I am the sole owner of a personal injury practice in Orlando, Florida. I am in my mid-sixties and am looking to transition out of the firm and retire in the next five to seven years. I have three associates in the firm. I would like to sell my equity to one of the associates that has expressed an interest and has been with me for many years. I would like to receive some value for founding the firm and my contributions over the past thirty years. I would like to see him a twenty percent interest initially and more over the next few years. I am trying to determine a firm value for calculating his buy-in. I would appreciate any thoughts that you may have regarding how buy-ins for partners are determined.
Approaches to buy-ins and buyouts are all over the place in law firms. Here are a few of the common approaches:
- Naked in and naked out – given shares or percentage interest.
No buy-in at all. A new equity partner is given a percentage interest or shares with no buy-in whatsoever. When the partner leaves the firm
for whatever reason he or she is paid their share of earnings to date and that is it. No buyout for their interest.
- Naked in and naked out with cash-based capital contribution.
A new equity partner is given a percentage interest or shares with a capital contribution in alignment with their percentage interest.
When the partner leaves the firm for whatever reason he or she is paid their share of earnings to date and their capital account.
- Naked in and naked out with cash-based plus WIP and AR buy-in.A new equity partner is given a percentage interest or shares with a capital contribution and a buy-in the unbilled work in process and accounts
receivable in alignment with their percentage interest. When the partner leaves the firm for whatever reason he or she is paid their share of earnings
to date and their cash-based capital account plus their interest in accounts receivable and unbilled work in process.
- Purchased shares based on a valuation at the time the shares are purchased and sold.
A new equity partner is sold a percentage interest or shares based on a valuation at the time of purchase. When a partner or shareholder leaves the firm for whatever reason he or she is paid their share of earnings to date and their shares are purchased based upon a valuation of the firm at that time. These valuations often include a goodwill value. Sometimes the purchase price is discounted for sweat equity – time that an equity partner candidate has been with the firm, etc.
- Founder Benefit.
New equity partners are given a percentage interest or shares with no buy-in or a cash-based capital contribution in alignment with their percentage interest and paid their share of earnings to date and their cash-based capital account, if any, when they leave the firm. However, original founders, in addition to being paid their share of earnings to date and their capital account, are also paid a founder benefit often in the form of a multiple of their average individual earnings (compensation) for the past three years.
- Buyout based on firm cash-based valuation, plus accounts receivable and work in progress plus percentage of future collections from new business after the termination date for three to five years. This approach used in practice sale situations, particularly contingency fee firms, when a goodwill value is difficult to ascertain. The percentage of future revenue on future business after the termination date serves as a proxy for the goodwill value. This approach is seldom used in multi-partner/shareholder firms. In fact, many multi-partner/shareholder firms specifically exclude goodwill from any valuation.
- Buyout based on mandatory retirement and winddown.
An approach used by some second-generation firms is a mandatory retirement program that can begin as early as age 60 and no later than 65. The program requires a five-year winddown program in which a retiring equity partner reduces his or her work schedule twenty percent per year and compensation draw, distribution, or salary. During this period the partner is paid their cash-based capital account and their ownership percentage times the collectable accounts receivable and billable and collectable unbilled work in process as of the date the winddown program commences. During the winddown the retiring partner is expected to transition clients and management responsibilities.
In the final analysis the value of the practice is what an outside buyer or an attorney working for the firm will pay for (or invest) the practice. A balance often has to be struck between valuation, affordability, and willingness to pay. The valuation process is simply a tool to use to help you begin discussions and get to this point.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC