Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Work

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

 

 

 

May 01, 2019


Law Firm Associate Bonuses – Problems Measuring Flat Fee Work Working Attorney Fee Allocations

Question: 

Our firm is a four-attorney estate planning firm in Rochester, New York. We are a general practice firm and we handle a lot of estate planning work and estate administration as well. While some of our work is handled on a time bill basis a lot of our work is handled on a flat fee basis. Recently we switched our time billing system from a desktop-based system to a cloud-based system and we having trouble getting the reporting that we need out of the system. We do keep time on flat fee cases. Our bonus system is based on working attorney fee collections and the new system does not allocate fees correctly for flat fee cases when multiple attorneys and or paralegals work on a matter. Any suggestions?

Response: 

I have heard this complaint from many firms using both desktop and cloud-based billing systems. However, it does seem that cloud-based systems are lacking in the level of reporting that desktop-based systems have. Here is what some firms have or are doing:

  1. Working with the software vendor to determine what the issue is – is it your procedures or is it the software. In some situations, fee allocations are effected by the manner in which payments are entered when partial fee payments are made, whether such payments are first deposited in the trust account and then later applied after all time has been billed and adjusted, etc.
  2. If the issue is lack of software reporting capability try to get the software company to add this function to the software.
  3. Manually making the allocations in a spreadsheet for flat fees cases when all else fails.
  4. Changing the bonus system and basing bonuses on responsible attorney collections rather than working attorney collections. Many personal injury plaintiff firms that don’t keep time-sheets take use this approach. This approach works best if the attorneys primarily work on their own matters. One advantage of this approach is that it encourages delegation and discourages hoarding of work.

When evaluating these newer cloud-based billing systems don’t just look at the bells and whistles – determine your reporting needs and insure that the software meets these needs.

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

May 30, 2018


Outsourcing Appellate Work

Question: 

Our firm is a six attorney insurance defense firm in Kansas City. For the last few years our associate attorney costs have gotten out of control and in some cases revenues generated by particular attorneys are not even close to where they should be considering their costs. We have one associate attorney that we are paying a base salary that only does appellate brief work. He does not like litigation and does a poor job doing our bread and butter litigation work. We simply don’t have enough appeals to keep him busy. We are paying him a base salary of $100,000 a year. Last year his working attorney fees collected were $110,000. I welcome your thoughts.

Response: 

Obviously, you are losing money on him. An associate being paid $100,000 per year should be generating $300,000+ if you are looking to make any margin from him. Overall you should be making 25%-30% profit from your associates. Margin from associates is critical in an insurance defense firm. You are not even covering his direct cost alone any indirect overhead cost.

I believe you cannot justify this position and should consider eliminating this position and outsourcing your appellate work . Many insurance defense and other litigation firms that I work with are outsourcing appellate work to other law firms that provide this service for other law firms. There are also solo practitioners and freelance attorneys with appellate expertise that are working as contract lawyers for law firms doing appellate work. Another option is a legal process outsourcing firm.

It is imperative that you conduct proper due diligence and really check out the background, experience, and appellate track record of the firm or individual attorney that you are considering. Your short list should only include firms or attorneys that have a proven track record of appellate wins. Talk with some other law firms that are doing this.

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

Feb 21, 2018


Law Firm Staff Work Distribution Analysis

Question: 

I am a new firm administrator with a thirty-five attorney litigation firm in Los Angeles, California. In my accounting department I have seven staff members handling a variety of tasks. My partners are concerning that we are inefficient and over staffed. I am having a hard time finding where to start so to get a handle on  this issue. Please provide any information that you are willing to share.

Response: 

There are questions that you must ask yourself in order to analyze the work distribution of your accounting department. Such questions as the following will help you in knowing what to look for:

  1. What activities take the most time?
  2. Is there any misdirected effort?
  3. Are skills being used properly?
  4. Are you staff doing too many unrelated tasks?
  5. Are tasks spread too thinly?
  6. Is work distributed evenly?
  7. Are the right people on the bus?

Before you can analyze your accounting department you must be able to see clearly, in one place, all the activities of your accounting department and the contribution of each employee on each activity. A work distribution chart is the easiest and best way to arrange these facts in simple form. A properly made work distribution chart will help you determine if the largest time of your staff is devoted to the major function of your department. (Operations list down the left rows and staff names listed across the columns) It may indicate that more time is being devoted to other functions than is necessary. A function or task may require a more detailed study, as might be indicated where total hours seem unreasonable. You may discover that your accounting department is spending too much time on relatively unimportant or unnecessary work. Misdirected effort appears on the work distribution chart when staff are involved in tasks not contribution directly to the mission of the accounting department.

Here is an overview of the process:

  1. Have each staff member prepare a task list.
    1. List specific and clear activities for a specific time period with time listed for each activity.
    2. Task lists should cover a complete cycle of work. (Weekly, Monthly, etc.)
  2. Determine operations performed
    1. Prepare an operations list grouping related or same kind of tasks (operations).
    2. Check operations list against breakdown of department mission.
  3. Complete the work distribution chart
    1. Complete heading.
    2. List operations.
    3. Enter staff names in a column of the chart.
    4. Enter tasks, time, and work count for each operation.
    5. Total the columns and rows.
  4. Examine the present work distribution
    1. What operations take the most time?
    2. Are they essential?
    3. Is there misdirected effort?
    4. Are skills used properly?
    5. Are you staff doing too many unrelated tasks?
    6. Are tasks spread too thinly?
    7. Is work distributed equitably?
    8. Is the department overstaffed?
    9. Are the right people on the bus?
  5. Improve work distribution
    1. Consider eliminations, additions, and rearrangement of tasks and operations.
    2. Prepare a proposed work distribution chart.
    3. Discuss proposed changes with your partners.
    4. Put proposed changes into effect.

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

 

 

Sep 07, 2016


Law Firm Profitability – How Do I Know if We Have Enough Work for the Attorneys?

Question:

I am the owner of an eight attorney estate planning firm in Jacksonville, Florida. Our firm handles estate planning and estate administration. For this entire year our financial numbers are way down and I am getting concerned. For example, compared to last year:

I would appreciate any ideas on what I should do next.
 
Response:
 
Several of my estate planning/administration firms from different areas of the country are advising me that business is way down this year and they can't put their finger on the problem other than demand and timing.
 
I would start by:
 
  1. Take a look an your new matter intakes for the year – month by month.
  2. Examine the referral and marketing sources as to where this business is coming from.
  3. Prepare a open matter inventory report by attorney and matter type to get a count of the number of matters each attorney is handling
  4. Examine billable hours, non-billable hours, collected working attorney fees and realization rates for each attorney.
Compare each of the metrics above with last year and prior years. Meet with all of the attorneys and review their matters in progress and discuss their workloads. Also review your marketing budget and marketing programs to see if changes are warranted.
 
This should give you a feel for what is going on. You could have problems in the following areas:
 
While you may find that you have problems in each of the above areas I suspect that your biggest problem is that attorneys do not have enough work and your business is down. If this is the case I would question how they are using their non-billable hours – are they doing more business development and marketing – or they simply pacing their time so they fill an eight hour day.
 
If your problem is lack of work you are going to have to see if additional marketing can generate the business needed to support the attorneys you have on board or reduce your attorney headcount.
 

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

 
 
 
 

 

Jan 12, 2016


Retaining Key Law Firm Talent Through Remote/Virtual Work Arrangements

Question:

I am the owner of a five attorney firm in Austin, Texas. My accounting/office manager has just advised me that she is resigning her position as a result of her husband's job being relocated to another city on the west coast. She is the best employee that I have had the pleasure of working with and I am not sure where to start regarding finding her replacement. She will be hard to replace – – not just her skills – but her manner, relationship with me and other members in the firm, clients, etc. She is truly a class act. I would appreciate any thoughts that you may have.

Response: 

Maybe you don't have to lose her. Why not consider a remote/virtual arrangement. I know – it sounds crazy but I have several law firm clients that were in similar situations and decided rather that lose a key employee to have them work remotely.

The first situation occurred several years ago in Chicago. The firm was going to lose a key paralegal that had been with the firm for fifteen years when her husband was relocated to Washington state. The firm was already paperless and had an excellent computer system that facilitated remote communication. The missing link was the telephone system and how to handle client calls coming in for the paralegal. The firm installed a VOIP phone system that could seamlessly transfer a call as if the paralegal were down the hall. An office was setup in the paralegal's home in Washington state, procedures and protocols put in place, and other practices such as joining her in via Skype on the weekly firm meetings. The arrangement has worked out exceptionally well for five years.

The second situation occurred six months ago in Chicago. The firms accounting manager's husband was transferred to Florida and she tendered her resignation. The owner asked me to help him find a replacement and I asked what he thought about a remote arrangement. We discussed how the various accounting tasks would be handled and coordinated remotely from running pre-bills, making bank deposits, recording client payments, billing, paying bills vendor bills, etc. and he decided to give it a try. A virtual private network was installed, her home office was outfitted, and procedures, protocols, and checks and balances put in place. The arrangement has worked out well. Four months after the arrangement was implemented the firm merged with another firm and now has two office locations and the accounting manager is effectively handling the billing and accounting for both offices from her Miami Florida remote location. The owner is very happy with the arrangement.

So, before you accept her resignation and begin looking for a replacement – you might want to consider a remote/virtual arrangement.

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

 

Oct 21, 2014


Law Firm Insurance Defense Work – Opportunity or Commodity?

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 5 attorney general practice firm in Kansas City, Missouri. My book of business is down and I have been considering taking on insurance defense work. During the past year  I had the opportunity of working as co-counsel on a couple of insurance defense matters and enjoyed the experience and the work. It seems to me that representing insurance companies would represent a steady flow of work. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Insurance defense work can be a blessing and a curse. Working for insurance companies often does result in a steady flow of work but at the following costs:

  1. Low billing rates – often in the range of $145 – $175 for partners and even lower for associates – auto mechanics and plumbers often fare better
  2. Unrealistic controls.
  3. Mandated billing guidelines regarding what can, what cannot, and how much time can be billed
  4. Strict litigation guidelines that dictate how the case is handled and managed.
  5. Case budget requirements
  6. Audits of your legal bills
  7. Limited loyalty and inability to develop close relationships with the client due to centralized claims offices and restrictions on social activities

So, in exchange for a flow of cases you may be selling your freedom, independence, and your soul. It is hard to be successful if you dabble in insurance defense. You either need to be in or out and if you are in you would have to leverage the practice in order to be profitable at the lower billable rates. Be careful about relying on a large volume of work from one just one company. Consider diversifying your case portfolio to include a mix of higher stakes cases, if you are able, such as professional liability, products liability, medical malpractice, commercial litigation, and major construction defects.

Realize going in that insurance defense work is commodity work and insurance companies are shopping for the best deal and the best price – so is your competitive strategy to be a low cost provider?

https://www.olmsteadassoc.com/blog/category/strategy/

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

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