Year-end planning: Collect Data about Your Clients

Year-end planning: Focus on current clientsFocus on your current clients

Part 2: Tips for year-end planning 

Year-end planning tips. Now is a good time to focus on what needs to be done to wrap up the business year and get a head start on 2017. As an attorney and business owner, year-end can become the most stressful time of year. To help you out, we put together this list of four areas on which to focus between now and year-end, while your business may be slower than normal. Area #2 – focus on current clients.

The last weeks of the year tend to be slow for getting new cases, so use this time to focus on your current clients – your source of income for the first part of 2017.

  • Pick out your 5-10 best clients from 2016. First, define what a best client looks like:
    • Maybe these are the clients that always paid on time.
    • Maybe they always provided you with and returned documents on time.
    • Maybe they referred you other good clients.
    • Maybe they were just genuinely nice people to work with.

Look through your client list and start rating your clients from 2016.

Tip: You need a way to capture this client rating system in your database so you can develop reports on your rated clients. Your law practice management software should have the ability to setup custom fields. These are a great tool for capturing this data. When you produce the report and are able to separate where your revenue for 2016 came from, you will probably see that 80% of your revenue came from these best clients. But without capturing this data – you will never know.

After looking at your list of “A” rated clients, pick up the phone and call them. Let them know they were/are one of your best clients and you enjoyed working with them. If appropriate, offer to take them out to breakfast in January and set up your first business development meeting for 2017. Also, keep this list in a place where you can review it every week and continually ask yourself “How can I get more clients like these?”

Current Clients are a Potential Source of Income for 2017

For your current clients, who are your source of income for the next few months, do something memorable when sending out their December invoice. Prepare a case summary, outlining and highlighting tasks completed, milestones reached and any upcoming dates and deadlines. This is a way to remind them of the work you have done on their behalf and may make paying the bill a bit easier.

Tip: For estate planning clients, the holidays are the time of year when children are getting engaged and they will have the need to update their estate planning documents. Using your nicely organized client database, run a list of estate planning clients who have children around the age of getting married. In their letters, include a note about your services for young couples.

Is your database not that well organized? Well then, you have a new goal for 2017: start capturing more data about your clients so you can make better strategic decisions. CPN Legal can help you set up processes to capture more data. Give us a call if you’d like to discuss this and prepare for a great start in 2017 for your business.


 

Peggy and Chris Gruenke are co-owners of CPN Legal, a company whose mission is to help solo and small-firm lawyers build better businesses. Peggy is active in the ABA GPSolo Division, where she heads the technology committee and is vice-chair of the national conference committee. Follow her on Twitter @PeggyGruenke.

Year End Collections: Tips for Getting Paid Before Year-end

Collection Box Fund Raising Drive Donation Support Money HelpOctober 2016 (revised from original post) Peggy Gruenke | Originally published in Attorney at Work.

The year end is right around the corner, along with the holiday season. So, what do you really want for a holiday gift? How about getting paid for the work you did during the year and focus on year-end collections.

The holidays can be extra hectic for lawyers with the scramble to get money from clients before year-end and tax planning with your accoutant. Most law firms operate on a calendar year and are run on a cash basis, meaning work isn’t counted as revenue until clients pay. If you are a partner or even an associate, your compensation may be tied to the amount of money your firm collects on the work you billed. If you are a solo, you know all too well your compensation is directly tied to how much you collect on invoices.

Also during these last few months of the year, there’s typically a slowdown in the number of new cases for many practice areas — divorce, bankruptcy, estate planning, real estate — as people begin to prepare for the holidays and put certain personal and business matters on hold.

The result? A collections sprint as the year closes. Law firms deal with it every year — a large percent of revenue is collected in the last three months of the year. Could better collection procedures be put in place to avoid this year-end ritual? Of course! But let’s focus on tips to help you get more money in now.

The Collections Plan: Start With Over-Ripe Accounts

Now is the time to look at past-due accounts and figure out where you are leaving money on the table. The tool you will need to assist you is your “aged accounts receivable” report. I suspect this might generate one of the following reactions from you:

  • Confusion, as in “Crap, do I even have this kind of report?” (Add “buy accounting and practice management software” to your holiday shopping list!)
  • Panic when you see how very few past-due amounts await collection, and how little cash you have on hand. (Be happy the clients you have actually paid you. Next year, get more clients.)
  • Frustration when you realize how much time collecting past-due money is going to take.
  • More frustration because you haven’t set up the ability to accept credit cards for client payments. (Eliminate this frustration now and setup credit cards: Here is the link to LawPay.)
  • Disappointment that you let past-due accounts get to this point.
  • Relief that you have money to collect!

Putting emotion aside, here are a few things you can start on — this week — to boost your year-end revenue number. Continue reading

The 6 Month Financial Checkup: Are you making money yet?

Law firm ProfitabilityThis article was originally written for Attorney at Work in 2014. It has been re-written and updated for this blog post.

So it’s July and you will be sitting down to reconcile your bank accounts for June’s activity. This is an exercise you do (should be doing) every month. As long as there’s money in the checking account, life must be good – right? Maybe, but it begs the question – How profitable is your law firm and can it be doing better?

Six months are in the books and now is a good time to evaluate a few of your firm’s financial metrics and law firm profitability before you plow through the next 6 months of the year. Step back and review where you are in relation to your 2016 budget you created in January. Are you profitable and making money yet? If you never created that budget, no worries, this article will help you plan for the next six months with a budget and a system in place. I have included a sample budget tracker spreadsheet for you to start with now.

While looking at the financial data and key metrics you should be tracking and measuring, let’s ask a few questions to get you in the mindset of looking at your firm as a business and preparing for a more successful next six months.

  1. Are you paying yourself a monthly salary and is it enough to cover your personal expenses? Or are you randomly taking money out of the business when the bank account looks healthy enough to do so?Payroll

Goal: Build you salary into your budget along with payroll taxes. It is tempting to just randomly take out money but the tax implications for this habit will catch up with you the next year. This task also requires you to create a personal budget so you know how much salary you and your family need in order to pay the monthly bills and save for your kids college!

  1. Do you know what you have to bill and collect every month to cover your firm’s monthly expenses, which includes your salary? This is your monthly “nut” – the money you will need very month to pay fixed expenses. Know your “nut” assumes you know your monthly fixed expense.

Goal: Calculate your “monthly nut.” Put this number in a very visible place so you look at it every month as a reminder that once you hit this number, you are making profit for your family and your future retirement.

  1. Does your budgeted income number reflect your collection realization rate?

If you budget to bill 1500 hours/year at $200/hour, your budgeted revenue is $300,000. But it’s not a perfect world and this is not what will be collected. Knowing your collection realization rates will help you set a realistic revenue number to drive your budget.

Collection Rate

Goal: Calculate your YTD 2016 collection realization rate. Shocked at how low it might be? A collection realization rate of 90% should be an attainable goal for you. If it seems daunting based on how low your current collection rate is, don’t worry. This is one area of your financial dashboard that you can improve upon by changing billing habits and tracking accounts receivable.

  1. Do you know your year-to-date profit or lose? How are your actual numbers compared to what you budgeted for? A profit and lose statement is sometimes referred to as an income statement. It is simply an accounting report comparing revenue/income to expenses, usually shown monthly compared to last month for the same time period.

Income is based on a few things discussed above: billing and collections. Expenses are something that can surprise you if you are not tracking them monthly. Having the prepared budget you review each month is invaluable for tracking expenses. You may not think you are spending a lot of money until you see it in writing.

Profit lose

Goal: Make sure your accounting system is setup with a chart of accounts that segregates expenses by categories that you wish to track. Then every month enter the actual amounts spent and watch for any unusual trends. If one month was higher than usual, adjust for the remaining months so you don’t overspend.

  1. Do you have a cash flow report that you can look at every month?

A cash flow report is simply a way for you to keep an eye on your actual checking account balance. If you are reconciling every month and updating your budget/financial tracker spreadsheet, then you will know how much you are starting with every month – with enough money in the checking account or not enough. Once again, it gives you data to make decisions about your business so you can be proactive and not reactive.

In the sample budget tracker/financial spreadsheet, the beginning cash balance for the next month is calculated this way:

2016-07-13_21-21-03

 

 

 

 

Goal: Commit to reconciling your bank accounts within the first few days of each month and updating your budget/financial tracker spreadsheet with the reconciled amount. Having correct and current data is essential for making good business decisions.

Cash Flow

  1. How many hours and dollars are you billing each month and what is your average hourly rate?

You can’t get paid unless you are billing every month. Knowing how much you are billing every month and what the trends are will help you see your financial future, not through rosy glasses but actual numbers.

Goal: Track your billable hours and bill promptly and regularly. Train your clients to expect to pay monthly for their legal services.

Hours billed

  1. How many new matters are you setting up each month and what has been the trend? Is the pipeline full for continued cash flow? Do you have an even balance of hourly vs. flat fee vs. contingent?

Goal: Track the number of new matters per month and visualize the growth. A month with a low number of new matters can signal less income in the coming months. Especially combined with a low beginning check register balance. Knowing this ahead of time can help you prepare. Maybe look at expenses closely over these upcoming months and defer expenses if possible.

Matters

  1. What is your six-month collection realization rate? Is this a weak spot and a reason for low revenue numbers? Your collection realization rate is the percentage of your billed fees that is actually collected. Pretty simple stuff. Collection realization rates are often overstated because lawyers tend to leave uncollectible receivables in the system for an unrealistic time period, rather than admit the money will never be collected.

Goal: Commit to calculating your six-month collection realization rate and for the remainder of the year, set a goal to increase this by 2%. An increase of 2% can yield additional money without doing more work.

Collection reallization

  1. What are your outstanding accounts receivable 30, 60, 90 and over 90 days? This is an area that can yield additional profit for your firm, without putting in longer hours, by simply tighten up or putting in place good receivable management practices. You are not in the business to extend credit and make loans. Set expectations with your clients’ early on regarding payment of invoices. You are a small business owner and cash flow is important. They should understand and respect your business needs. If they don’t, fire them.

Goal: Implement monthly billing procedures and collect all payments before they hit 90 days past due. Create a procedure to send letters requesting payments once account hits 60 days past due and then follow-up regularly. Analysis past due accounts in excess of 1 year. They have little chance of being collected. So don’t count on this money coming in. Write if off and move on.

AR

  1. Don’t have a budget or method to track your firm’s financial data? Use the summer month of July to build yourself a nice spreadsheet so you are ready for the next six months in 2016. This is an invaluable exercise and once done, it easily converts to an annual worksheet.

Improved understanding of these financial metrics will assist you greatly with strategic business development initiatives–all of which are critical to remaining competitive and profitable as a solo and small firm attorney.

Written by Peggy Gruenke with CPN-Legal, a company whose mission is to help solo and small-firm lawyers build better businesses. She is active in the ABA GPSolo Division and a frequent speaker at bar associations and ABA TechShow.

Is 2015 going to be a profitable year? Key Metrics to Track

January 2015 | Peggy Gruenke | Clio and Law Practice Management Consultant

Business Plans for Solos

Key Metrics to Review for Profitability

Now let’s look at different key metrics you may want to review and have in place for 2015. Understanding which key metrics you should be tracking and measuring is critical to remaining profitable as a solo and small firm attorney.

Using the below chart as a reference, here are six key metrics you should track for 2015. If you think six is too many to identify and track, then pick three. If you have never setup a way to track and review these key metrics, this spreadsheet will help you get started.

  1. Track the number of new matters you are getting by type: flat fee, hourly, contingent and pro bono
  2. Track number of hours you are billing on hourly cases and flat fee cases
  3. Your average hourly rate on billed matters
  4. How much you collected each month (revenue from cash flow worksheet)
  5. Your collection realization rate: what % of billed revenue did you collect
  6. Money not coming in: How much money are you leaving on the table every month

Money In Money Out - Preparing for 2015 Image Key Metrics

  1. New matter tracking. How many new matters did you set up each month and what has been the trend? Did the pipeline stay full for continued cash flow? If you have good law practice management software, this information will be right at your fingertips by running reports.

One thing you want to look at is the balance between your types of cases. Too many contingent cases will create very uneven collections since these cases have a long life. They also have expenses related to them. Hourly cases should be generating a nice flow of income as long as you are billing regularly. If you do a number of flat fee cases, it’s important to make sure you are not only profitable but you are profitable at a decent hourly billing rate. Flat fees also mean you may have to manage the flow of this money between your trust account and your operating account, creating invoices and paying yourself at certain milestones. Pro bono cases should be one of you yearly goals as part of your business development plan.

Tip: If you do a lot of contingent cases and find your monthly cash flow having too many valleys, open up a firm savings account and deposit a portion of your next contingent fee in this account. Move it over to your checking account as needed to cover your monthly “nut.” Continue reading

Is 2015 going to be a profitable year? Part One

January 2015 | Peggy Gruenke | Clio and Law Practice Management Consultant

Business Plans for Solos

Law firms are profitable businesses

Let’s set the stage with a very positive image: Law firm business models are very profitable models. According to a Fortune magazine article, in 2014law firms ranked second as a profitable business model with an average profit margin on 17.8%. So, yes, you can make money running a solo law firm! That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do but with the right tools in place at least you will now if you are being profitable.

So it’s January and you will be sitting down to reconcile your bank accounts for December’s activity and looking at your year revenue and expenses. This is an exercise you do (should be doing) every month. As long as there’s money in the checking account, life must be good – right? Maybe, but it begs the question, “Was your business profitable in 2014 and can it be doing better?”

January is a good time to step back and review the financial health of your solo or small firm business. While there are many areas to look at as you prepare for 2015, this article will discuss two areas:

  1. Reports you should have in place and reviewing at the end of the year and monthly to help you better understand the financials of your firm.
  2. Key metrics should you be reviewing to reveal weaknesses in your business. Or identify strengths and give yourself a pat on the back.

Preparing for 2015: Reports for reviewing Money In, Money Out

Money Out: Review your budget tracking worksheet which has been tracking expenses by month: actual vs. budget. This report provides a birds’ eye view of how you spent money in 2014 and compares it to your budget. For 2015, it will be your data for creating your 2015 budget.

The key thing to look at on this report:

  • Where did you overspend? Maybe the extra expenditures are justified.
  • What accounts never had expenses applied to them? This would be for 2 reasons:
    • Maybe you created expense categories but never used them. If so, remove these accounts so the report is less cluttered and easier to read
    • Maybe you have expenses allocated to the wrong accounts. You will want to fix this so you have a true picture of actual expenses.

Added bonus: If you are not currently using accounting software, this worksheet can be setup to reflect the proper way to organize your chart of accounts for that accounting system. The chart of accounts is simply a way to categorize firm expenses and income.

Money In Money Out - Preparing for 2015 Image #1 Continue reading

Year-end planning for lawyers: Focus on your financial data

December 22, 2014 | Peggy Gruenke | Law Practice Management Consultant

Year-end planning: Focus on current clients

So what can you focus on in December to help evaluate your 2014 numbers and plan for a stronger 2015?

  1. Run the accounts receivable report and spend time on collections.

Looking at this past due invoice report, there may be another “oh crap” moment but also a sense of hope. This money, if collected, could be in your next paycheck before year-end and the holiday spending season.

December can be a tough month to do collections and you may be kicking yourself for not having been doing this all year or at least starting earlier. In December, clients are focused on the holidays and upcoming expenses related to gifts and parties. But it is also the time of year when companies give out bonuses. So your client may have an additional source of revenue in December to pay your invoice. Provide a small incentive and consider offering a discount if paid before year-end. If you represent businesses, they are usually looking to pay all their expenses before year-end, so do them a favor and send their bills frequently during December.

