I am the owner of a fourteen-attorney law firm in South Bend, Indiana. The firm is a health care firm that represents various medical facilities in the area. All of the other attorneys in the firm are associates. Currently I function as the managing attorney and make all of the management decisions. I also bring in the bulk of the clients into the firm. I am wanting to retire in the next five years and I would like to sell my interests to three associates in the firm. However, I am not sure that they would be good partners with each other, whether they have the management skills and client development skills to lead the firm, or whether they would even want to be partners. My other option would be to merge with another firm. However, I would prefer to sell my interests to the three associates rather than merge if at all possible. What are your thoughts?
I appreciate your situation. I think you need to sort of “pilot test” the three associates. If you had other equity partners I would suggest that you form a three member management committee to begin transferring some of your management responsibilities and client relationships. Since you don’t have any equity partners I would not create or label a management committee which is usually a decision-making body with each member having a vote. You might consider forming a committee that you call the Leadership Team with the three associates and yourself serving as members on the team. This would be an advisory group with you retaining control. You would try to run the group by consensus but you would still be the ultimate decision-maker. I would start by starting the team with limited areas of management, responsibility, and authority. Teach them how to work as a group and gradually increase the team’s responsibility and authority. See how it goes and observe the interpersonal dynamics. After a year you should have a good idea whether they can work together as partners and whether an internal succession strategy will work for you. You might want to create a different category for these associates – senior associate or non-equity partner at the time that you do this as well.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm is a 25 attorney firm based in San Antonio, Texas. We have 15 equity partners. We are equal partners and have equal ownership interests. Our partners are paid based upon ownership shares. Thus, each are paid the same. The system has worked well for us for many years and has supported our team-based collaborative culture. However, we are having issues with non-productive partners and some of the productive partners feel that the compensation system is no longer fair. Some of the partners have suggested that we more to a formulaic system. Other partners in the firm feel that such as system would destroy the collaborative culture that we have built. We would appreciate your thoughts.
I agree that the compensation system must shift to a system that rewards performance and overall contribution to the firm and yet preserve the culture that you have built over the years. I think that a pure formulaic system would shift your culture to a “lone ranger” culture with everyone out for themselves. I believe that for your firm a subjective or a hybrid system incorporating quantitative and qualitative performance factors would be the best approach.
In order to implement such a system you will need to set up a compensation committee that will made partner compensation decisions. I suggest a three member committee elected by the partners on three-year staggered terms. The committee will determine and publish performance factors that will be considered, conduct annual face-to-face performance evaluations, approve each partner’s annual personal goal plan for the following year, and make their partner compensation recommendation to the partnership regarding the upcoming year salary and bonus for the year ending year.
The partnership agreement or other compensation policy document should specify the procedure and what happens when the partnership does not approve the recommendation of the compensation committee or when a partner requests reconsideration.
A system such as this requires more time and work but usually yields better results, especially in a team-based collaborative practice. More and more larger firms are using subjective or hybrid systems.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC