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Dec 31, 2019


Law Firm Management – What Will Be Keeping Owners and Managing Partner Awake at Night in 2020

Question: 

I am the owner of a twelve attorney business litigation law firm in Northern, California. I started the firm fourteen years ago after practicing ten years in a large law firm. While the practice has been fulfilling both professionally and financially, the management side is often a challenge. As I sit here on December 31, 2019 thinking about management challenges that I may face next year I was wondering what you envision the challenges will be in 2020.

Response: 

The following were the common challenges that owners and managing partners advised us that they faced in 2019:

  1. Talent Management – Attorneys and Staff
    1. Hiring
    2. Training
    3. Motivating
    4. Compensating
    5. Keeping (retaining)
  2. Firm Succession and Transition
  3. Getting and Keeping Clients and Additional Sources of Business
  4. Managing Cash Flow
  5. Satisfying Hard to Please Clients
  6. Balancing Time Between Servicing Clients and Managing the Firm
  7. Getting Paid
  8. Competition from Other Law Firms and Non-Law Firm Service Providers
  9. Proving High Quality Legal Services at an Affordable Price and Avoiding Malpractice Claims
  10. Finding Time for Personal Life and Family

In 2019 the number one challenge was talent management and I believe this will continue to be the case in 2020. The other challenges that I have listed will continue to be the major concerns of owners and managing partners in 2020.

Here are some links to a few of our resources that you might find helpful:

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

 

 

 

Nov 14, 2018


What Does it Cost to Operate a Law Firm?

Question: 

Our firm is a four attorney personal injury plaintiff law firm with three partners and two associates located in upstate New York. Could you advise us as to what the expected cost range per year is for an attorney to practice? Assume the attorney generates gross revenue of $500,00 per year. What should he/she expect to earn as gross income based on that revenue?

Response: 

Depends on the type of practice, whether the firm does extensive advertising, etc. In general, the average range of margins are running from 35%-45%. In other words the partnership pie – profits available to partners whether in the form of W2 salary or net income. If a partner were practicing alone with minimal overhead and maximizing the use of technology the margin could be better. In general a lawyer generating $500,000 in revenue in a firm such as yours with typical overhead -hopefully 35% – 45% margin – $175,000 – $225,000. I have worked with some firm such as foreclosure law firms where the margins are 15% margin and some high volume advertising PI plaintiff firms at 20% margins.

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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

Oct 31, 2017


Law Firm Strategy – What is a Strategy for a Law Firm?

Question: 

We are an Oklahoma City law firm of seventeen attorneys – ten of which are partners. Our firm does a little of everything. We have a three-member management committee of which I am a member. The firm was founded by four of the present partners twenty-two years ago. For many years the firms was very successful, however for the last five years financially we have been hard pressed and we have been stagnant. We have been discussing what to do about the situation. One of our partners suggested marketing and another suggested that we needed a new strategy. We do not have a marketing plan and I didn’t know we even had a strategy. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

A strategy is the firm’s decision on what services to sell, to whom to sell these services, and on what basis to sell these services. In other words a law firm must determine what legal services to be provided, to which clients and in what geographic locations, and how these services will be differentiated from those provided by other law firms. Law firms can choose a broad or narrow range of clients. Law firms can compete either on the basis of price, quality of service, or expertise. Firms compete on price by charging lower fees than their competitors. If the firm’s clients perceive that the firm has unique advantages over its competitors in the way services are provided, then the firm is competing on the basis of quality of service. If the firm offers its clients a superior knowledge base, it is competing on expertise.

Your strategy or lack of a strategy has been broad. A narrower strategy is appropriate in today’s competitive legal marketplace.

Here are a few suggestions for narrowing your strategy:

  1. Commit to one mode of competition – price, quality of service, or expertise.
  2. Select a strategy compatible with industry conditions.
  3. Select a unique niche.
  4. Diversity practice area risks.
  5. Select a strategy compatible with the firm’s internal environment.
  6. Look for practice areas in which the client is at great risks.
  7. Turn away clients.

I suggest that you study up on the strategic planning process and engage all of your partners in the process and comes to terms with an appropriate strategy for your firm. Then develop a strategic plan and use as your roadmap for getting there.

