Tag: Oregon State Bar

BillingBusiness PlanningClient relationsFinancial ManagementLaw Practice Management

Becoming a Cost Center: the Story of Attorney Andrew

image   by Sheila Blackford   ©2016   I get to talk with attorneys who are trying to figure out the best method of increasing business. Should they do a Facebook firm page? Should the try using Google AdWords or try advertising with Yelp! or start a blog, or twitter feed? There are more ways to spend money than to make it. What all lawyers can do is pay attention to what they are spending their money on. A good way to look at expenditures is to view how many hours of work you must spend to pay for this purchase. If you work for a salary, it is easy to calculate your rate of pay. You have your annual salary. You can calculate how your hourly rate of pay from there. If you worked 52 weeks – no time off– then divide your annual salary by 52. If you work 40 hours a week – in your dreams, right?– then divide the weekly salary by 40. What you get is your hourly rate.

This is very different when you work for yourself. You have a billable rate, but you have overhead costs, and you likely do not collect the same amount of money that you bill.  Let me introduce you to Attorney Andrew, admitted to the Oregon State Bar in 2005. Andrew has a billable rate of $200 an hour. He spends six hours working on the Client Carlton matter. He knows he really should have been able to do the work in four hours so he writes the Client Carlton bill down to four hours, $800. Client Carlton is billed $800 and pays $800. There are 10 additional clients billed during the same month totaling $8,400 and is paid only $6,600.

Attorney Andrew’s office rent is $1,200 per month. Allocating 1/12 of the Oregon State Bar annual membership dues equals $46.42; allocating 1/12 of the Professional Liability Fund annual assessment for the basic $300,000 malpractice insurance coverage and additional $50,000 claims expense allowance equals $291.67.

Attorney Andrew’s total gross income is $7,400 for the month. His proportionate expenses are $1,538.09. Attorney Andrew’s net income would be $5,561.91.Will he take the full amount as take home income? Or will he buy more paper and ink for his printer? Or should he save the money as a cushion against any future expenses.

What are Attorney Andrew’s numbers looking like? Attorney Andrew wrote down $200 on the Client Carlton time charges. What amount of time did he write down on the other client matters? If he billed $9,180 but only collected $7,400 then his collection rate for this month was 81%.  $7,400 divided by $9,180 = 81%.  COLLECTION RATE EQUALS THE AMOUNT RECEIVED DIVIDED BY THE AMOUNT BILLED.

But if his time charges entered for the entire month were 60 hours (value = $12,000) and he wrote off 14.10 hours and only billed 45.90 hours (value $9,180), then at his $200 billable rate he was only paid for 37 hours ($7,400). As a result, his realization rate is on 62%. $7,400 divided by $12,000 = 62%. REALIZATION RATE EQUALS THE AMOUNT RECEIVED DIVIDED BY THE VALUE OF TIME RECORDED. 

If you haven’t run screaming from being in front of this blog post, take a look at Attorney Andrew’s net income of $5,561.91. We realize there are other monthly overhead costs besides rent, and 1/12 of the  annual OSB bar membership dues and PLF assessment for malpractice insurance coverage. You can do your own precise calculations with all your numbers. If I told you that Attorney Andrew was somewhat prudent and only paid himself $5,000 gross salary a month, then his gross annual salary is $60,000. Based on 52 week in year, 40 hour work week, Attorney Andrew’s gross hourly rate of pay is $28.85. Considering how proud Attorney Andrew is to have a billable rate of $200 an hour, that gross hourly rate of pay is something else isn’t it?  Well, though painful, it isn’t accurate: don’t forget federal and state taxes and other withholding amounts for social security and medicare that Attorney Andrew must pay. His net pay is not $28.85. It’s less…

For the sake of our sanity, let’s just run with this $28.85 an hour gross hourly rate of pay. Attorney Andrew wants to purchase a new leather sofa long enough to nap on, delivered to his condo from Pottery Barn, he will spend $3,499. Not bad! He better like it because it will take him 121.29 hours to earn the price of that leather sofa based on his $28.85 gross hourly rate. And we won’t talk about the dream car Attorney Andrew is dreaming of buying. It is pretty cool looking for a car.  Okay, I’ll tell you what his dream car is so you can google it and share the dream: the 2016 BMW i8 with a MSRP of $140,700. If Attorney Andrew had a savings account to clean out, it would take 4,876.95 hours based on his $28.85 gross hourly rate to put that baby in his garage. I wonder what his condo cost if it has a garage. Hmm…

So the moral of this story of Attorney Andrew is multi-layered.

  1. Don’t get overly impressed that your billable rate is $200 an hour.
  2. Look at your collectible rate.
  3. Look at your realization rate.
  4. Before falling in love with new furniture and cars, calculate how many hours you will have to work to pay for them.
  5. Before getting more clients, look at how efficiently you are serving the clients you already have.

 

 

 

 

 

EthicsLaw Practice ManagementProfessionalism

Lawyers Leaving Firms – Happy or Otherwise

JEL23652-Blackford, Sheila P3 (2)  by Sheila Blackford   ©2010   Lawyers leaving their firms are on my mind today. Seems like stressful conditions financially are big contributor. There is more movement of lawyers from firm to firm. This raises issues of ethics and professionalism.

1. The Client is not property. The client gets to decide whether to leave the firm following the lawyer who has been doing the work or to leave the firm for a different firm or to stay. The implications of this are sometimes bitter: you have to let the client know that the lawyer who has been doing the work and being in contact with the client is leaving. Here in Oregon, following the ABA Model Rules, see ORPC Rule 1.4 Communication. Click here for a PDF of them which you might want to print them out to keep in a folder or save it on your computer for future frequent reference. It certainly is reasonable to keep your client informed about the status of his or her matter: “your attorney is leaving our firm at the end of the month.” Is the lawyer leaving to move to another state? Is the lawyer leaving to take a position practicing in a different area of law and will be unable to do this type of law? Is the lawyer leaving anyone behind at the firm who could competently continue to work on the client’s behalf? This seems eminently important information to be shared with a client “to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

2. All fees are subject to refund if the work is not performed. Avoid calling fees earned upon receipt “nonrefundable.” This designation may be misleading, if not false, a violation of ORPC 8.4 (a)(3), prohibiting conduct that involves “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.” Wow. This flat fee earned upon receipt becomes a problem when the client chooses to leave with the attorney or to go to another firm. If the firm holds onto that fee, and has done little or no work, ORPC Rule 1.5 Fees prohibits doing so: “[a] lawyer shall not enter into an agreement for, charge or collect an illegal or clearly excessive fee or clearly excessive amount for expenses.” How do you know it’s excessive? “A fee is clearly excessive when, after a review of the facts, a lawyer of ordinary prudence would be left with a definite and firm conviction that the fee is in excess of a reasonable fee.” ORPC 1.5(b) goes on to innumerate eight factors to be considered as guides to determining the reasonableness. I don’t think you really need to read those factors to realize that unreasonableness of a flat fee earned upon receipt held out as “nonrefundable” to a client who want to leave with the attorney or go to another firm. This isn’t the time to try to assess fees for setting up a manila folder with a label and calling it legal work rendered. Sorry. Don’t keep money you haven’t earned.

3. Parting is not sweet sorrow. Giving notice to clients that the lawyer is leaving seems to be a big source of angst in many situations for the departing attorney and the firm. This is especially so when the separation generates hard feelings on either or both sides of the relationship. Our deputy general counsel for the Oregon State Bar, Helen Hierschbiel wrote “On the Move: Ethical duties when switching law firms” in the May 2007 issue of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin.

In a perfect world, one would do as Ms. Hierschbiel advises: “[t]he preferred method for providing notice to clients of a lawyer’s departure is by a joint letter from the managing partner and the departing lawyer to those client with whom the departing lawyer has had principal responsibility or significant contacts. The letter should provide information about the departing lawyer’s plans and indicate whether the firm is capable of and interested in continuing the representation. The letter must inform the clients that they may choose to keep their work with the firm or engage the departing lawyer. The letter should also inform clients, if they choose the latter option, what they need to do to terminate their relationship with the firm, including paying any outstanding fees or costs and how to get a copy of the file. This letter should be sent well enough in advance of the depature to give clients time to make their choices and lawyers time to take steps to effect any transfers of cases.”

However, relationships being what they are – between complicated humans who here happen to both be lawyers, a situation can develop where tempers are stoked and emotions are heated. In that event, Ms. Hierschbiel points out that “an unfriendly separation may make these best practices impossible. In such cases, separate letters may be sent. ABA Formal Op No 99-414 recommends that a letter from the departing lawyer should: 1) not urge the client to sever its relationship with the firm, but may indicate the lawyer’s willingness and ability to continue responsibility for matters upon which she currently is working; 2) make clear that the client has the ultimate right to decide who will finish the case and 3) not disparage the lawyer’s former firm. In addition, so long as the letter is sent only to those clients with whom the lawyer has a present professional relationship, the lawyer does not violate RPC 7.3(a). See OSB Formal Op No 2005-70.

