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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

Oct 31, 2018


What Law Firms Must Do to Remain Competitive in the Internet Age

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a twelve attorney family law firm in Kansas City, Missouri. We have been in practice going on thirty years. Over the last ten years we have shifted more of our advertising from print directories and advertising to the internet. Today virtually all of our work comes from the internet. While to some extent this has been a blessing it has also been a curse as we must continue to make investments in search engine optimization, update the website, pay to be included in online directories, etc. It is a vicious circle and we are losing business to new attorneys just starting out that are putting up first class websites and making online investments.  I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

The internet as well as advances in information technology has and will continue to be the key driver forcing change in the legal marketplace as well as other segments and our daily lives as well. Shopping malls are disappearing from our communities and department stores are struggling for survival. Being the king of the hill or the biggest is not the strategic advantage that it once was. The internet is leveling the playing field in many industries as well as law firms.  There are new opportunities and new competitors. Consider the following:

  1. Everything is being commoditized. More practice areas are moving down the value curve and prices are becoming more price sensitive.
  2. Disintermediation of traditional delivery channels. The internet provides new access to information and is eliminating the middleman. It is impacting how we shop, bank, conduct business, and pay our credit cards and taxes. It is also impacting how clients locate and select lawyers and how legal services are delivered.
  3. Our society is becoming – more and more – a DIY (Do it Yourself) nation.
  4. Lawyers competitors are just a click away whether they be legal process outsourcing providers (LPO) in India, other lawyers in your state – but further away and servicing clients remotely, legal publishers, or online form providers.
  5. New client opportunities for your may also be just a click away.

Challenges and Questions to Think About

  1. How do you deal with commoditized transactions?
  2. How do you tie yourself to your client in an online world?
  3. How do you compete with new models and approaches to the delivery of legal services?
  4. How do you compete with virtual law firms?
  5. Would you consider adding a online delivery component to your traditional brick and mortar practice?
  6. Should you consider other practice areas?
  7. Should you consider expanding your geographical reach in areas where you are licensed and other areas by forming relationships with licensed attorneys in those areas.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. For your practice area you should continue what you are doing and maximize your online and electronic marketing investments.
  2. Online reviews are becoming more and more important. Have a protocol in place that asks clients for reviews upon completion of their matter. Make it easy for them by providing them with appropriate online links.
  3. Your website does not do enough to demonstrate expertise. I do not see any evidence of attorneys publishing any articles, serving on law related committees, or chairing such committees pertaining to family law. There are no testimonials from past clients or others on the website. Get your attorneys writing articles, get them published where you can, and get them posted to your website. Get testimonials from past clients and referral sources and post them to your website. Also get your attorneys involved in bar and other law related associations. Do more to build the brand of the firm and the individual attorneys. Many of my family law firm clients still receive a bulk of their business from past client referrals and referrals from other attorneys.
  4. Consider satellite offices in some of the suburban communities in Missouri and Kansas. I have family law firm clients that have been quite successful with multiple offices – staffed and not staffed.

Even in the age of the internet expertise, professionalism, and reputation is important. Do all you can to convey this through your website and your initial communications with clients.

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

Jul 24, 2018


Law Firm Succession Planning – Getting Partners to Discuss their Future Plans

Question: 

I am the firm administrator for a twenty-five attorney firm in Baltimore, Maryland. We have fourteen partners and nine are in their sixties. We have no succession or transition plans in place for senior partners. Every time I bring up the topic there is a resistance to even discuss the topic. I would appreciate any help that you can provide.

Response: 

A decade ago, only the more proactive, well-managed law firms had in place programs and provisions for senior partner succession and transition. A majority of firms simply had not addressed or even given serious thought to the eventual retirement and exit of their senior partners. However, in the last five years, I have seen a lot of interest in succession, transition, and exit planning. The avalanche of baby boomers reaching retirement age has fueled this interest. Firms from the largest to the smallest are getting proactive and actively addressing succession and transition of senior partners. Some are putting in place formal programs, while others are at least addressing succession and transition informally using ad hoc approaches.

A recent Altman Weil Transition Survey gives us a glimpse of what other law firms are doing. Here are a few highlights from their survey concerning responding law firms.

