Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Your

Sep 19, 2019


Do You Have “Stars” in Your Partner Ranks?

Question: 

Our firm is a second generation insurance defense firm in Bakersfield, California. We have fourteen lawyers, nine of which are partners. While all of the partners are great trial lawyers, work hard, and bill the required lawyers none of our partners are good at business development, leadership, or management. Our business comes from the client that we inherited. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Response: 

Successful law firms need at least a few star partners in their ranks.

“People are our most important asset” is a standard phrase heard in business. A more accurate and honest statement in many industries might be” competent people are a necessary component of our success.” However, as important as the company’s people are, they are somewhat expendable. The reason is simple. In most businesses the company’s competitive advantage does not rely on the retention, motivation, and behavior of particular individuals. Instead, it turns on shelf space, brand strength, core position, distribution systems, price, technology, product design, location, or any number of other variables that can exist apart from individuals who created the product or service. So except in the long term, most companies profit does not necessarily correlate with their people assets.

This is not the case for law firms. A law firm’s success depends not just on its people assets but on stars. Who are an organization’s stars? They are the individuals who have the highest future value to the organization, the men and women critical jobs whose performance is central to the company success. In a law firm, if a star leaves, the firm and its clients notice the difference. If enough stars leave the firm’s financial performance suffers. In a law firm, partners for significant clients, practice areas and offices are its stars.

In law firms stars are typically partners, but not all partners are stars nor are all stars partners. What  what makes them law from stars is that they propel the business model along all three of its dimensions – building and enduring client relationships, performing up to their full potential in putting the firm first, and implementing strategic imperatives. Because they are so accomplished other members of the firm emulate their behavior.

You need to either develop or eventually recruit a few star partners that have the leadership, management, and client development skills that help the firm grow or stagnation will develop over time. I have seen make practices such as yours limp through second generation and dissolve in third generation.

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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

Sep 20, 2017


Compensating Your First Associate Attorney in a Law Firm

Question:

I am the owner of a law practice in Belleville, Illinois. My practice focuses on real estate, estate planning and administration, and bankruptcy. I have three legal assistants. While I have been in practice for ten years, I have never hired an associate. I have a busy practice and now is the time. I have identified a candidate with six years experience that I want to hire. He has business that he can bring with him. He has been working with a larger firm as an associate and has been paid a straight salary. My next step is to make him an offer but I am struggling with how to pay him. I would like to hear your thoughts.

Response:

Some small firms put associates on an eat-what-you kill system based upon fee revenue collected from clients they bring in and fee collections from other matters they are assigned. They are they paid a percentage – ranging for thirty to forty percent when the fees are paid. However, in most firms associates are paid a salary and possibly a bonus based upon performance. Bonuses may be discretionary or formulaic based upon performance factors such as billable hours, working attorney collected fees, client origination collected fees, goal attainment, signed engagements, etc. Personally, I think a salary plus and discretionary bonus is the best approach for new associates.

However, in your case with an associate that is more seasoned and that has a book of business I think you should consider a salary with a formulaic bonus based upon his working attorney fee collections and client originations. Here are the mechanics:

I would also set a minimum performance expectation of $240,000 for the salary that is being paid.

You could also include non-billable goal attainment bonus as well but you can always add that later.

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

May 16, 2017


Setting up a Branch Office in Another State – Ask Your Clients

Question: 

I am the managing partner of a sixteen attorney insurance defense firm in Kansas City. Several of our insurance company clients have advised us that they are willing to send us cases in Texas. We have decided that we would like to establish an office in Texas. Our plan is to hire three lateral attorneys with seven to twelve years experience with Texas based insurance defense firms. We are not certain as to the best city to establish this office. We are thinking it should be a central location. We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response: 

Unlike many states that have one or two major cities Texas has several including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Ft. Worth, El Paso, Corpus Christi, and others. Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston are all desirable locations for branch offices. Austin is more centrally located if your goal is to service the entire state.

I think it would be risky to simply try to guess as to the appropriate location. Your clients may have law firms they are using in certain areas of the state and may be looking for you to serve a need in a particular area of the state. They may not be willing to pay your travel expense if you are on the other side of the state. If this is the case this is the area that you need to be. I suggest that you have a discussion with each of these clients and ask them where their cases are concentrated and where they would like to see you have an office. This should dictate the office location. Hopefully, each of these clients are on the same page. If each of these client’s cases are concentrated in different geographical areas ask your clients whether they are willing to pay for travel related expenses from a central location. This should guide your location decision.

