Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: vs

Sep 04, 2019


Merger vs Transitioning Our Firm to Our Associates

Question:

I am one of three founding partners in a twelve attorney insurance defense firm in New Orleans. The three of us are in our early sixties and contemplating retirement in the next several years. The three of us have been discussing our succession plans and are wondering whether we would be better off merging with another firm or transitioning the firm to our associates. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Response: 

A majority of firms prefer transitioning to the next generation of attorneys within the firm whenever possible. Many founding partners at this stage of their career are often not ready to move to another firm unless they have to.

Advantages of transitioning to associates in the firm include:

Disadvantages of transitioning to associates in the firm include:

I believe that you should start by taking a critical look at the demographics of your associates and raise the following questions:

  1. What are the retirement timelines for each of you? Will you be retiring close to the same time?
  2. Do you have the bench strength – your present associates – to serve your existing clients if the three of you are no longer with the firm?
  3. If the three of you were no longer with the firm could your present associates retain your existing clients?
  4. Do any of your associates have the leadership and management skills to lead and manage the firm?
  5. Do any of your associates have the will to take over the firm and buy-out your interests?

Your answers to the above five questions will determine whether you should consider a merger strategy. It is often difficult to get a “founders benefit” (goodwill value) in mergers with other firms.

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

May 07, 2019


Law Firm Succession Planning in a Fourteen Attorney Firm – Internal vs External Strategy

Question:

I am the managing partner in a fourteen attorney firm in Austin, Texas. Our firm represents hospitals in their defense against malpractice claims. We have four equity partners, six non-equity partners, and four associates. The four equity partners started the firm thirty years ago and we are all in our late fifties and early sixties. We plan on working another eight years and then plan on retiring approximately at the same time. We may remain on as Of Counsel. Of our six non-equity partners, five are in their early and late sixties. We are considering making one an equity partner in the near future. Our associates are all recent law graduates that we hired right out of law school and all have been with the firm less than five years. What is our best succession strategy – merger or growing our own future partners?

Response: 

Most firms, and I agree with this, prefer an internal strategy and would like to grow their own and leave a legacy of the firm. Mergers can be fraught with problems and are often not successful. Depending on the size of the other firm, many firms are not willing to provide any compensation for practice goodwill beyond the compensation and benefit package. It sounds like you have had your independence for thirty years and you may not be comfortable giving that up and working in a merged firm environment for eight years.

However, a merger is often easier. You have a challenge on your hands since you have to replace four partners and only have one possible future equity-partner candidate on deck. In part it will depend upon the age and the experience of the one non-equity partner. Is he even willing to step-up to equity, invest in the firm, and buyout your interests? My experience these days is that a lot of non-equity partners are saying “no” to equity. With your type of clients you probably need at least three or four seasoned partners in order to convey to the clients that you have adequate “bench strength”. When the four of you retire unless you can build up the bench strength the firm will be also lacking leadership and firm management experience.

You have five years in which to build up your talent pool. You will have to first see if you can recruit and bring in some lateral talent – attorneys in their forties with fifteen to twenty years experience. Look for attorneys that want to be more than just worker-bees – that want to have future equity interest in a firm. If this strategy works out, begin bringing them into equity as soon as possible to ensure that the commitment is there by having them buy shares upon admission. Begin client and management transition no later than three years prior to your retirements.

If you are not able to bulk-up your talent pool or you have no one interested in equity ownership, then you will have to consider a merger strategy. I would begin a merger search three years prior to your retirements.

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

Feb 05, 2019


Law Firm Client Level vs Matter Level Client Origination Credit

Question: 

I am the owner of an eight-attorney insurance defense law firm in the greater Chicago area. All of the other attorneys in the firm are associates. They are currently paid a salary plus a bonus for billable hours that exceed certain thresholds. I am in the process of establishing a non-equity partner tier and for this tier I want to setup a different compensation system with the focus on collected revenues rather than billable hours. I will continue to pay non-equity partners a salary with a bonus for collected working attorney and responsible attorney fees for other timekeepers work over target threshold’s. I have given some thought to client origination of business but since we have a small universe of insurance company clients not sure how this would play out. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

I agree that at the non-equity partner level you should consider shifting the focus to collected revenues rather than billable hours. At the non-equity partner level it should be your goal for them to become managers of work (responsible attorneys) rather than just workers (working attorneys). Therefore, I believe that your compensation system should compensate the non-equity partners for their individual work (working attorney collections) as well encourage them to delegate and push work out to associates and paralegals (responsible attorney collections).

Client origination is the other variable that some firms include in their compensation programs. The general idea is that attorneys should be Finders, Minders, and Grinders. In an insurance defense firm it will be difficult for associates and non-equity partners to originate new clients at the client level.

The firm’s existing clients were probably all originated by you and there are probably a limited number of new client opportunities. While I believe your focus for non-equity partners should be on working attorney and responsible attorney collections, I think that it is important that you at least track business or client origination so that you measure your non-equity partners business development efforts and results. A better origination measure to track in your situation might be new matter origination rather than client origination. I suggest that you track, and not directly compensate, origination at the non-equity partner level. Track and reward via a salary increase or discretionary bonus instead.

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

 

 

 

Aug 07, 2018


Firm Administrator vs Director of Administration or Chief Operating Officer

Question: 

Our firm is a fourteen-attorney firm in South Florida. I am the senior member of a three member executive committee. Our firm is in the second generation of partners. The founders retired five years ago. Upon their retirements we changed our governance from a managing partner to an executive committee model supplemented with a office administrator – some refer to the position as the office manager. Our executive committee model has worked relatively well. The administrator that we hired five years ago is still in place but we are not satisfied with his performance. We believe that this is in part due to the fact that our expectations have changed. When we hired him we thought that we needed an office administrator primarily to manage the office staff and the billing and bookkeeping function. So we hired an administrator that had worked, as his first job out of junior college, as an office manager in an eight-attorney firm for two years and had an associates degree in accounting. He has does a good job with managing the staff and the billing and bookkeeping. However, we have now discovered that we want more – we want executive level leadership. We want someone that is respected by all the attorneys and can:

  1. Provide overall leadership
  2. Help lead the executive committee
  3. Develop create solutions to problems
  4. Lead the associates
  5. Serve as marketing director, etc.
  6. Take the lead in strategic planning and implementation of a strategic plan

I welcome your thoughts and opinions.

Response: 

Yes your expectations have indeed changed. Your administrator has not been able to grow in the role expectations that you now have for the position and does not have the education or experience to meet your new demands.

My observations are as follows:

  1. You would like your administrator to act and think like an owner/partner.
  2. You would like your administrator to be a quick learner.
  3. You would like your administrator to provide a higher level of management insight and bring business training and experience to the table.
  4. You would like your administrator to be accepted as a peer professional by all the attorneys in the firm.
  5. You would like your administrator to be innovative and willing to question the status quo.
  6. You would like your administrator to provide recommendations concerning new methods for  improving the firm’s operations and profitability.
  7. You would like your administrator to be able to resolve most administrative issues with minimal guidance from the executive committee.

I believe that you would like an administrator to serve more in the role as a Director of Administrator or Chief Operating Officer and your present administrator simply does not have the education, experience, and maturity to function in this capacity. If you want someone to serve in this capacity you will have to hire someone with degree credentials – such as a MBA or CPA, that will facilitate the candidate’s acceptance by other attorneys in the firm as a peer professional as well as provide the candidate with the academic tools needed to carry out the expectations of the position. In addition, you need to hire someone that has ten years plus as a director of administration or chief operating officer position in a similar size firm or company – preferably a firm that provides professional services such as a law firm, accounting firm, engineering firm, etc. You will have to look beyond the titles that candidates have had and inquire into the specific duties and roles performed. You will need to back up this inquiry with solid reference inquiries.

A director of administrator or chief operating officer position is rare in a fourteen-attorney firm. Many firms your size have administrators or office managers similar to the office administrator that you currently have. The downside to establishing such a position in your firm will be the salary that you will have to pay – more than many of your attorneys and even some partners are being paid – and turnover in the position when an opportunity from a much larger firm comes along.

