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Best Practice Tips


Asked and Answered 

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

Q.  I am the founder, majority partner (80 percent), and managing partner of a 22-attorney firm in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm practice is focused in the area of healthcare. There are 12 equity partners, five non-equity partners, and five associates. I manage the firm as a benevolent dictator. I am becoming overwhelmed trying to manage the firm and practice law and I believe the firm is now at a size where others must become involved in managing the firm. I have been considering forming a committee of all the equity partners to manage the firm. Your thoughts are welcomed.


Asked and Answered 

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

Q. I am a sole practitioner in Peoria, Illinois. My firm is a general practice firm that services clients throughout central Illinois. I have four staff members. I am 58. While I have enjoyed having my own practice for the past 20 years, I am concerned – what if something were to happen to me today or tomorrow? What is my backup plan in the event of short-term illness, disability, death, and even vacations? How would the firm keep operating? Who would take care of the client’s needs? How would my staff be taken care of?

A. Sound practice continuation arrangements can solve this dilemma, preserve practice value, and help prevent a lawyer’s spouse or immediate heirs from facing a hasty sale or disposition of the practice in an emergency. A practice continuation arrangement can also give lawyer practitioners, staff, and families peace of mind.

A practice continuation arrangement is an arrangement, typically in the form of an agreement or contract made between an individual lawyer or a small law firm and another lawyer or law firm. The arrangement describes a course of action to transfer a lawyer’s practice and sets payment for its value. In the event of vacation, temporary or permanent disability, or death, a practice continuation arrangement protects the practice, the business interests of the lawyer or law firm’s clients, and the financial interests of the lawyer.

Approaches


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am the managing partner of a 16-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 12 years of 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.

A. 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.


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am the managing partner of a 12-attorney firm in Toledo, Ohio. Our firm is evaluating new billing software and we are looking into some of the cloud-based solutions. We are currently using a desktop program that we have been using for 15 years. The program handles our billing as well as our accounting. We have kept up with the updates to the program and the software has worked well for us. Several of our younger attorneys have used a couple of cloud-based billing programs in other firms and are trying to convince the firm to change over to one of these programs. They believe it is easier to enter time sheets and the software is easier to work with. What are your thoughts?

A. I agree that the subscription cloud-based billing programs are easier to learn and use. In part this is due to limited function and capabilities. However, user simplicity is only part of the equation. The bigger question is whether the software will meet your needs. Many of the cloud-based programs were designed for solo practitioners or very small firms with limited reporting requirements. While these programs are getting better and inheriting more features they are still not up to par with the older desktop programs. Limitations include:


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am the sole owner of a two-attorney firm in Atlanta. I have been in practice for 13 years. I have one associate who has been with me for one year, one full-time paralegal, and two part-time assistants. I have a general practice. Revenues have stagnated and I need to identify strategies for getting to the next level. My practice is struggling. I have been thinking about narrowing my practice and focusing on five or six practice areas. I am ready to invest in marketing. I would appreciate your thoughts.

A. This is the age of specialization – less often results in more. Many attorneys in small general practice firms are afraid to specialize and focus on three areas of practice or fewer. The concern is that by specializing, there simply will not be enough business of keep the attorneys busy generating sufficient revenues.

I have worked with several firms that have shifted their practices from general practices to practices limited to estate planning and elder law and they have performed far better as specialized practices than they did as general practices. I suggest that you consider focusing your practice on on no more than two or three key practice areas in which you can differentiate yourself.

Here are a few thoughts:


Asked and Answered

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

Q.  I am a partner in a 14-attorney business litigation law firm in New Orleans. There are five partners in the firm. We are a first-generation firm and all five partners are the original founders. Each partner has equal ownership interests and is 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.

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


Asked and Answered 

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

Q. I am the owner of a small estate planning firm in Worcester, Massachusetts. I have three associates and three staff members. I am 55 and want to begin putting in place my succession/exit plan. I would like to retire and exit the practice in 10 years. Would I be better off selling to another firm or attorney, merging the practice, bringing in laterals, or selling to one or both of my associates? I am interested in your thoughts.

A. The biggest challenge for many firms, is finding the right who.

The who dictates the what — the actual succession/transition/exit strategy. In other words, many law firms find that they start down one path and end up on another. Not all non-equity partners and associates want to own a law firm. Not all lateral and merger candidates will be a good fit for your firm and culture. The key is the right relationship and sometimes that takes the form of making someone at the firm a partner, bringing in a seasoned lateral, merging with another firm, or selling the practice. Therefore, succession/transition plans have to be flexible and often the key is not getting stuck in creating complex succession plans at the onset. Establish timelines, outline a general course of action, generate some momentum and see where that takes you. Then build the plan when you can see where the firm is headed.


Asked and Answered 

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

Q. I am a member of the executive committee of a 75-attorney firm in Houston, Texas. We are a first-generation firm. Several of our founders are in their 60s and we have recently begun discussing succession planning and how clients and management duties will be transitioned. We would appreciate your thoughts in these areas.

A. In larger firms, clients are more likely to be large, sophisticated clients, possibly Fortune 500 companies, which refer many matters to the firm during the course of a year. Often such clients may be both a blessing and a curse for the firm. A blessing in that their business provides the firm with huge legal fees during the course of a year. A curse in that their business represents a large percent of the firm’s annual fee collections and a significant business risk if the firm were to lose the client. An effective client transition is critical, takes time, and must be well planned.

Successful client transition – moving clients from one generation to the next – is a major challenge for larger firms. Shifting clients is not an individual responsibility but a firm responsibility. To effectively transition clients, the individual lawyer, with clients, must work together with the firm to insure the clients receive quality legal services throughout the transition process. Both the individual lawyer and the firm must be committed to keeping clients in the firm when the senior attorneys retire. Potential obstacles include:


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am a partner in a 45-lawyer firm in Memphis and a member on the firm’s executive committee. We are planning on having a two-day planning retreat in June of this year. We have had these retreats every year for the past six years. Past retreats have only included attorneys. This year we are considering including staff members. We would appreciate your thoughts as to whether this is a good idea.

A. A firm invites all key staff to a retreat when they can play a major role in identifying problems and developing solutions. A firm retreat is an excellent forum if the partners or management have determined that individuals at different levels within the firm are having communication problems – for example – where communication is inadequate between:

  • Equity partners and non-equity partners
  • Partners and associates
  • Attorneys and staff

Having these individuals participate in solving their own communication problems at the retreat usually produces better results than those obtained when the partners hand down orders that may not deal with the real issues. Staff participation can help identify problems, involve more firm members after the retreat in the implementation of solutions, and improve buy in.    

Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am the managing partner of a six-lawyer general practice firm in Chicago. We have four partners and two associates and have been in practice for 20 years. While we are holding our own financially we would like to do better. The partners have never earned more than $175,000 – some years not even that. What can we do to improve profitability?