Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Performance

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

 

Jun 15, 2016


Law Firm Performance Management – Managing Performance Reviews

Question:

Our firm is a 15 attorney firm in Kansas City, Missouri. I am a member of the management committee and our committee is charged with the responsibility of determining partner, associate, and staff compensation. Several years ago we switched to a competency based goal driven system for partners, associates, and staff. The system requires self-evaluations, peer evaluations for partners and associates, and self-evaluations. This requires extensive performance reviews, tracking, scheduling, and documentation. We are using Excel spreadsheets and MS Word documents and having a hard time managing all of this. Do you have any ideas?

Response:

With 15 attorneys you probably have close to 30 people in the firm. I would look into performance management software (performance appraisal software) to management the process. Typical features of performance management/appraisal software, depending on the vendor, include:

Some vendors offer cloud-based solutions and others offer install software solutions.

Just a few of the vendors include:

Some of these solutions can be pricey – so look into a solution is right-sized for your firm. I have firm's your size using solutions that are costing around $3000.00 per year.

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

 

Aug 30, 2015


Law Firm Associates – Evaluation of Performance

Question:

We are a six partner litigation firm in Des Moines, Iowa. This year we hired two associates and they are our first. We have not provided them with the best mentoring or guidance – it has sort of baptism by fire. I would appreciate your thoughts on what we should be doing concerning performance management.

Response:

Baptism by fire is not the best approach for managing associate performance. It may work in the long term but in the short term it will result in excessive "spin time" and lost revenue and profits for the firm. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. To be effective, evaluation of associates must be meaningful. 
  2. Evaluation for associates right out of school should be done every six months for two years and annually thereafter.
  3. Written criteria must be developed and communicated to everyone as the basis for evaluation.
  4. The associate should be evaluated by every lawyer with whom the associate works.
  5. The evaluation process should be developmental. Weaknesses must be openly discussed, with a plan devised to eliminate the weaknesses. Professional goals should be set each year.
  6. Personal plans should be completed each year and be part of the evaluation process.
  7. The evaluations must be done timely.

Good luck with your program.

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

 

 

Aug 11, 2015


Law Firm Administrator – Performance and Expectations

Question:

I am the managing partner in an 8 attorney general practice firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A year and a half ago we hired our first legal administrator to run all business aspects of our practice. We decided that we wanted more than an office manager – we wanted an administrator to serve in the capacity of a COO. We hired an experienced administrator at a good salary, developed a well-conceived job description, and the work began. My partners and I are frustrated. We have to follow-up on projects and task assignments, do not see the leadership that we had hoped for, and have concerns that our administrator may not be up to the tasks. We just realized that we have not have a performance review since he started. I would appreciate your suggestions.

Response:

Sounds like you did a good job clarifying the role and initially laying out your expectations. However, you cannot stop there. You have not conducted a performance review and I suspect that he has received little feedback regarding his performance. During the first year feedback needs to be ongoing with a mini review every ninety days and ongoing coaching and follow-up. You need to conduct a review with him ASAP, layout expectations and compare to actual performance, discuss gaps, and reach an agreement as to a plan with milestones and dates to resolve performance gaps. They you will have a better picture as to whether your administrator was the right hire or not.

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

 

Aug 04, 2015


Law Firm Associate Attorney Performance

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 8 attorney general practice firm in Chicago western suburbs. We have 5 partners and three associates. For years it was just the five partners all who started the firm together. In the last three years we added our associates. We are not making money from our associates and wondering what we need to be doing differently. One associates is logging 925 billable hours, one is logging 1200 billable hours, and the other 1400 billable hours. You thoughts are welcomed.

Response:

If these are full time associate positions and they have been with your firm a couple of years you should be getting 1600 – 1700 billable hours per year. If your firm does litigation – 1800+ billable hours. Some practice areas such as estate planning/elder law – range in the 1500-1600 hour area.

The starting place is setting expectations. During interviews with associate attorneys at client law firms I ask – what is your billable hour goal/expectation, etc. Frequently I am told that they have no idea or they tell me that they think that the expectation is such and such. Other times they advise me that the firm simply does not have a billable hour expectation. Of course the partners tell a different story and can't believe that their associates are not clear on billable hour expectations. 

Some firms put in place auto pilot type incentive bonuses based upon hours or dollars and believe that these bonuses in themselves will motivate performance and as a result billable hour expectations are not needed. Often this is simply not the case.

I believe that baseline expectations should be spelled out and measured monthly. These baseline expectations are the minimal requirement to remain employed and justify the base salary that the associate is being paid. If these baseline expectations are not been met, you must had some heart-to -heart discussions in real time. Outline the problem and consequences for non-compliance. 

The billable hours your associates are logging just won't cut it. If the work is there they simply must get their hours up to desirable levels. You might look into the reasons for the low hours – work ethic, time management issues, or problems with timekeeping. If there is not enough work – long term – you may have to consider reducing the work hours that you are paying for.

It sounds like you may not be adequately mentoring or training your associates. Consider performance reviews and active mentoring and coaching. Insure that you are providing adequate feedback to your associates. Your time investment in the short term will pay dividends in the long term. 

 

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

 

Apr 14, 2015


Law Firm Associate Compensation – Bonus Tied to Performance

Question:

I am a partner in a 14 attorney firm in San Francisco and I serve on our associate compensation committee. Presently associate compensation is based on a salary and discretionary bonus. I would like to see a stronger tie to performance. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

I believe that salary should be the primary element in your compensation system for associates. However, you might want to pay a performance bonus for working attorney fees in excess of a certain threshold – say three times salary. So, if you are paying an associate $100,000 you might pay a bonus of 20% for fees collected in excess $300,000 ($75,000 per quarter) and pay the bonuses quarterly. In order to reward other contributions you might want to tie additional bonus to accomplishment of specific strategic goals agreed to in advance each year by you and each associate. For example:

Thus, a maximum of 10% of salary could be received by the associate in goal bonus ($10,000 for a $100,000 associate) and $20,000 could be received if $400,000 in fees were collected – for a total of $30,000 in bonuses.

The goals should be require some degree of stretch and should be result orientated rather than activity orientated. Chair on a bar association committee is a result – attending bar associate meetings without being notices is an activity.

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

 

Feb 04, 2015


Law Firm Financial Performance – Billable TIme and Fees

Question:

I am the managing partner of a four attorney (all partners) estate planning firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We are all working hard but I do not believe that we are making the money that we should be. Last year our fee collections were $600,000 and our net income $250,000 which was the total amount that was available for partner compensation. Thus, we each made $62,500.00. Each of us have been practicing for over 20 years and I believe this is totally unacceptable. We appear to be busy and have plenty of work. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

I agree that the firm should be doing much better. Regardless of practice area (unless you are an insurance defense firm) and where you are located I believe you should be averaging $300,000+ fee collections per lawyer. You are averaging $150,000 per lawyer. You expenses of $350,000 ($67,500 per lawyer) is actually low and not the problem. You need to dig into the numbers and look into why the revenue numbers are not higher. Usually the culprits are lack of business, inadequate billing rate (or effective rate for flat fee matters), not putting in the hours, or poor time management and time keeping habits. Each attorney should strive for 70% of worked time to be billable (client production) time. Lexis has published a couple of studies on billable hours that you might find useful - Billable Hours Survey Report, Non-Billable Hours Survey Report and Where Do all the Hours Go

I find that many estate planning firms that do much of their work on a flat fee basis often are not realizing effective rates anywhere near their target time billing rates.

Look into the numbers and determine the culprit or culprits and then develop a strategy for dealing with each one – marketing to improving work ethic and time management and time keeping habits.

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

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