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Best Practice Tips

Asked and Answered


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

Q. I am a partner in a four-attorney plaintiff-side personal injury firm in Illinois. Three of us are partners and we have one associate attorney. We handle run of the mill slip and fall, vehicle, and premises accidents; products liability cases; and workers’ compensation cases. We have a very aggressive advertising and marketing program. We are having issues with reduced case flow and dwindling and diminishing profits and earnings. For the past year the partners have been living off our credit line. We believe that we need to be thinking about doing something different and are not sure as to what that should be. However, we have agreed to start doing some long-term planning. We would appreciate your thoughts.


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am an associate attorney in a 10-attorney firm in Atlanta. The firm represents mid-size to small businesses. There are six partners and four associates in the firm. I joined the firm after graduating from law school two years ago. All of my work is given to me by the partners and since joining the firm, I have not brought in any clients. When I joined the firm, I was told not to worry about bringing in clients – the firm has plenty of work. I am paid a salary and a bonus if my billable hours are at a certain level. There appears to be no desire by the partners for me to spend time developing clients. I have talked with my peers in other law firms who tell me that this is short-sighted, and that developing clients is a major factor in their firms for associates to be considered for partnership. I would appreciate your thoughts on what I should be doing and what direction I should take.


Asked and Answered

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

Q. 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 of 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.


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am the sole owner of a six-attorney estate planning practice in Phoenix, Arizona. The five associates have been with me from five to fifteen years. I just turned 55 and would like to retire when I am 65, either by selling my practice to another firm or to one or more of my associates. I would like to receive some remuneration for the sweat equity that I have invested (goodwill). I have tried over the years to set up my practice in a way that it is not “just me.” I changed the name of my firm to a trade name that does not include my name, arranged the lawyers’ names on our letterhead and website alphabetically, and eliminated designations such as principal and associate. I believe that I have made it difficult for clients and prospective clients to know who the boss is. I hope that this will make my firm more salable and appealing in the future. I would appreciate your comments.


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am a newly-elected managing partner of a 14-lawyer firm in San Diego. Although I was elected to this position, I feel disadvantaged because I don’t have a financial background. What metrics/measurements should I be looking at?


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am a non-equity partner in a four-attorney personal injury plaintiff law firm in Newport Beach, California consisting of the firm owner, two associates, and myself. The owner is planning on retiring and has provided me with a proposal to sell me his practice. How do I determine whether this is an opportunity or a potential curse? Your advice would be appreciated.


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am a partner in a 12-attorney firm in Houston. The firm has five partners and seven associates. We are a first-generation firm and we, the partners, have never practiced in other law firms. Currently, the partners have equal ownership interests and are compensated equally. We are experiencing issues with the present method of partner compensation and we are giving some thought to considering other approaches. One of the issues that we are trying to wrap our heads around is how to measure each partner's performance, value, and overall contribution to the firm. Do you have any suggestions? 


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am a partner in an 18-attorney law firm in Jacksonville, Florida. Our business development committee requires all attorneys to submit annual personal business development plans. I have been thinking about writing a book. Is such a goal worth my time investment? I welcome your thoughts.

A. While writing a book is not terribly difficult, it takes time and commitment, and will consume some non-billable hours. However, as David Maister often states, “attorneys should consider their billable time as their current income and their non-billable time as their future.”  In other words, non-billable time is an investment in your long-term future. I believe that authoring a book is an excellent way of building your professional reputation and brand and it will pay dividends in the long-term. Authoring a book can create opportunities that could change your whole life.

When I wrote my book, I had 142 non-billable hours invested in the book and I had some content available from past articles that I had written over the years. Often a good starting point is to start writing articles around a particular topic/theme and later tie them together in a book. This is a good way of taking “baby steps.”

During the writing process, authoring a book may seem like anything but freedom. However, it is a trade-off. Work for the book now and it will work for you later.


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I serve on the management committee of our 16-lawyer firm in Columbus, Ohio. We do not currently have a strategic plan and have been discussing whether we should spend the time developing one. However, we are not sure what a strategic plan would do for us or why it is worth the investment. We appreciate any thoughts that you might have.

A. One of the major problems facing law firms is focus. Research indicates that three of the biggest challenges facing professionals today are: time pressures, financial pressures, and the struggle to maintain a healthy balance between work and home. Billable time, non-billable time or the firm’s investment time, and personal time must be well managed, targeted, and focused. Your time must be managed as well.

Today well-focused specialists are winning the marketplace wars. Trying to be all things to all people is not a good strategy. Such full-service strategies only lead to lack of identity and reputation. For most small firms, it is not feasible to specialize in more than two or three core practice areas.

Based upon our experience from client engagements, we have concluded that lack of focus and accountability is one of the major problems facing law firms. Often the problem is too many ideas, alternatives, and options. The result often is no action at all or actions that fail to distinguish firms from their competitors and provide them with a sustained competitive advantage. Ideas, recommendations, suggestions, etc. are of no value unless implemented.


Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am the owner of a five-attorney estate planning practice in Denver. I have four associate attorneys. Three have been with the firm for over 12 years. Last year, an associate that had been with me for many years left the firm and started his own practice. I thought I was paying him well by virtue of a competitive salary and a discretionary bonus in addition to other benefits. I do not want to lose other seasoned attorneys. What should I do to provide more incentives for associates to stay with the firm?

A. Experience and research by our firm and others has demonstrated that the following, in priority order, are the key drivers of associate attorney job satisfaction:

  1. Satisfaction with immediate manager or supervisor
  2. Opportunities for training
  3. Satisfaction with team and coworkers
  4. Opportunities for career growth
  5. Compensation
  6. Opportunities for promotion

While compensation often is considered the primary factor related to associate satisfaction, I often find that opportunities for career growth and promotion play a significant role. Associates do take pay cuts for career growth and promotion opportunities in other firms — or, in some cases, starting their own firm.