Many other law firms are finding it a major challenge to get senior attorneys to talk and share their plans concerning retirement. In many cases the families of senior attorneys are having the same challenges. Coming to terms with aging is a difficult topic. In the case of law firms, often senior attorneys simply don’t know their future plans themselves, need the income, fear that others shareholders/partners will steal their clients, or the firm simply does not have a mechanism in place that mandates transition planning. Some firms are implementing mandatory retirement and others are putting in place financial incentives to motivate early transition of clients. Client loss is the most significant concern.

Keep at it and don’t give up but it may take a series of baby steps. Educate your partners on the risks of “doing nothing”. Provide them with articles and other resources and keep the topic on the agenda.

Click here for our blog on succession

Click here for out articles on various management topics

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

Jul 19, 2018


Law Firm Structure and Elevating Associates to Partnership

Question: 

I started my firm as a solo nine years ago in New Orleans. My practice focuses on maritime defense litigation. Over the years I have added associates and currently I have six associates working for me. I am overwhelmed with work – from the legal work that I am doing in addition to the business development and firm administration. My thought is that I should consider restructuring the firm by making some of my associates partners so I can offload and share some of the administrative responsibilities. I would like your thoughts. What are other firms in my situation doing.

Response: 

Years ago when I started in this business there were solo practitioners and there were multi-attorney firms that were partnerships. There were not many multi-attorney firms that were what I call sole owner firms – firms will many attorneys and just one owner. This has changed. More and more attorneys don’t want to be in partnerships with other attorneys. Sometimes this is a result of bad experiences in other partnerships. In other cases they simply want to go it alone. Also, more and more associates don’t want to take on the stress and financial obligations of partnership – they simply want a job that provides them with a decent income with work life balance. I have law firm clients with sole owners, fifteen to twenty attorneys, and fifty to seventy staff employees. These firm owners have hired firm administrators, marketing managers, and other such talent to offload the administration. While these firm owners have been enjoying the fruits of sole ownership eventually they will have to reevaluate their situation when they begin planning their succession and exit strategies.

I think you have to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is adding partners the best way to offload your administrative responsibilities? Should you hire a firm administrator?
  2. Are  you ready for partners?
  3. Do you have associates that meet your requirements for partner admission? Have you thought about these requirements?
  4. Do the associates that you would consider for partnership have an interest in being partners?

Give this some more thought – don’t just make partners to have partners or to have someone to handle administration.

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

 

May 22, 2018


Law Firm Financial Management – Using Credit Line to Purchase Equipment

Question: 

I am the financial partner with our sixteen attorney firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. The firm has had a rough couple of years. We had several partners leave the firm and they took several corporate clients with them. Unfortunately, this was ongoing consistent retainer and time bill work. While we still have some retainer and time bill corporate work, a much larger mix of our work is now contingency fee work. As a result we have had some cash flow challenges and for the first three months of this year there was no money to pay partner draws. We have a credit line with the bank of $125,000 that we have not used. We only use our credit line for long-term equipment purchases. We would appreciate any suggestions that you have.

Response: 

A line of credit is designed to be used for financing short-term working capital needs – not long-term financing needs such as fixed asset acquisitions. I would use either leases or long-term bank loans for equipment and other fixed asset financing secured by those assets. This leaves your your credit line available for short-term financing needs. While I hate to see a firm use a credit line to pay partner draws, often there is no other choice in law firms that are not adequately capitalized, especially contingency fee firms.  Partners have to eat too. Contingency fee practices can have wide cash flow swings and often have to use their credit lines to temporarily fund payroll and partner draws.

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

 

May 16, 2018


Law Firm Client Surveys – How to Collect and Report the Data

Question:

Our firm is a sixteen attorney firm in Chicago. Our marketing committee has been discussing implementing a client survey program. We are not sure where to start or how best to collect and report the data. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Response: 

Surveys can be used for a variety of purposes including the following:

I assume that you are planning on doing a client satisfaction survey in order to solicit feedback on how well the firm is meeting client needs, quality of services being provided, and additional needs that the client may have where the firm can provide services.

The type of survey will depend upon whether your clients are individuals or institutional clients such as corporate or governmental. If your clients are institutional I recommend that you conduct telephone structured telephone interviews with these clients using a interview questionnaire consisting of quantitative and qualitative questions. If you have a large number of institutional clients then you may want to consider conducting these interviews with your top fifty, twenty-five, or ten top clients and use a paper mail survey or online survey for the remainder. For individual clients you may want to use a paper survey or online survey for your entire database of individual clients and thereafter a paper mail survey or online survey at the conclusion of a matter. Another option would be to survey a random sample of your clients.

