Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Selling

Nov 08, 2018


Selling an Owner’s Law Practice to an Associate Gradually

Question: 

I am the owner of an elder law firm in Phoenix, Arizona. I have one full time associate, one part-time associate, and three staff members. I am earning around $300,000 a year from the practice and my full time associate’s salary is $100,000 a year. I am sixty and would like to retire and be out of the practice in five years. I would like to begin phasing down and working part time in the next year or two. My full time associate has been with the firm for ten years and she is an excellent attorney and has an excellent relationship with our clients and referral sources. While she has not brought in many clients through her own referral sources she has done an excellent job signing up new clients from the firm’s referral sources, website, and seminars that she has conducted. I have talked with her in general terms about her buying my practice when I retire and she has expressed an interest.

I feel that I should be entitled to some sweat equity from the practice in the form of retirement compensation or buy-out. With this said I would prefer that my practice “stay in the family” and be sold to my associate rather than selling my practice to an outside buyer. I would appreciate your suggestions.

Response: 

One of the issues today with many associates is they have large student loan debt and have little in the way of capital and little or no borrowing capacity. As a result many firm owners in your situation have to get much of their payout from future earnings after their retirement if they wait too long. Your best bet is to start selling shares as soon as you can based upon a valuation method that you determine. You have five years remaining – ten years would have been better. In essence you determine the value of the firm, determine the price per share, determine how many shares that associate will acquire, and then calculate the price for the number of shares being acquired. For example, let say you practice is valued at $600,000. Divide by 100 = $6,000 per share or percentage point. For an initial twenty percent interest or twenty shares the buy-in price would be $60,000. Then over the next five years gradually sell the associate additional shares. Upon your retirement you would have sold all of your shares.

Typically the problem is the associate does not have any cash or ability to borrow on their own. You may be able to help the associate borrow the money from your bank. If you can – this would be the preferred approach. If the associate cannot raise the capital they you will have to finance the buyout. For a $600,000 buyout a five-year timeline will be impossible for you to have all your cash by retirement. How you structure your compensation as you begin working part time and your associate’s compensation as a partner will have a bearing on capital that your associate will have available. Be careful that you are not funding your own buyout. You will more than likely have to get a large portion of your payout after retirement via a secured promissory note with the associate for the balance.

The sooner you start the better your chances for a successful outcome.

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

Apr 18, 2017


Law Firm Succession/Exit Plan – Merger, Selling, Laterals, or Promoting Associates to Equity

Question:

I am the owner of a small estate planning firm in Worcester, Massachusetts. I have three associates and three staff members. I am fifty five and am wanting to begin putting in place my succession/exit plan. I would like to retire and exit the practice in ten years. Would I be better off selling to another firm or attorney, merging the practice, bringing in laterals, or selling to one or both of my associates? I am interested in your thoughts.

Response: 

The biggest challenge for many firms, is finding the right WHO.

The who dictates the what – the actual succession/transition/exit strategy. In other words, many law firms find that they start down one path and end up on another. Not all non-equity partners and associates want to own a law firm. Not all lateral and merger candidates will be a good fit for your firm and culture. The key is the right relationship and sometimes that takes the form of making someone at the firm a partner, bringing in a seasoned lateral, merging with another firm, or selling the practice. Therefore, succession/transition plans have to be flexible and often the key is not get stuck in creating complex succession plans at the onset. Establish timelines, outline a general course of action, generate some momentum and see where that takes you. Then build the plan when you can see where the firm is headed.

Unless the retiring partner in a larger firm has a unique practice that requires the firm to conduct a search for lateral or merger candidates, larger firms will not have to embark on a search. However, solo practitioners and often sole owners will have to explore their options and conduct a search for the following:

This search and exploration often is the most time consuming and difficult part of the process and often the options identified through this process ends up dictating the succession/transition/exit strategy.

If a firm has associates, does the firm have the right associates on the bus for the long term? In other words, has the firm hired associates that want to be business owners and own a law firm? Many owners and senior partners in law firms are approaching retirement age and are beginning to think about succession strategies. As they examine their associate lawyer ranks, some partners are often surprised to learn that there may be few takers. While their associates may be great lawyers, they may not bring in business and may not be interested in ownership or partnership. Such firms have hired a bunch of folks that just wanted jobs and have no interest in owning a law firm. While this hiring approach may have satisfied the firm’s short-term needs – it may fall short in the long term.

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

 

 

 

Jan 24, 2017


Law Firm Practice Sale – Selling a Personal Injury Plaintiff Practice

Question:

I am the owner of a personal injury plaintiff practice in downtown Chicago. I am the only attorney in the firm. I have two legal assistants. I am sixty-six years old and am starting to think about retirement and how to exit my practice. I would like to sell the practice to another law firm or practitioner. Does my practice have any value and can it even be sold?

Response:

After you pull out all the cash and pay down any liabilities the general the value of your practice will be the value of your fixed assets, goodwill (if any), and the value of your contingency fee cases in process. The largest asset of value is your cases in process and often that value cannot be determined until the cases are concluded. If you are an advertising type firm and have   built a sustainable brand beyond your individual reputation there could be a goodwill value. However, since you are a solo I doubt that there is a goodwill value beyond the value of your cases – it all depends whether you end up farming out your cases to another firm or whether you can find someone to come in and take over your practice.

If you have to sell your practice to another firm they will probably not have a need for your fixed assets. You will have to sell or otherwise dispose of them. More than likely you will not be able to come to an agreement with the other firm on a specific sale price for the cases in process. Therefore, you will have to agree on a fee split formula where you are paid as the cases are concluded. This formula will need to consider a percentage of completion factor based on how much work was done while a case was in your possession and while in the possession of the new firm.

Your best bet would be to find an attorney that would come in and take over your practice. He or she would have a need for the fixed assets, your employees, and if you transition properly could benefit from the goodwill that you have generated. In this situation you could receive payment for fixed assets, goodwill, and cases in process. This would also provide continued employment for your employees.

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

Dec 20, 2016


Law Firm Succession Planning – Selling My Stock to Several Associates

Question:

I am the sole owner of a five attorney personal injury plaintiff firm in the Dallas suburbs. Over the years I have built a sustainable brand through advertising. I have helped my associates develop their reputations, handle substantial cases, and be involved in various areas of firm management. I am planning on retiring in five years and I would like to begin the transition early next year by selling some stock (minority interests) to deserving associates with the remainder of my shares to be purchased upon my retirement. Originally, I had through about selling shares to two associates that have been with the firm for over fifteen years – now I am thinking about selling shares to all four associates. I think it would be easier for the four to come up with the required money. I welcome your thoughts.

Response:

If you are asking for a goodwill value plus cash-based book value as well as a percentage of completion estimated value of your contingency fee cases in process, the amount you are asking for your stock could be considerable. This would indeed be difficult for one or two people to raise and on its face it would make sense to sell your shares to all the associates. If this is not the case if may be possible to the two senior associates to raise the required funds.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. You know your people best but give consideration to the future partner dynamics. You are going from a sole owner structure to a five attorney ownership structure if you bring them in all at the same time. This will require some major adjustments in governance, compensation, etc.
  2. Are the two newer associates deserving of ownership? Have they developed their skills and earned the respect of the other associates in the firm and others outside of the firm?
  3. What do the two senior associates think? Do they want to be future partners with each other? Are they able to come up with the money? Do they initially, after your retirement, want other partners? Do they want the other associates to be their partners – initially or down the road?
  4. Interview your two senior associates and get their thoughts on the above questions. They may want to enjoy the benefits of leverage from having less partners as you have over the years. 
  5. My guess is that your senior associates would prefer to go it alone if they can swing it.

Don't try to force future partners on your two senior associates. I will rather see you initially admit the two senior associates as partners and let them admit other partners after your retirement when they are ready.

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

 

Nov 18, 2014


Law Firm Administrators – Effecting Change by Selling Your Ideas to Your Partners

Question:

I am the firm administrator with a 27 attorney firm in Detroit. We have fifteen partners and twelve associates. I have been eight months with the firm and in this position. I replaced another administrator who was terminated because the partners did not believe he lived up to their expectations. He was their firm administrator. This is my first law firm and I want to be successful. I feel that I am struggling and am not sure of my priorities. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Few things are as important to an administrator’s future as that person’s ability to influence the decision-making process and effect change.  Skills and competencies are important but so are results. In order to transcend to the next level and enhance their value to their law firms, administrators must help their firms actually effect positive changes and improvements and improve performance. This requires selling ideas to partners in the firm and having them accept and actually implemented. To succeed administrators must achieve three outcomes:

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

 

 

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