Click here for our blog on strategy

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

Aug 09, 2016


Law Firm Financial Management – What Reports Should I Give To the Attorneys in My Firm

Question:

I am the firm administrator of a sixteen attorney firm in San Diego, California. We have six equity members, four non-equity members, and six associates. We also have four paralegals and six staff members. We are managed by a three member executive committee. Each month I provide the equity members and the executive committee with the same reports from our software system. They are quite numerous. The equity members and the executive committee complain that they get too many reports and they don't look at them while the non-equity members and the associate complain that they don't get access to any financial information. Do you have any suggestions?

Response:

Less is often more. I would rather see partners receive less reports and read and use the reports they do receive. They can always request additional detail reports if they desire them. Think of a pyramid – at the top are equity members, then non-equity members, associates and then the executive committee and the firm administrator. At the top of the pyramid the information is more summarized and more detail is provided as you work you way down the pyramid. For example, do the equity members need to see journal registers, cash receipts registers, etc.?

I suggest you develop a report distribution guide that outlines who gets what and when and have it approved by the executive committee. Here is an example:

The objective of these guidelines are to provide timely, meaningful reports to firm management, equity and non-equity members, associates, and other timekeepers. Therefore, as few reports as possible should be distributed to reduce bulk and information overload. All other reports not listed for equity member distribution should be available to them on a per request basis.

Daily Reports

 Weekly Reports

 A detailed time report will be generated weekly (by Wednesday of each week for the conclusion of the preceding week) and will be distributed as follows:

Monthly Reports

        Monthly reports should be distributed no later than the 5th of each month according to the         following schedule:

        Equity Members             

        Non-Equity Members

        Executive Committee

        Director of Administration

        Associates

        Paralegals

        Staff (Timekeepers Only)

Quarterly Reports

Annual Reports

Annual reports are generated at the end of the year and maintained in a end of year section of the reports binder for the year (or computer system)

        Equity Members

        Same reports as received monthly.

        Managing Member/Executive Committee

         Same reports as received monthly

        Director of Administration

        Same reports as received monthly

        Note: At year end each of the above reports should be printed and saved to a file to the         reports folder that has been setup on the computer network. This should be done prior to         running the year end close.

        Associates

        Same report as received monthly.

        Paralegals

        Same reports as received monthly.

        Staff (Timekeepers Only)

        Same reports as received monthly.

Click here for our financial management topic blog

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

 

Aug 02, 2016


Law Firm Acquisition Due Diligence – What Should I Ask For

Question:

I am the managing partner of a five lawyer firm in Denton, Texas. We have the opportunity of acquiring a sole owner practice in a nearby city with a complimentary practice area. We have had one meeting and our firm is interested. We want to initially do a quick and dirty due diligence so see whether this firm is really a qualified opportunity. What sort of information should we ask for?

Response:

I would initially ask for the following:

  1. Five years profit and loss statements and balance sheets and tax returns. (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015)
  2. Lawyer and staff headcount for each of those five years.
  3. Current hourly billing rates.
  4. Description of his mix of clients by dollars and by time expended – practice type and geography.
  5. Description of how the firm bills (hourly, flat rate, contingency)
  6. Copy of leases (space and equipment)
  7. Copy of malpractice insurance policy and last application.
  8. Salaries and benefits for attorneys and staff members.
This will give you a good idea of what you are dealing with and whether the opportunity is worth pursuing further. If you decide you want to pursue this opportunity you can ask for additional information as the discussions unfold.
 
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Jun 28, 2016


Law Firm Succession – What to do When No One is Interested in Equity Ownership

Question:

I am the owner of a fourteen attorney insurance defense practice in Baltimore. I started the firm twenty years ago after leaving behind my partnership in another firm. Of the other thirteen attorneys there are four non-equity partners and the rest are associates. I am sixty three years old and beginning to think about retirement and how I am going to transition out of the practice. Two of the non-equity partners are well seasoned attorneys, have major case responsibility, and have developed solid relationship with clients. I have discussed equity partnership vaguely with two non-equity partners but their interests seem lackluster and they have been non-committal. I would appreciate your thoughts and advice on what my next steps should be.