I would also make sure that these commitments are solid from each of these clients. I would get commitments from each client as to the types and number of cases they envision sending to you so you can properly assess the profitability of establishing a branch office. Do some research on the availability of experienced lawyer talent in the area. I would also give some thought as how you plan to integrate these Texans into your firm and culture. See my prior blog on branch offices.

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

 

Jan 06, 2016


Law Firm Managment – Do Your Non-Equity Partners and Associates Really Want to be Equity Partners?

Question:

I am a member of our firm's executive committee. We are an 18 attorney firm in Baltimore with four equity partners, five non equity partners, and nine associates. Recently we asked one of our non-equity partners to join the equity ranks and he said no. We were shocked and taken by surprise. Is this a common occurrence? We would like to hear your thoughts.

Response:

This is becoming a more common occurrence and this is causing havoc with growth, succession and transition plans. Many law firms are seeing a growing sense of disillusionment from young lawyers that may not want to be an equity partner. While they want to be lawyers they do not want to take the financial and other business risks nor make the other work commitments such as working nights, weekends, and the 24-hour commitment that has historically been the requirements for equity partners in law firms. Work-life balance has become a priority for more younger lawyers.

I believe that you should through performance reviews, survey questionnaires, and other tools gather information sooner than later to get a feel for where your non-equity partners and associates stand as far as attitudes toward business and financial risk, desirability of being an equity owner, and willingness to invest capital and time in the firm. This will give you a feel for your mix. If it looks like you have too many worker bees – revamp your recruiting strategy – new attorneys or laterals – accordingly and look for attorneys that have an interest and the mindset that it takes to be an equity owner.

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

 

 

 

Apr 07, 2015


Law Firm Website Search Results in Google – April 21, 2015 Google Update May Impact Your Google Ranking

Question:

I am the managing partner with a 14 attorney firm in Cleveland. A friend of my just advised me that Google was coming out with a change to their search engine that might impact our website. Have you heard anything?

Response:

Yes. Google is making a change to their algorithm on April 21, 2015 that will favor mobile-friendly websites.

If your website is not truly compatible with the hundreds of millions of mobile devices out there your search ranking will be penalized. Google is drawing a line in the sand when it comes to mobile functionality and search engine results.

I suggest that you update your site as soon as possible. We are having to upgrade our site as well. Weblinx from the ChicagoLand area is doing our upgrade 

Here is a link to a Google tool that will test your site. 

Here is a link to other information regarding the Google update

I believe that a firm's website and it's search engine optimization strategy is a top marketing priority for all law firms and worthy of appropriate investement to keep it working for you.

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

Dec 30, 2014


Law Practice Management – 5 Ideas for Jump Starting Your Law Firm in 2015

Happy New Year and best wishes for both a personal and professional 2015.

Here are a few ideas to help you jump start your practice in 2015:

  1. During the next week review your 2014 personal and practice performance and consider
    1. Things that you did well and could have done better
    2. Things done poorly
    3. Things that you should have done but did not do
    4. What you should be doing now – in 2015 – to be effective in your practice
  2. Write down what results you expect – goals – for 2015 – both financial and non-financial – and compare actual results against these goals
  3. Ask each person in your firm to create and implement one goal that will improve your practice in some way (revenue, profitability, process, client satisfaction)
  4. Implement one action item that you have been things about for years and procrastinating
  5. Give some though as to what you want to be remembered for – personal and professionally

Good luck in 2015!

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

 

 

 

Nov 18, 2014


Law Firm Administrators – Effecting Change by Selling Your Ideas to Your Partners

Question:

I am the firm administrator with a 27 attorney firm in Detroit. We have fifteen partners and twelve associates. I have been eight months with the firm and in this position. I replaced another administrator who was terminated because the partners did not believe he lived up to their expectations. He was their firm administrator. This is my first law firm and I want to be successful. I feel that I am struggling and am not sure of my priorities. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

Few things are as important to an administrator’s future as that person’s ability to influence the decision-making process and effect change.  Skills and competencies are important but so are results. In order to transcend to the next level and enhance their value to their law firms, administrators must help their firms actually effect positive changes and improvements and improve performance. This requires selling ideas to partners in the firm and having them accept and actually implemented. To succeed administrators must achieve three outcomes:

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

 

 

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