Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Productivity

May 29, 2019

Associate Attorney Productivity When Client Work is Slow


Our firm is a sixteen attorney municipal law firm in Detroit with six partners and ten associates. Like most firms that do municipal work we must deal with lower billing rates than other firms charge. The volume of our work can also fluctuate at times. All of our work is billed by the hour and billable hours is our most important key performance indicator. Our associates have a billable hour expectation of 1800 annual billable hours and only two of our associates are even close to reaching 1800 hours. Some are not even reaching 1200 hours. Some of the associates have the excuse that they don’t have enough work. We do not believe that this is the case. I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter.


This seems to be a common issue. Failure to attain billable hour goals can be caused by any one or a combination of the following:

  1. Work ethic and simply not working enough “worked hours”
  2. Lack of work
  3. Poor time management habits
  4. Poor time keeping/recording habits

I would start by observing the number of worked hours they are putting in. Are the putting in the hours? Observe as well as review their time reports – billable and non-billable time. If you don’t track non-billable time start doing so. Then review and discuss with them their time management and time keeping/recording habits. Questions to ask include:

Review and discuss workload levels of each associate and determine if lack of work is an issue.

I have found that often the cause of the problem is a combination of some or all four of the above listed causes. Lack of work is often one of the causes. My question is then:

The firm should have an established protocol for assignment of work to associates and to whom the associate advises that he or she needs more work. When billable work is slow and not available the associate should be assigned non-billable firm or business development projects  such as developing document templates, writing articles, etc.

If the problem is work ethic appropriate consequences and disciplinary measures may be required.

If the problem is time management and time keeping training and habit building will be required.

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




Jan 16, 2019

Improving Productivity and Profitability in a Sole Owner Six Attorney Insurance Defense Law Firm


I am the owner of a six attorney insurance defense firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started the practice twelve years ago with myself and a paralegal and have grown the firm to where is is today – six attorneys, two paralegals, and two other staff members. While I have done well, and am taking home around $350,000 a year, I am not sure if we are attaining the numbers that we should be. I have a fifteen hundred billable hour expectation with a per hour bonus payable for each billable hour exceeding fifteen hundred. I do not have any attorneys that have reached this expectation. Our billing rates average around $150 per hour. I am wanting to put in place a partnership track and am not sure where to start. You thoughts would be appreciated.


Let me first illustrate the profitability levers for law and other professional service firms:

R – Rate – billing rate (effective rate, realization rate, etc.).
U – Utilization – the number of billable hours.
L – Leverage – the number of associates/paralegal, etc. to owners or equity partners.
E – Expenses – office overhead
S – Speed – time it takes from the time work is done to when cash comes in the door.

With the low billing rates that are prevalent in insurance defense firms the primary profitability levers that can be managed in an insurance defense practice are utilization, leverage, and expenses. Insurance defense firms need 1800 – 2000 annual billable hours from their associates, a high leverage ratio of three or four associates for every equity partner, and low expenses  – i.e. no frills office space.

You are doing fine now with regard to compensation but this would not be the case if you had partners – the profits would not be there to pay higher salaries. Less than 1800 annual billable hours is not acceptable and it sounds like there are no consequences for non-attainment of the 1500 hours. You need to look into the reasons as to why your associates are not attaining the 1500 hours. Possibilities could include:

If there is enough work you need to focus on the other factors and let everyone know what the consequences are for not attaining the billable hour expectation. Start with the 1500 hour expectation as an initial baby step but then increase the expectation to 1800 hours as soon as your can.

As you think about a partner track keep in mind the issue of leverage and don’t be temped to make too many partners.

Keep an eye on your expenses.

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




Jun 21, 2011

Using Effective Firm Meetings to Improve Accountability and Boost Productivity


Our firm used to have weekly firm meetings to discuss management and operational issues. We discontinued them due to the excessive time being spent and questionable results and value. Now we are finding that we are totally unfocused and having problems with poor accountability and things falling through the cracks.  We are now considering starting up weekly meetings again but want to insure that we do a better job of managing meetings than we did in the past. What are your thoughts?


Before scheduling a meeting consider the purpose of the meeting. In general there are the following four types of meetings:

  1. Strategy Meetings are rich group discussions involving strategy and planning sessions, brainstorming, group budgeting, marketing, or financial planning. These meetings are effective when everyone understands the purpose and the ground rules.
  2. Reporting Meetings consist of one person informing the others in the room and sharing of information. These meetings are valuable only if the news is meaningful to most of the attendees. There may be Q&A and discussion, and different people may report out during the same meeting. These meetings should be structured.
  3. Status Meetings are often low in value and you should keep them sort. Attorneys and other team members need to share information and brief sessions are effective at keeping the team on the same page. Consider stand-up meetings – where literally, everyone is standing. It keeps the meetings short. Require agendas.
  4. Dilemma or Issue Meetings where just a few of the participants engage in detailed problem solving, are inefficient. Don't drag the whole group into dilemma or issue meetings. If your meeting is headed this direction deflect it for one-on-one time.

Meetings work best when they have:

  1. An agenda – for reporting and status meetings.
  2. A meeting chair or facilitator – who helps the attendees stick to the agenda.
  3. Meeting minutes – listing decisions, action items, and due dates – sent to all participants shortly after the meeting.
  4. Ground rules – especially for strategy meetings.

Take charge of meetings. Unmanaged meetings are time wasters.

You might want to start with short weekly status meetings using the format outlined above. Conduct reporting meetings on a monthly basis and strategy meetings on a quarterly basis or annual using a off-site retreat format.

Start slow and go from there. Push for accountability and results.

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

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