Tip: On active cases, bill every two weeks in December but include a letter explaining why the change in your billing process. You are a small business owner. They should understand and respect the fact that you are being proactive and working on your business’ year-end.

Here is an article that contains many more tips about year-end collections. (I can give you a link to an article I wrote about year end collections)

  1. Review what is in your Trust account.

This is a great time of year to make sure you have been diligent about moving money from your trust account to operating account as fees were earned. It also great time to make sure all of your client ledgers are in balance.

Run your Work in Progress (WIP) report and see if there is any time or expenses sitting out there that you can invoice and pay yourself, transferring Trust funds to operating before year-end.

If you have money in client ledgers, run their individual client ledger report and send them a copy so they have a current record of all the transactions during 2014. This is also a great opportunity to stay in touch with your current clients and show them you are on top of things. Continue reading

Collection Realization Rates: Have you looked at yours lately?

Excel showing by Practice areasOctober 14, 2014 | By Peggy Gruenke,  Law Firm Management Consultant for Solos

 

 

 

 

The financial health of your law firm or any business is ultimately dependent on three simple concepts:

  1. Getting the work (selling your product – yes, you are a salesperson disguised as a lawyer))
  2. Doing the work (building the product)
  3. Getting paid for the work (collecting the money)

You need to keep a steady flow in all three components and monitor your results to make sure your business is financially healthy. Envision a pipeline with a steady flow of water. At any point in the pipe when the source of the water slows down, a clog occurs in the pipe or even a leak, the output will be affected. All 3 have to work together in order to keep a steady flow.

Keeping an eye on the flow is essential to making sure you are maintaining a profitable business. But in addition to keeping an eye on things, the ability to measure the flow is an important metric for profitability. For law firms, one key metric is something referred to as realization and there are two types of realization rates that come into play in the financial management of a law firm: Billing Realization and Collection Realization. Both of these metrics affect the amount of water that is getting through your pipeline.

Gwynne Monahan recently published an article that discussed the concept of Big Data and how the accessibility and collection of data has evolved with the growth of cloud based technology. The truth of the matter is that five years ago a solo or small firm attorney simply did not have the products that are available today. So the concept of producing realization and profitability reports was simply out of the question due to the lack of data collected to compile meaningful reports and the amount of time it would take to sift through the data if it was being collected.

Collection Realization Rates

I am going to start with the end in mind and talk about collection realization rates and how to mine this data to track and measure your firm’s collection realization rates, revenue and profitability. Your ability to collect what you billed is not only a financial indicator but quite often it is a measurement of your client’s satisfaction with the work product. So at the heart of it, the collection realization rate and the rate of payment is a direct correlation to your client’s level of satisfaction and your profitability. Happy clients pay their bills.

A side note: you can increase your revenue but if you are spending at the same rate you are increasing, the increase in profitability will not be there. Focus on the overall health of your firm by increasing realization rates and monitoring expenses.

The collection realization rate is the simplest of realization rates to calculate. Just what is it and how do you use Clio to calculate and track this rate?

Your collection realization rate is the percentage of your billed fees which are actually collected.

Billed Fees/Collected Fees = Collection Realization

Once a bill is sent out using Clio’s new billing workflow, there are three possible outcomes:

  • The bills gets paid in full in one payment or over time (100% collection realization)
  • The bill gets partially paid with eventually a write off of the unpaid balance (Less than 100% collection realization)
  • The bill never gets paid and it is a total write off (0% collection realization rate)

Continue reading

One Way to Differentiate Yourself: Create a New Client Packet

Wordle: Welcome
You’ve heard and read many times about the importance of communication and managing client expectations to ensure a successful and profitable engagement. The legal business is essentially relationship based and no relationship survives, let alone thrives, without good communication. The clients may care more about the communication/relationship than your ability or the quality of your work product. So if at that initial client meeting, you can put yourself in their shoes and see the experience through your client’s eyes and anticipate their needs and questions, you are one step ahead of your competitors.

