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Best Practice Tips: Selling My Law Practice to My Associate

Asked and Answered

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

Q. I am the owner of a general practice firm in Chicago’s west suburbs. My firm has three associate attorneys and three staff members. I am 64 and contemplating my retirement and exit from the practice. I would like to start phasing back over the next three years and be out of the practice by December 31, 2021. There is one associate in the firm to whom I would like to sell the practice and he has expressed an interest as well. What are your thoughts as to how I approach this?

 

A. Client, referral source, and management transition will be major concerns and will impact the value you can receive for your firm. You will need to use the next couple of years to effect a successful client, referral source, and management transition to your associate. Clients and referral sources will need to have a relationship with your associate and perceive him as a partner.

I have seen law firm owners approach this in the following ways:

  1. The associate is elevated and given the title of partner (non-equity) with the execution of practice sale agreement for the sale of the practice to occur in the future with a non-refundable deposit. The practice sale agreement outlines the sale price (which includes a goodwill value) and specific terms for the sale of the practice. Upon purchase of the practice the associate would setup a new practice entity. This approach is often taken by firm’s that don’t want to “play partner.”
  2. A value is determined for the practice and price per share. Often this includes a goodwill value. The associate buys in and initially becomes a minority partner – say twenty to twenty-five percent. Over the next several years the minority partner buys additional shares based upon the valuation formula and the price per share determined at that future time. When the owner retires his or her remaining shares are acquired with the payment for these shares often paid over a period of three to five years.
  3. An associate becomes a minority partner and makes a capital contribution (usually based on cash-based-capital) that has no relationship to the value that the owner is seeking to receive from the practice. The partnership agreement has a “founder benefit” provision that provides that the founder receives a multiple (1.5 to 2) of the average of his or her last three year’s earnings upon retirement. For example, if the founder’s average annual earnings for the past three years were $350,000 - $525,000 (multiple of 1.5) would be his founder benefit. Typically, this would be paid out over three to five years. This would be in addition to a return of the founder’s capital account.

In each of the above scenarios it will be critical that you put in place an action plan with dates, timelines, and activities to ensure that activities that have to occur for a successful client, referral source, and management transition get accomplished. Your biggest challenge will be client and referral source transition. Both of you will need to ensure that clients and referral sources stay with the firm as that will affect the value of the arrangement for both of you.

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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 February 28, 2018 by Sara Anderson
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