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

Apr 25, 2018


Law Firm Management Committee vs Full Partnership

Question: 

I am a partner in a fourteen attorney firm in San Antonio, Texas. We have eight partners and six associates working in the firm. The firm was founded twenty years ago, so we are a first-generation firm. Two of the partners were the founders of the firm and the other six were made partners in later years. Currently our method of governing the firm is handled by the full partnership. While each partner has one vote, we try to manage by consensus. We do not have a managing partner or any committees. We have an office manager that primarily handles the accounting and the staff oversight. The partners meet weekly to discuss issues and make decisions. We are beginning to have issues with our management structure. Partners are not showing up for the weekly meetings and complaining about the amount of time it is taking away from servicing their clients. Should we consider a different approach? We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

You are at a difficult size, still a small partnership but big enough that management by all may no longer be working for you. I believe that you should consider either a managing partner or a management committee of three partners elected by the partnership. For this to work all of the partners must agree to surrender some degree of independence to a managing partner or a management committee. I would start with putting together a list, or job description, for the managing partner or management committee. Partnership agreements often outline management decisions (powers) reserved for the partnership with all decisions handled by the managing partner or management committee. If your partners are unwilling to  surrender some degree of independence then changing to a managing partner or management committee may prove to be wasted effort.

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

Jan 17, 2017


Law Firm Structure – Sole Owner vs Having Partners

Question:

I am the owner of an eight attorney insurance defense firm in San Antonio, Texas. I have been practicing fifteen years. I am forty-five years old. Many of my peers in firms my size are in partnerships. Is my situation unusual? Should I consider having partners?

Response:

Years ago I would have said that a firm such as yours would be a partnership or other organizational form with multiple equity owners. This has changed. I am working with more firms your size and larger with sole owners and no other equity owners. One such firm has twenty-five lawyers and seventy-five support staff.

I am assuming that this has worked well for you. You have the benefit of financial leverage and not having to share the pie with other equity owners. You call the shots and don’t have to share decision making with others. You probably are earning a nice income.

At your present age there is nothing wrong with continuing this for awhile. However, eventually you will have to consider your succession strategy, how you will exit the practice, and to whom you will pass the baton. The other issue is a career advancement strategy for your existing associates. Some may expect to eventually have an ownership stake in the firm. Your associates need to progress in their careers – not just as technicians – but also as business men and women and managers.

Don’t wait to long to begin this process. However, resist the temptation to make everyone an equity owner. In a insurance defense firm with eight attorneys I would try to maintain a ratio of four associates to each equity owner – thus no more than two – maybe three equity owners.

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

 

Mar 08, 2016


Law Firm Administrators – New Administrator – Accounting vs. Human Resource Background

Question:

Our firm is a 18 attorney firm based in San Diego. We are considering hiring our first legal administrator and have interviewed several candidates and have narrowed our search down to two candidates. One candidate has a strong financial background and has worked as a director of administration in several very large firms – 200 plus attorneys. The other candidate has a strong HR background, a weaker financial background, and has worked as a firm administrator in two different law firms – a 30 attorney firm and a 20 attorney firm. We like both candidates. Which candidate would you lean toward?

Response:

I would lean toward the administrator that worked for the smaller law firms. Having worked in smaller firms this candidate would be a more hands on administrator which is what a firm your size needs. In a firm your size the critical need is people management and leadership. As long as the candidate has a working knowledge of accounting the candidate should do fine with the oversight of your CPA firm. If you have to you can supplement any accounting deficiencies with outside resources – you can't outsource people management.  

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

Sep 29, 2015


Improving Law Firm Profitability – Revenue vs. Expense Control

Question:

I am a new recently elected managing partner of our 14 attorney firm in Orlando, Florida. For the last three years our financial performance has been stagnant and my partners are asking me to cut all the overhead expenses possible in order to improve profitability? Suggestions?

Response: 

I am often asked to help law firms design and implement profitability improvement programs. In most of my engagements, the real problem is insufficient gross income and lack of sufficient investment (spending and time) on marketing and initiatives designed to stimulate client and revenue growth. For most firms increasing revenues is the most effective way of impacting the bottom line.

Many law firms waste considerable time trying to find ways to cut a pie that is too small up differently by implementation of new compensation systems or increasing the size of the pie by decreasing costs. While unnecessary expenses should be reduced – once they are reduced a repeated effort to slash costs proves fruitless as a strategy to increase the firm pie. The vast majority of law firm expenses are fixed or production-related. The percentage of costs that are discretionary is low, typically in the 20-30 percent range, and the number of dollars available for savings is small. The available dollars available for reduction disappear after a year or two of cost-cutting, leaving the firm with dealing with the effects of further cuts on production capacity.

The lesson here – certainly get control of run away expenses – but focus on revenue generation.

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

 

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