Once the surveys are completed – whether telephone interviews or paper mail or online surveys the questionnaires/surveys will need to be tabulated and provided in some form of a report. Some firms use two Excel spreadsheets – one for the quantitative responses and one for the qualitative/narrative responses for interview and paper mail questionnaires.  Then averages, percentages, and other summary statistics can be calculated for the quantitative responses. If you use an online survey service such as Survey Monkey the tabulation and the statistics will be done already for these surveys. If you have a Survey Monkey account you could also enter your interview questionnaire and paper mail questionnaires responses into Survey Monkey and use it rather than Excel. If you want more sophisticated statistical analysis you might want to look into statistical software such as SPSS which is sold and marketed by IBM.

Once you have summarized analyzed the questionnaires you may want to prepare a summary report document using your word processing software. Include the tabulation, statistical calculations, charts, etc. as attachments to the report.

There are several articles on our website – see links below – that discuss client satisfaction survey programs and how to get started.

Click here for our blog on client service

Click here for our article on client satisfaction

Click here for our article on client surveys 

Click here for our article on analyzing survey results

Click here for our article on developing your client service improvement plan

Click here for our article on tips for rewarding and recognizing employees

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

Mar 07, 2018


Law Firm Marketing – Using Articles to Demonstrate Expertise

Question: 

I am new non-equity partner in a sixteen attorney firm in Phoenix, Arizona. My equity partners are telling me that I now have to do more than generate billable hours and perform quality work for clients. They now expect me to begin bringing in clients. I am not sure where to start.

Response: 

I often advise attorneys that while what you know is important what you want to be known for is more important. Just having your name known is pretty useless unless it is known for something. An outstanding personal injury plaintiff lawyer – not just a good lawyer. In law firms it is the reputation for expertise that matters, not just the reputation. Therefore, a successful marketing program must project and demonstrate expertise. This can be accomplished in the following ways:

  1. Byline Articles
  2. Authored Books
  3. Presentations
  4. Client Testimonials on the firm’s website.

While biographies on the website are important, prospective clients and referral sources are looking for proof of expertise. Articles, authored books, presentations, and client testimonials provide such proof.

One of the best and reliable ways of providing such proof is the article. In a byline article, you don’t have to say that your are an expert – the fact that you wrote the article, discussing a particular legal topic, says it for you. Its your expertise on display whether the article be in a print publication or posted on your website, blog, or other location.

An article is one tool that you can use where you have control – you can say what you want to say and say it in your way. In most cases, if an article is acceptable to a publication, an editor won’t change the thrust of it.

For most legal and business trade journal publications that accept articles you do not have to be a well known writer to write an article that will be accepted by these publications. You simply have to know what you are talking about. Editors will help with the formatting, style, and syntax.

If you retain the copyright to your article you can re-purpose your article and use it on the firm’s website, reprints, firm brochures, and as a future chapter in your first book.

Click here for our blog on book writing

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

 

 

 

Oct 18, 2017


Law Firm Merger – Pitfalls to Avoid

Question:

I am a partner in a twelve attorney firm in Rockville, Maryland. We are a corporate transactional and litigation firm. We are a first generation firm. The firm was founded by the present four equity partners twelve years ago. We have been very successful over the years and this is borne out by out by our excellent financial performance. While we have done well in our core practice areas we have been considering diversifying our practice into government sector work due to our proximity to Washington D.C. and we have been considering merging with a six attorney (three partner) firm in D.C. that is totally focused on such work. Can you share with us any pitfalls that we should look out for.

Response: 

It sounds like this might be an opportunity if the cultures and people are compatible, the practice area makes sense for your firm, there are no conflicts, the billing rates, and other factors are in line. Start getting to know the firm and its people. Then move to conflicts checks and ask for five year’s of financial statements and tax returns, internal financial reports, attorney and staff compensation data, partnership agreement and other partnership documents, schedule of billing rates, client lists, copy of building and equipment leases, and malpractice applications. Assess the stability of the revenue stream, repetitive ongoing clients, client dependency, etc. Make sure there are no pending malpractice claims or other liability issues.

