice, and to whom you will pass the baton. The other issue is a career advancement strategy for your existing associates. Some may expect to eventually have an ownership stake in the firm. Your associates need to progress in their careers – not just as technicians – but also as business men and women and managers.

Don’t wait to long to begin this process. However, resist the temptation to make everyone an equity owner. In a insurance defense firm with eight attorneys I would try to maintain a ratio of four associates to each equity owner – thus no more than two – maybe three equity owners.

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

 

Sep 14, 2016


Law Firm Succession – Transition of Partners and Transition Plan

Question:

Our firm is a twenty-five lawyer firm with ten partners. Six of these partners are in their sixties. What should we be doing concerning planning the succession of these partners?

Response:

In a larger firm with multiple partners, shareholders, or members, succession and transition involves transitioning client relationships and management roles. Such transitions take time. Many larger firms have five-year phasedown retirements for this reason and require equity owners to properly transition clients and management responsibilities. Some firms tie retirement pay or compensation to completing a successful transition program.

A plan might included the following:  

Some firms are providing economic incentives for the transitioning partner to handoff work to others.

The internal succession/transition plan provides a mechanism for the firm to outline a general timeline for a senior partner’s retirement, a process to effect an orderly transition of clients and management responsibilities, and a vehicle for starting initial discussions.

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

Mar 30, 2016


Law Firm Compensation for TIme Spent by Partners Managing The Firm

Question:

Firm has three partners, two associates, and 2 staff members. We are a new firm and just started in practice a year ago. We are equal partners and we allocate compensation equally based upon these ownership interests. We believe the system has worked well for us but we been considering whether one person should handle all the management duties and if so how that person should be compensated. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

First I would identify the duties and hours involved and make sure the duties are managing partner level duties and not office manager level duties that should be handled by staff. Delegate or consider hiring an office manager for duties than can be delegated. For duties that can't be delegated I would suggest you that a look at the hours that will be required and determine a  fixed additional compensation amount based on expected hours and the partner's standard billing rate. The partner's compensation would be his/her fixed additional compensation amount plus his/her allocation based upon ownership interest.

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

 

Jan 06, 2016


Law Firm Managment – Do Your Non-Equity Partners and Associates Really Want to be Equity Partners?

Question:

I am a member of our firm's executive committee. We are an 18 attorney firm in Baltimore with four equity partners, five non equity partners, and nine associates. Recently we asked one of our non-equity partners to join the equity ranks and he said no. We were shocked and taken by surprise. Is this a common occurrence? We would like to hear your thoughts.

Response:

This is becoming a more common occurrence and this is causing havoc with growth, succession and transition plans. Many law firms are seeing a growing sense of disillusionment from young lawyers that may not want to be an equity partner. While they want to be lawyers they do not want to take the financial and other business risks nor make the other work commitments such as working nights, weekends, and the 24-hour commitment that has historically been the requirements for equity partners in law firms. Work-life balance has become a priority for more younger lawyers.

I believe that you should through performance reviews, survey questionnaires, and other tools gather information sooner than later to get a feel for where your non-equity partners and associates stand as far as attitudes toward business and financial risk, desirability of being an equity owner, and willingness to invest capital and time in the firm. This will give you a feel for your mix. If it looks like you have too many worker bees – revamp your recruiting strategy – new attorneys or laterals – accordingly and look for attorneys that have an interest and the mindset that it takes to be an equity owner.

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

 

 

 

Dec 01, 2015


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Arrangement When Buying a Senior Partner’s Interest

Question:

I am the owner of a solo practice family law firm in Jackson, Mississippi. I  have been in practice four years. I have been approached by a senior solo attorney that has a well established family law practice that generates $800,000 annually and is looking to sell his practice. We envision a merger where I would make an initial payment upon merging my firm with his and then buyout his interest over a five year period. We have agreed on a fixed price for his ownership interest. However, we are not sure how to handle compensation. He wants to continue to work for another five to seven years. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Your approach will depend upon how you are going to structure your initial ownership percentages and whether the other attorney plans on continuing to work fulltime or whether he plans on scaling back. Are you going in with a minority interest and then acquiring additional interest as you make the agreed payments?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Base compensation totally on ownership interests. As you acquire additional interest your compensation would increase.
  2. Agree to a base salary for each of you and then allocate excess firm profits after your salaries based on ownership interest percentages.
  3. Create two profit pools. One pool would be 70% of total profit called performance profit pool and the other pool would be 30% of total profit. The 70% pool would be allocated to each partner based upon individual performance as determined by a weighted average of each partner's origination/working attorney collected fee receipts. The 30% pool would be allocated to each partner in accordance with ownership interest percentages.
  4. Create two profit centers (one for each partner) and allocate income and expenses to each profit center. Each partner's compensation would be based upon their individual profit center.
There are as many different approaches are there are law firms.
 
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Jul 07, 2015


Law Firm Ownership – Acquiring a Founding Partner’s Interest – Question from a Reader

Question:

I have a quick question on a recent column of yours that appeared on last week's blog and Illinois State Bar Association (in an ISBA email).

You refer to the following:

“One to one and a half times the owner's average earnings for the past five years is typical. "Does this mean the total firm revenues or the amount the owner attorney received as income? I thought I have seen that multiplier to be on total firm revenue.

Thank you!

Response:

I was speaking in terms of net profit or earnings – not gross fee income.

It is true that we often speak in terms of a multiple of gross fee income when trying to value a firm. Typically a best case is a multiple of 1.0 – often less – .60 – .75 or even less. Downward adjustments are made to the multiple based upon practice risk, how high the overhead is, likelihood of clients or referral sources remaining etc. 

For example:

Law Firm A – has $1,000,000 in gross income and the net earnings of the owner is $600,00

 vs.

Law Firm B – is a collections practice – very high overhead intensive practice- has $1,000,000 in gross income and the net earnings is $150,000.

Using a multiple x gross has to be discounted substantially for law firm B due to risk, overhead, etc.

It is sometimes simpler to think in terms of net profit – with the typical ranges between 1.5 – 2.0.

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

Jul 01, 2015


Law Firm Ownership – Acquiring a Founding Partner’s Interest

Question:

I am a senior associate in a eight attorney elder law firm in Miami. There is one owner (founder) and seven associates including myself. The owner has approached me with a proposal to over time buy out his interests. I am the only senior associate in the firm and the only associate that he has approached concerning selling his interests. Specifically his proposal is as follows:

  1. Pay him $825.00 for the practice over five years.
  2. After five years I will own 100% of the shares.
  3. My compensation arrangement will remain the same (salary plus formula percentage incentive bonus based upon my responsible attorney collections) until I have acquired 100 percent interest of the firm.
  4. The owner wants to work in the firm indefinitely after his interest are acquired as an employee or Of Counsel.

I don't know how to respond to this proposal and would appreciate your thoughts? Is it fair? Does it make sense?

Response:

It makes sense for him. Seriously, you are going to need much more information that this proposal. To get started you need to ask for and review the following:

  1. Profit and Loss statements and Balance Sheets for the past five years.
  2. Tax returns or Schedule C for the past five years.
  3. A report showing the current accrual based assets – mainly unbilled work in process and accounts receivable. There are often the largest assets that a firm has and it is not on a typical cash-based profit and loss statement.
  4. A list showing any off-balance sheet liabilities.
  5. Copies of the office lease and other leases to determine lease liabilities.

From these documents you can get a feel for the cash-based net equity, the accrual-based net equity after considering work in process and accounts receivable and unrecorded liabilities.

Two numbers that may be even more important is the average fee revenue generated over the past five years and the average compensation (net profit plus compensation – W2 and K1 earnings) that the owner has been earning over the past five years.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. One to one and a half times the owner's average earnings for the past five years is typical. So from this guideline you can evaluate the appropriateness of the $825,000.
  2. What assets are included? Will he exclude any assets?
  3. Will you be able to acquire minority interests over the five years as you pay towards the payout? I will insist on such.
  4. If you do acquire minority interests as you go will there be a profit pie for you to share in or will the owner increase his compensation, personal perks he passes through the firm, cut down on his working time, etc.? You should get a handle on compensation as well.
  5. I would not have the owner's employment open ended after you acquire 100% interest. Have some protection in case he fails to produce or has physical or mental problems that affects his performance. Suggest an Of Counsel agreement that gets reviewed and renewed annually.
  6. Consider whether there is a transition that insures that the clients and referral sources stay with you after he retires. If he has not groomed you, involved you in relationships with clients and referral sources, had you giving seminars, and plugged you into referral sources future business could drop off dramatically. This should be factored into the value.
  7. Weigh the cost-benefit of starting your practice v.s. purchasing his practice. 

Good luck!

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

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