Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: When

Oct 03, 2019


How to Handle the Messaging and Public Relations When a Law Firm Partner Leaves

Question:

Our firm is a twelve attorney litigation defense firm in Phoenix, Arizona. We have eight partners in the firm and I am a member of our executive committee. Yesterday at a partner meeting we were advised by four partners that they were leaving, would be starting a new law firm, and would be taking several key clients that they handle with them. A couple of associates and staff members will be going with them. What do we tell people and how do we go about it? You suggestions are most welcomed.

Response: 

My first suggestion is to move very quickly otherwise the rumor mill will get started and rumors will get ahead of you. You must get in front of the message to all audiences. The remaining and the departing partners should meet immediately, come to terms and agreement with the message, and be prepared to answer the following questions:

  1. Who is leaving
  2. Why following
  3. Whether the relationship is contentious or amicable
  4. How the departure is going to effect clients
  5. Whether the departing partners are named partners
  6. Future name of both firms
  7. Where the two firms will be located
  8. Contact information

I further suggest that you:

  1. Plan and advance and drill
  2. Identify your audiences and appropriate messages for each
    1. Clients
    2. Employees
    3. Legal community
    4. General public community
  3. List anticipated questions that your audiences will have
  4. White out the answers to the questions
  5. Write out the message for each audience
  6. Designate a single spokesperson to respond to the press and others so that messaging remains consistent from firm management.
  7. Identity clear lines of authority.
  8. Ensure that you follow the rules of professional responsibility in regarding client communications.

Situations such as this can be very stressful for all concerned. Try not to let your personal feelings cloud your vision and get in the way of a properly planned transition. There will be a lot of work to be done on the part of the remaining partners and departing partners. A well designed project plan will be helpful in managing all the tasks that will have to be handled and managed. The public relations should be at the top of the list.

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

Jun 26, 2019


Law Firm Succession Strategy When Candidate Associate Attorney Says No to Your Proposal

Question: 

I am the owner of a law firm in Mesa, Arizona. I started the firm twenty-five years ago. Our focus is exclusively on estate planning and we serve clients throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area. There are three other associate attorneys working in the firm as well as staff. One of the associates has been with the firm for ten years and the other two are right out of law school – one was hired this year and the other one year ago. I am sixty-three years old and I would like to retire and exit the practice within the next three years – the sooner the better as I have other interests that I would like to pursue.

For several years it has been my goal to transition my practice to my senior associate and he and I have discussed this vaguely over the years – just the idea in general – no specifics. Recently, I made a proposal to him where he would gradually buy my shares over the next three years and have all my shares paid for by the time of my retirement which would be three years from now. To my surprise he refused. Where do I go from here?

Response: 

Getting a “no” is not unusual. We are experiencing this quite frequently in our succession planning projects. Often this results in the firm exploring external succession strategies and having to merge with another firm or selling the practice. First of there is not the hunger for “equity” that there was thirty years ago. This is due in part to the fact that in many firms – large and small – there is now a non-equity partner status with the recognition of partner status, additional compensation and perks, and none of the risks of equity partnership. In addition, work life balance is important to many attorneys and many are unwilling to give up work life balance in exchange for the stress of equity partnership. Finally, many candidate associate attorneys either don’t have the capital/financial resources often required to obtain equity or don’t see the payback or return on their investment should they buy-in.

Here are a few thoughts concerning your situation:

  1. Reevaluate your proposal. Is the price you are asking for your shares reasonable and affordable for the candidate based upon the actual profits (your earnings) generated by the firm? If the price is not reasonable or affordable for the candidate consider providing an alternative proposal.
  2. Even if the price is reasonable and affordable, three years may not be a long enough period. You may have to settle with getting some of the value say three to five years after your retirement. Consider this as an alternative.
  3. Your associate may be reluctant not because of the terms but because he does not really want to own a law firm – he just wants a job as a lawyer. If this is the case it does not make any difference what you propose and you need to examine other options such as bringing in a lateral that is willing to take over your practice or a merger or sale of the practice.

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

May 29, 2019


Associate Attorney Productivity When Client Work is Slow

Question: 

Our firm is a sixteen attorney municipal law firm in Detroit with six partners and ten associates. Like most firms that do municipal work we must deal with lower billing rates than other firms charge. The volume of our work can also fluctuate at times. All of our work is billed by the hour and billable hours is our most important key performance indicator. Our associates have a billable hour expectation of 1800 annual billable hours and only two of our associates are even close to reaching 1800 hours. Some are not even reaching 1200 hours. Some of the associates have the excuse that they don’t have enough work. We do not believe that this is the case. I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Response: 

This seems to be a common issue. Failure to attain billable hour goals can be caused by any one or a combination of the following:

  1. Work ethic and simply not working enough “worked hours”
  2. Lack of work
  3. Poor time management habits
  4. Poor time keeping/recording habits

I would start by observing the number of worked hours they are putting in. Are the putting in the hours? Observe as well as review their time reports – billable and non-billable time. If you don’t track non-billable time start doing so. Then review and discuss with them their time management and time keeping/recording habits. Questions to ask include:

Review and discuss workload levels of each associate and determine if lack of work is an issue.

I have found that often the cause of the problem is a combination of some or all four of the above listed causes. Lack of work is often one of the causes. My question is then:

The firm should have an established protocol for assignment of work to associates and to whom the associate advises that he or she needs more work. When billable work is slow and not available the associate should be assigned non-billable firm or business development projects  such as developing document templates, writing articles, etc.

If the problem is work ethic appropriate consequences and disciplinary measures may be required.

If the problem is time management and time keeping training and habit building will be required.

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

 

 

 

Apr 25, 2017


When Should a Law Firm Partner Compensation System Be Changed?

Question: 

I am a partner in a fourteen attorney business litigation law firm in New Orleans. There are five partners in the firm. We are a first generation firm and all of the five partners are the original founders. Each of the partners have equal ownership interests and are compensated based upon ownership points. While this approach to compensation worked for many years this system is no longer working for us. Performance used to be pretty close but this is no longer the case. Your suggestions are welcomed.

Response: 

This is a common problem that new law firms eventually face. Here are a few thoughts:

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

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.

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

 
 

Dec 01, 2015


Law Firm Partner Compensation – Arrangement When Buying a Senior Partner’s Interest

Question:

I am the owner of a solo practice family law firm in Jackson, Mississippi. I  have been in practice four years. I have been approached by a senior solo attorney that has a well established family law practice that generates $800,000 annually and is looking to sell his practice. We envision a merger where I would make an initial payment upon merging my firm with his and then buyout his interest over a five year period. We have agreed on a fixed price for his ownership interest. However, we are not sure how to handle compensation. He wants to continue to work for another five to seven years. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Your approach will depend upon how you are going to structure your initial ownership percentages and whether the other attorney plans on continuing to work fulltime or whether he plans on scaling back. Are you going in with a minority interest and then acquiring additional interest as you make the agreed payments?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Base compensation totally on ownership interests. As you acquire additional interest your compensation would increase.
  2. Agree to a base salary for each of you and then allocate excess firm profits after your salaries based on ownership interest percentages.
  3. Create two profit pools. One pool would be 70% of total profit called performance profit pool and the other pool would be 30% of total profit. The 70% pool would be allocated to each partner based upon individual performance as determined by a weighted average of each partner's origination/working attorney collected fee receipts. The 30% pool would be allocated to each partner in accordance with ownership interest percentages.
  4. Create two profit centers (one for each partner) and allocate income and expenses to each profit center. Each partner's compensation would be based upon their individual profit center.
There are as many different approaches are there are law firms.
 
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

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