Best Practice: Controlling cost and managing overhead in the law firm
By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Q. As the administrator of our 17 attorney law firm, I am charged with the responsbility of managing and controlling costs. Our management committee is always complaining about our overhead - and then looking to me for solutions - with the focus usually on cost reduction. Do you have any recommendations?
A. I am often asked to help law firms design and implement profitability improvement programs. In most of my engagements the real problem is insufficient gross income and lack of sufficient investment (spending and time) on marketing and initiatives designed to stimulate client and revenue growth. For most firms increasing revenues is the most effective way of impacting the bottom line. However, we do find that there is waste and unnecessary overhead that eats away at profits and a cost control program is also recommended and implemented. During recessionary times such as we are currently facing – drastic cost controls are often the only option. Reducing overhead can immediately and effectively improve a firm’s bottom line.
The first step in an expense control program is to identify those areas where potential savings exist. Review your profit and loss statement. Resist the temptation to arbitrarily cutting costs which could cut the muscle with the fat and result in revenue loss as well. You have to spend money to make money – so if cost cutting is the appropriate strategy – cut the right costs. Think strategically about cost reduction.
After you have identified areas where savings can be made prioritize and develop specific strategies and implement action plans to achieve the savings.
Here are a few ideas:
STRATEGY #1: Reduce Headcount
This is the largest area for potential savings. Downsizing is a strategy that has been used by many firms this past year. However, it can have long term negative consequences for revenue and talent management. Consider all levels – non-productive partners, associates, paralegals, and staff. Be prudent and sensitive in implementation.
STRATEGY #2: Reduce Compensation
Obviously one way is to cut salaries – a strategy to be used as a last resort. A better approach is to reduce fixed salary (paying people for showing up) and add a variable pay component which will allow employees to earn additional compensation in the form of bonus for results achieved. Another approach is to freeze salary increases.
STRATEGY #3: Benefits
A major area for cost savings – especially health insurance. Determine which programs are most important to employees. Do your best to protect those and reduce or eliminate programs that are less important. Consider offering more than one health insurance plan. Pay the premium for the lowest cost plan and provide options for employees to “opt up” to the better plans by paying the additional premiums. Consider increasing deductibles and requiring employees to pay a portion of the base premiums.
STRATEGY #4: Outsource
Examine potential for outsourcing – from copy services to IT management to your legal team.
STRATEGY #5: Occupancy
Review your lease invoices and question increases and escalators for which you have been charged. Consider renegotiating your lease and ask for a lower rate. Reduce excess space either through a renegotiated lease or through sub-leasing.
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.