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Best Practice Tips: Law Firm Owners Use of a Leadership Team

Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am the owner of a 14-attorney law firm in South Bend, Indiana. The firm is a health care firm that represents various medical facilities in the area. I am the managing attorney who makes all of the management decisions, and all of the other attorneys in the firm are associates. I also bring in the bulk of the firm's clients. I want to retire in the next five years and would like to sell my interests to three associates in the firm. However, I am unsure if they will be good partners with each other, whether they have the management and client development skills to lead the firm, or even if they would want to be partners. My other option would be to merge with another firm. I prefer to sell my interests to the three associates rather than merge if at all possible. What are your thoughts?

A. I appreciate your situation. I think you need to sort of “pilot test” the three associates. If you had other equity partners I would suggest that you form a three-member management committee to begin transferring some of your management responsibilities and client relationships. Since you don’t have any equity partners I would not create or label a management committee which is usually a decision-making body with each member having a vote. You might consider forming a committee that you call the Leadership Team with the three associates and yourself serving as members on the team. This would be an advisory group with you retaining control. You would try to run the group by consensus, but you would still be the ultimate decision-maker. I would start by starting the team with limited areas of management, responsibility, and authority. Teach them how to work as a group and gradually increase the team’s responsibility and authority. See how it goes and observe the interpersonal dynamics. After a year you should have a good idea whether they can work together as partners and whether an internal succession strategy will work for you. You might want to create a different category for these associates – senior associate or non-equity partner at the time that you do this as well.

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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 and author of The Lawyers Guide to Succession Planning published by the ABA. 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 jolmstead@olmsteadassoc.com.

Posted on December 13, 2017 by Sara Anderson