Obviously you will want to do all the due diligence that you can.  Initially examine and make the following calculations:

Examine the balance sheet items such as bank debt, large tapped out credit lines, equipment leases and other liabilities. Take a look at the partner capital accounts. Then examine the items that are not recorded on the balance sheet – namely unfunded partner retirement buyouts and long term real estate leases. What are the ages of the partners in the candidate firm and are there partners close to retirement? What are their provisions for retirement of these partners? These are often major deal breakers in mergers and scare away potential merger partners.

Keep in mind that the financials are only part of the equation – the other part your gut feel. Does the potential deal make sense? Will one plus one equal three – will a synergy result? Do you feel comfortable with the people (partners) in the other firm? Do you share common vision and philosophies and will you make good partners?

Click here for our blog on law firm mergers

Click here for our article on law firm mergers

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

 

 

 

Aug 08, 2017


Law Firm Strategic Planning – Reasons for Investing the Time to Develop a Strategic Plan

Question:

I serve on the management committee of our sixteen lawyer firm in Columbus, Ohio. We do not currently have a strategic plan and been discussing whether we should spend the time developing one. However, we are not sure what a strategic plan would do for us or why we should invest the time in developing one. We appreciate any thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

One of the major problems facing law firms is focus. Research indicates that three of the biggest challenges facing professionals today are: time pressures, financial pressures, and the struggle to maintain a healthy balance between work and home. Billable time, non-billable time or the firm’s investment time, and personal time must be well managed, targeted and focused. Your time must be managed as well.

Today well-focused specialists are winning the marketplace wars. Trying to be all things to all people is not a good strategy. Such full-service strategies only lead to lack of identity and reputation. For most small firms it is not feasible to specialize in more than two or three core practice areas.

Based upon our experience from client engagements we have concluded that lack of focus and accountability is one of the major problems facing law firms. Often the problem is too many ideas, alternatives, and options. The result often is no action at all or actions that fail to distinguish firms from their competitors and provide them with a sustained competitive advantage. Ideas, recommendations, suggestions, etc. are of no value unless implemented.

Well designed strategic plans are essential for focusing your firm. However, don’t hide behind strategy and planning. Attorneys love to postpone implementation.

A strategic plan is useless unless it is used. Don’t create a plan and simply file it. You must actively work your plan. Involve everyone in the firm, delegate action items, and require accountability. Consider it a living document – revise it – update it – change it as needed. Refer to it weekly and incorporate action plan items into your weekly schedule.

Use your plan as your roadmap to your future.

Good luck on your journey.

Click here for our blog on strategy

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

 

Feb 28, 2017


Personal Injury Law Firm TV Advertising – Prerequisites to Launching a Program

Question: 

I am the owner of a plaintiff personal injury law firm in Arlington, Texas. I have three associate attorneys, six non-lawyer case managers, and three other staff members. Our marketing consists of our yellow pages program and our website. I am considering TV advertising and I would appreciate your thoughts concerning venturing into this arena.

Response: 

This is a big step. TV advertising does work for personal injury plaintiff firms and can take your firm to the next level if you can afford it and are willing to stay the course. A few years ago the managing partner of a a very successful personal injury plaintiff firm stated to me “if I could only afford to do one marketing thing it would be TV advertising.” You can’t dabble with advertising – you must invest for the long haul and have the proper infrastructure in place to process new client inquiries, book appointments, and handle new client intake appointments. If this foundation is not laid you should not invest in a TV advertising program. Here are a few thoughts and observations:

  1. Establish your advertising goals and objectives.
  2. Retain a top notch media consulting firm with law firm expertise.
  3. Establish an advertising budget for at least six months – one year is better.
  4. Secure adequate capital to finance your advertising budget.
  5. Be prepared for borrow money.
  6. Develop your operational infrastructure. This consist of everything from your advertising tracking database, case management system, website, call center/telephone system, call scripts, documented intake process and procedures, dedicated intake call operators, designated people to take in new cases, and case evaluation protocols.
  7. Have a process in place to handle and respond to new case calls after hours and on weekends including attorneys on call able to meet with prospective clients during these times.

We have all seen personal injury plaintiff firms that dabble in TV advertising – on TV today and off-air tomorrow. They spent a lot of money and were hoping for immediate gratification. When after running ads for a month or two and they have few or no new cases they concluded that TV advertising does not work. The truth is they were not prepared to stay in the game long enough. This does not work.

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

 

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