“Upon separation, client files and property must be handled in accordance with the client’s direction. ABA Formal Op No 99-414; Oregon RPC 1.15(e) and 1.16(d). Generally, this means that if the client decides to go with the departing lawyer, the firm should surrender the client file [See OSB FOrmal Op No 2005-125 for discussion of what constitutes the “client file.”] to the departing lawyer and transfer any unearned advance deposits to the departing lawyer’s new trust account. Where a case is being handled on a contingent fee basis, fees will have to be apportioned. The decision on how fees will be split does not need to comply with requirements of RPC 1.5(e).”

4. A lawyer may solicit his/her former clients. “Once the lawyer is established in her new practice she may solicit the clients that she represented at the former firm. See, e.g., Oregon RPC 7.2(a)(2) (allowing a lawyer to solicit personally former clients); and Oregon RPC 7.2(c) (requirement that written solicitation of a person known to be in need of legal services in a particular matter be labeled as an “advertisement” does not apply to persons specificied in 7.2(a)).” I glad that Ms. Hieschbiel included this point in her article. If both the departing lawyer and the firm can keep this in mind, contacting the clients will be viewed in the correct perspective and it will be easier to do what is right by the client.

Hopefully, if you have read this post, you can share it with either someone who is leaving their firm or someone who is being left. I hope you can take a few minutes to read–or re-read– the article from Helen Hierschbiel linked above. Most of all, I hope that both parties can get through this transition ethically and professionally so they can get back to the business of practicing law.

GeneralMentorsProfessionalismResources

Attorney at Law not Dabbler at Law

JEL23652-Blackford, Sheila P3 (2)  by Sheila Blackford   ©2010   There are many lawyers starting up their law practice these days. Some have become unemployed by larger firms downsizing as an economic survival tactic while others are newer lawyers who have decided to hedge their bet on getting an associate position. Whatever the push for opening up one’s own law practice, the attorney should take care to devote him- or her-self wholeheartedly to the clients who come seeking legal help. No dabbler’s in the law! You’d be horrified if a doctor set about to see a patient with a dabbler-in-medicine attitude. It is just as serious. What is dabbling? Though not a term of art, we all would agree that to dabble is to engage in something without the serious study and practice required of competent mastery.

Oregon Rule of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.1 Competence, based on the ABA Model Rules, states: A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Four Quadrants of Competence: Unconscious Incompetence is a dangerous place for dabblers
You may have heard of the Four Quadrants of Competence: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, and Unconscious Competence. Passing the State Bar Exam indicates you have minimum competence. The Bar Exam can’t test all areas of law practice or assess how well a candidate can deal with a specific issue facing a client. Herein lays the danger: you may not know what you do not know. This is the quadrant known as Unconscious Incompetence. Something you can’t forget if you are working by yourself without supervision by a more experienced lawyer.

Cure for Dabbling
If you have a mentor helping you, call. If not, you may want to contact the Oregon State Bar Lawyer to Lawyer Program which allows you to check in with a more experienced lawyer. You can reach the Lawyer to Lawyer Program by calling the Bar at 503-431-6408. If you want to help lawyers by participating in the rewarding program, download an application here. The Lawyer to Lawyer Program is especially helpful as more experienced lawyers find themselves feeling the need to practice out of their practice area in order to make overhead and cost of living expenses.

It takes time to move from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence – where you are aware that you don’t know something and seek advice. It takes years of practice, getting advice and guidance from senior attorneys, attending substantive area CLEs and studying to develop the mastery of a practice area with Conscious Competence where you are aware that you know it and are tuned into the process of doing the details with competence.

As you may recall, the fourth Quadrant is Unconscious Competence, where you just act with competence without being consciously aware of the many steps. You may see unconsciously competent attorneys seemingly engaging effortlessly in cross-examination of a witness. They are not just a natural giant in the courtroom; they have honed their skills over decades of hard work. Many of these members of the Bar are willing to serve as mentors. Ask around for who are the giants in a practice area; call on them for some mentoring. They can help you prevent dabbling in the law.