Best Practice: How do I value my practice?
Asked and Answered
By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Q. I am the founder and owner of a law firm in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. I have three other attorneys and 4 staff members. We represent primarily business and civic organizations. Our fee revenues are around $735,000 per year and I take home $175,000 to $200,000 from the practice. I am looking to sell the practice to either the associates in the firm or another law firm. Do you have any idea what my firm might be worth?
A. There is no one “right answer” when valuing a law practice. There are different types of valuations performed by different advisors for different reasons. Valuations can be extensive or ballpark estimates.
While law firm owners and partners would like a simple “plug and play” approach to establishing a value for their firms, such an approach does not exist in the real world. There are too many variables that come into play. At the end of the day it comes down to what someone will pay you for your practice and the terms. Often the terms are as important as the price or value.
What a potential buyer is really the future cash flow (earnings from the practice) I suggest that you use the rule-of-thumb approach to get started. Multiply one year’s gross revenue by a factor of x. The result will be the stream of income’s value.
I usually suggest that you average the firm’s gross fee revenue over the past five years to even out any peculiar ups or downs in the revenue stream. Then multiply this average year’s gross fee revenue by a given factor. The factor varies with the industry and even with geographic location. Accounting firms, for example, are valued at 1.0 to 1.5 times (100 to 150 percent) annual gross fee receipts. A well established standard is still in its infancy in law firms. Some argue that the multiplier for the rule-of-thumb method for law practices should be between 0.5 to 3.0. However, based upon what I have seen in recent sales of law practices, the multiplier for the rule-of-thumb method for law practices is ranging between 0.6 to 1.0 (60%-100%) of annual year’s gross fee revenue. Another way to look at it would be 1.2 to 2.0 (120% to 200%) times net income. (Based upon partnership method of accounting and not including owner’s compensation as an expense) Whether the multiplier is in the lower or higher level of the range depends on the following:
1. Quality of owner earnings
2. Quality of personnel
4. Practice area and types of services
5. Financial performance
6. Nature of clients
7. Fee Structure (hourly rates charged)
8. Repeat or one-time clients
9. Referral sources.
10. Extent that the firm is uniquely you.
Start with a multiple of one and adjust for the above factors.
Based upon the figures you provided I would think you would have a difficult time getting a multiple of one for your practice due to the low margin of 24%. Peer practices average 35-45% margins. You might ask for around $700,000 but due to the low earnings, etc. $350,000 - $400,000 might be the best that you can hope for and that may be subject to a five year earn-out. The key is often to find the right person to buy the practice. Finding the right person could take a lot of work and time - so start early.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC,(www.olmsteadassoc.com) is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org.