I am a partner in a fourteen attorney business litigation law firm in New Orleans. There are five partners in the firm. We are a first generation firm and all of the five partners are the original founders. Each of the partners have equal ownership interests and are compensated based upon ownership points. While this approach to compensation worked for many years this system is no longer working for us. Performance used to be pretty close but this is no longer the case. Your suggestions are welcomed.
This is a common problem that new law firms eventually face. Here are a few thoughts:
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am a partner in a 20 attorney firm in San Francisco. We have five partners. Two of the five partners are founders and the other three were made partners five years ago. Our firm was started twenty years ago by two partners of our existing partners. From day one our compensation system has been an eat-what-you-kill compensation system based on a formula with two factors – working attorney collections and client origination. While the system worked okay for the founders, it is not working for the present firm. The newer partners are unhappy with the system and believe that it does not consider other factors that a partner contributes to the firm. Some of the partners are hoarding work, refuse to serve on committees, and don't want to do anything but bill. A couple of my partners suggested that we move to a totally subjective system. I would appreciate your thoughts.
More and more firms are moving to more subjective based systems for some of the reasons that you have outlined – especially larger firms. Success of such a system is dependent upon the compensation committee that is put in place (typically a three- member committee elected by the partnership) and the level of trust that partners have in the partners serving on the committee. With only five partners you don't have a large enough partnership to put in place such a committee. It would have to be a committee of the five which would probably not be feasible. In addition, your culture may not be conducive at this time to such a system. Your founders have grown up under the present system and will more than likely resist such a formidable change. I suggest that you make some changes to the existing system and see how that works. For example:
I am a solo practitioner in Orlando, Florida with two secretaries and I am planning on merging my practice with another attorney in the same office location. He has three staff members. We have both been on our own for twenty years and have enjoyed our independence. We have decided that we want to setup an eat-what-you kill type of compensation sytem. We would appreciate your thoughts.
While I am not found of such systems as they lead to separate silos – separate firms within a firm - there are situations where they are appropriate. In some situations, the approach is to simply allocate revenue and use the percentage of fee revenue collected to determine a partners interest in the profit for the year. A determination must be made as to what the firm means by revenue collected for each attorney – working attorney allocated dollars, originated attorney dollars, or responsible attorney dollars, or a weighting of all of these. This only works if each consumes overhead at the same level.
If you are not consuming overhead at the same level some form of cost allocation must be made and included in the mix. Direct overhead items such as bar dues, auto expenses, CLE seminars, etc. could be allocated directly to each partner with each sharing equally in the rest of the indirect overhead. Then a net figure would be calculated to determine each partner's compensation based upon their share of the profit.
If you want to really get detailed your can setup a separate profit center for each of you in your accounting system, allocate all revenue and expenses using an agreed to allocation formula, Click here for sample allocation guidelines and then have the ability of generating a separate profit and loss statement for each of you. If you are using QuickBooks Pro you can setup classes to accomplish this. Your compensation would be the profit from your profit and loss statement.
Good luck with your merger.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC