I am the solo owner of a five attorney estate planning firm in Los Angeles consisting of myself and four associates. I am approaching retirement and looking at my exit options. Since there are no heirs apparent in the firm I am looking to sell the practice. However, the potential buyer that I have been speaking with is nervous and concerned about client defections, proper transition, etc. Also, I would like to continue to practice for a few years and don't want to run afoul of the rules of professional conduct. I would appreciate your thoughts.
You might want to consider a two-phased approach. Merge with the other firm, continue to work for a few years, work on transitioning relationships, retire and sell your interests, and continue to work as an Of Counsel after that if you so desire.
For Example. A sole proprietor was generating $500,000 in annual revenues with one full-time senior attorney, a full-time paralegal, and a clerical person while netting 40%, including perks and benefits. This owner wanted to work three more years full time and several more years in a part-time role thereafter. The firm interested in acquiring the practice was a three-partner firm generating $2.2 million a year working with similar clients, under a similar culture and fee range.
Phase One consisted of a merger with the retiring owner agreeing to retire in three years and sell his ownership interests for an agreed amount. At its inception, the two practices were combined. The successor firm provided the practice with the same amount of labor required in the past through a combination of retaining and replacing staff, as both were deemed necessary by the parties. The successor firm took over most of the administration, and the deal was announced to the public as a merger.
The transitioning owner was able to come and go reasonably as he saw fit, run his practice through the successor firm’s infrastructure, and retain significant autonomy and control. Because he historically generated a 40% margin, the successor firm agreed to assume all the operating costs of the practice and pay 40% of gross collections from the transitioning owner’s original clients as compensation. Phase One was set to terminate on the first of the following events: (1) the end of three years; (2) the death or disability of the transitioning owner; or (3) the election of the transitioning owner.
Phase Two was the buyout of the retiring partner's ownership interest, and it was set up in a traditional fashion. Phase Two kicked in at the end of Phase One. By deferring the buyout until the full-time compensation ceased, the transitioning owner could extend the period for his full-time compensation, and the successor wasn’t being asked to pay for the practice and full-time compensation at the same time."
Many firms have taken this approach and we have found that it increases the likelihood of successful client transitions, reduces the risk of client defections, and increases the value for the retiring owner.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am a solo in Bloomington, Illinois. I have just completed my third year in solo practice. I have one full time secretary, a paralegal, and I office share with a group of attorneys. My overload is low and my margin is 61%. I have been approached by a two attorney (2 partners) firm regarding merging with their firm. One of the partners is relatively new (joined the firm 3 years ago) and the other is the firm founder and is planning on retiring in the next year. On average the other firm's revenue per attorney and partner earnings is on par or even less than mine. Their overhead is much higher. The two partners have been operating on a handshake with no succession/transition plan for the senior partner and no understanding of retirement financial arrangements (buy-out). While I have some concerns and fears about merging I believe that merger would provide me access to mentoring, additional resources and staff, and ability to improve my competencies and handle larger more complex cases. I would appreciate your thoughts.
I would be concerned that you have been approached to help with the buy-out of the senior partner. In essence this may be a large unfunded liability that you and the other partner will be saddled with for a number of years. It sounds like, based upon past performance of the other firm, that if there is a substantial buy-out of the senior partner you could end up making less for several years. Other than your rent there will be marginal cost savings as a result of the merger. Improvement in your earnings will be dependent whether you and the other partner can in fact generate larger cases, larger revenues, and increased leverage.
If I were you I would ask the firm to work out the details concerning the senior partner's retirement as to timeline, the mechanics, the cost/funding of the buy-out, and put same in writing. Once this is accomplished factor this into the rest of your due diligence and analysis.
If the firm is unable to get their arms around the retirement of the senior partner issue I would stay clear.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC