Best Practice: Managing law firm cash flow
By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Q. Our five lawyer firm has had a very successful past couple of years. We have been growing in terms of clients, billings and revenues. However, we are getting deeper into our credit line and we simply don't have adequate cash to pay our bills. I would appreciate your thoughts on this matter.
A. Sounds like you are caught in the growth-cash flow trap. Growth puts strain on cash and increases demand for additional working capital. There have been many law firms and small businesses that were profitable - but failed due to simply running out of cash. While you cannot escape this paradox - by actively managing your cash flow (timing of the intake of cash against the outflow of expenses) you can minimize the impact of the following traps:
1. Lack of Attention Paid to Financial Management. Many law firms, especially solos, often give this task a low priority on their to do list. Servicing clients and new client development are given higher priorities. There is often a lack of understanding of financial reports and statements. Understanding financial reports such as income statements v.s. cash flow statements are important is providing early detection of potential cash problems requiring corrective actions. Law firms should develop reasonable monthly, quarterly, and annual cash flow projections as well as income and expense projections.
2. Poorly Managed Accounts Receivable. Cash is king. Law firms need to improve client payment terms and cash collections by speeding up billing cycle, getting more upfront through initial retainers, requiring retainer replenishments, and staying on top of retainers. Use your billing software reports to review retainer useage weekly, if not daily. Billing and accounting software should be implement any potential delinquent accounts and someone in the firm, or outside of the firm, should be responsible for prompt follow-up to collect all outstanding invoices. Depending on the resources available, a law firm may decide to out-source accounts receivable management and collections to industry professionals and specialists.
3. Heavy Investment in Client Advances. Many law firms have large investments in client advances. For firms that book these expenditures as an asset - these items will not be reflected on an income statement as expenses. Be aware of their impact upon cash flow and look for ways have the client pay these directly, and bill sooner with cost only out-of-cycle invoices. Contingency fee firms will have to cover with additional working capital or line of credit.
4. Paying Invoices too Quickly. Another way of improving cash flow is to slow down the outflow of cash by insuring that payables are not paid until they are due. I find many firms simply pay invoices when the invoice comes in the door - way before they are due. Monitor payment terms and pay when due.
Law Firms often experience these top cash flow problems when they do not manage the store and proactively manage their income, receivables, and payables. Many are left wondering how they went out of business while their clients and revenues were growing substantially.
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 email@example.com.