A well designed new client packet can create a client experience that will be memorable, differentiate you from other attorneys in town and build the foundation for a successful and profitable engagement.   A New Client Welcome Package assures your new client is properly welcomed into your practice. In this article, I want to layout items that should be part of a new client welcome packet.

First impressions matter. So invest in getting nice quality folders designed.  On the cover, include your logo, address, website, and phone number. List practice areas on the back of the folder. A welcome package in a folder also provides a place for clients to keep important documents or information throughout the engagement.

Include the following items in your welcome packetContinue reading

More WOW Tips for Retaining Clients

 

 

In a previous post, I talked about marketing as two different processes: Retaining Clients and Attracting New Clients. For this article, I am going to keep the focus on retention. Why? Because a satisfied and loyal client is likely to give you more of their business and bring new clients through referrals to friends, neighbors and colleagues. Which leads us back to the thought that more future value may be gained by retaining an existing client than by attracting a new client.

 

Any savvy attorney recognizes the need to develop creative ways to be memorable leading to repeat business and referrals. A successful, profitable engagement incorporates great client service throughout representation. At the end of your engagement, how can you create WOW moments that will leave your client spreading great news about you and your firm? Here are a few more tips on how you can turn your clients into raving fans.

 

The final invoice. How the heck can you make this usually painful experience a memorable one? If you have been successfully communicating with your client and building a relationship, you may now know if they are involved in any non-profits or have a passion supporting a local organization. Here’s a WOW tip: take the professional discount you were going to apply to the final invoice and convert it into a donation to their organization. Make sure this gesture does not go unnoticed by including a cover letter thanking the client and explaining your donation. You can also split the discount – half as a discount and half as the donation. I think you’ll agree that this is pretty memorable and something to talk about.

 

The second WOW idea is centered on delivering those final documents to your client now that the engagement is over. There are always final documents that need to be picked up or original documents that you collected during the engagement that need to be returned.  Use this opportunity to touch base one more time and make it a WOW moment. Instead of having the client pick up the documents, have your law firm administrator deliver the documents to the client’s office or home or better yet, deliver them yourself. Now this alone is nice, but let’s makes one simple change to make it a memorable experience. Include a platter of cookies, maybe even logo cookies. With the cookies, include a branded postcard that thanks the client for using your services and lists additional legal services provided by your firm. Leave a stack of your newly branded business cards (with your QR code) for employees of the company to pick up.

I’d be curious to know if any one tries one of these ideas and the reaction you get from your client.

Peggy Gruenke, Chief Operating Officer and Business Development, pgruenke@lawbizcoo.com More articles available on my blog LawBizCOO.

A Cyclist’s Perspective on Fee Agreements

As a cyclist, I truly understand the importance of a well-balanced wheel for ensuring a successful ride.  After completing my recent ride, I thought about the analogy between the smooth bike ride and a successful client engagement. The difference between my smooth rides and not-so-smooth rides can be the condition of the wheels – one loose or out of balance spoke can lead to a bumpy ride or even a ride ending crash. In comparison, the difference between a successful, profitable client engagement and one that is bumpy or ends in a crash can come down to having a well written and executed fee agreement. A fee agreement is a contract which outlines the terms of your business relationship.

There are many resources out there to help you design a fee agreement contract. Having reviewed and helped design a few, I believe incorporating these 8 key elements or spokes into your fee agreement will help you on your way to having a successful and profitable client engagement. As illustrated below, each spoke contributes to the success of the client/attorney engagement.

8 Key Spokes = Fee Agreement Elements:

 fee agreements

1.  Who is the client and what legal services are you providing. Are you representing the company or the individuals in the company? For a probate matter, there can be multiple parties. In this first section, be clear about who you are representing and for what.

2.  You’ve conducted a conflict check and documented the results based on your own internal procedures.  But how will you handle the situation of a conflict arising during representation? You have a duty to notify existing clients of a potential conflict. Spell it out here so the client understands. Great article: Conflict Checking Systems from A to Z by my friend Jim Calloway. Continue reading