Response:

It sounds like your non-equity partners are on the fence as a result of the "vague" nature of your discussions. It is hard for non-equity partners or associates to commit to equity and taking on the risk of ownership when they don't know what the deal is. This is a scary proposition for them and they need detailed information so they can evaluate and make an informed decision. A vague discussion doesn't cut it. I suggest that you put together an equity partnership proposal that includes:

  1. Profit and loss statements for past the five years.
  2. Balances sheets for the past five years.
  3. A current accounts receivable and unbilled work in process report.
  4. Tax returns for the past five years.
  5. Malpractice insurance application.
  6. Building and other leases.
  7. Proposed Partnership Agreement
  8. Proposed Equity Partner Compensation Plan
  9. Planned date of admission
  10. Governance and management plan
  11. Ownership percentage being offered
  12. Capital contribution or buy-in requirement
Meet and discuss the proposal with your candidates, allow sufficient time for candidates to discuss with their families and advisors, and set a timeline for their decisions. I think you will see a different reaction. If they still are unable to commit your may have to begin thinking about an external strategy and looking around for merger candidates.

Click here for our blog on succession

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

 
 

Mar 15, 2016


Law Firm Alternative Billing – What Do Clients Think

Question:

Our firm is a 18 attorney firm based in Tucson, Arizona. Our practice is a boutique general liability defense firm. Our clients tend to be self insured large corporations and smaller business firms. Currently all of clients are billed by the hour. Recently we have been discussing whether we should propose an alternative billing approach to our clients. We would be interested in your thoughts.

Response:

I do not want to discourage alternative billing – there are a lot of benefits that can be obtained – however I find that firms practicing your type of law and that have your type of clients that alternative is talked about more than actually implemented. You may find that your clients like the thought of the certainty of fixed fees but have concerns about the quality of representation under such arrangements. Recently, a litigation defense law firm asked me to interview their clients concerning their satisfaction with the law firm. When asking one general counsel about his thoughts regarding alternative billing he told me:

"My concern with fixed fee billing is that there might not be the financial incentive for the law firm to dedicate all the resources and best efforts to obtain the best results for our company. I prefer hourly billing with case management plans and budgets. I want our law firms to be financially successful as long as they achieve results for our company and not be penalized or constrained by fixed fee arrangements."

You may find that your clients are open to discussing alternative billing arrangements but may be hesitant when it comes to implementation. They are comfortable with hourly billing.

With this said I think you should explore the dialog with maybe one pilot client and see where the discussion leads. Insure that you do the proper analysis of that client's billing history, overall risks, and develop a fixed fee strategy that not only allows you to attain your desired billing rate but provides for a risk premium as well. Also build in ability to take exceptions for matters that fall outside the scope of the fixed fee arrangement.

Click here for our financial management topic blog

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

 

 

Feb 09, 2016


Law Firm Marketing Director – Are We Ready For One – What Should we Look For?

Question:

We are a 25 lawyer insurance defense firm in Northwest Dallas. We are managed by a managing partner, firm administrator, and director of human resources. We have been discussing the need for a marketing director. Are we too small? If we decide to hire one what should we be looking for and where should we start our search?

Response:

There is no magic size. I have seen five lawyer firms effectively use a marketing director and thirty lawyer firms that do not have one. It all comes down to your firm's specific need, what you are wanting to accomplish, and what the lawyers are willing to let a marketing director do.

While the popular title is marketing director, director of client and business development, etc. some marketing staff in smaller firms often function more as marketing coordinators and event planners. If you are looking for someone to help the firm devise a competitive strategy, lead the firm's strategic planning effort, help diversify the practice, etc., you need to look for an experienced marketing director with five plus year's experience in law or other professional service firm marketing at a director level.

If you need someone to update the website, write bios, write blogs, update social media, create brochures, and plan and coordinate events – you may only need a marketing manager or coordinator with excellent writing skills. Prior experience in law or professional service firm marketing is a plus but not required. Journalism and mass communications are popular degrees for this position.

The Legal Marketing Association (LMA) is an excellent source for finding candidates. Here is a link to the LMA job bank

Click here for our blog on marketing 

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

 

 

Jan 20, 2016


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Setting Up an Eat What You Kill System

Question:

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.

Response:

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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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