Choice of Entity for New Lawyers

coffee-cup-and-docs-bought-at-ssChoosing a legal structure and entity type for your law firm seems like an easy decision. But is it? Consider the following scenarios:

New lawyer establishes law practice with the goal of becoming an associate

If this is you, being a straight-up sole proprietor may be the best choice, assuming you have no employees.

A sole proprietorship is the simplest and most common structure chosen to start a business:

  • No formal action is required to start your business
  • It’s inexpensive
  • No papers to file
  • Nothing to dissolve
  • Simple tax preparation

When you’re ready to make the move from running your own practice to becoming an associate, the transition couldn’t be any easier.

On the downside, sole proprietorship means you have unlimited contractual liability and potentially higher taxes.

But how significant is the liability exposure?

Lenders, property managers, and others with whom you do business will typically require a personal guarantee for loans, leases, or other business transactions.  A personal guarantee means YOU are on the hook, even if you form a professional corporation or single-member limited liability company. As a result, contractual liability protection doesn’t count for much in evaluating whether to form an entity.

The real choice between sole proprietorship and forming a PC or single-member LLC comes down to taxes and the trade-off between potentially saving money (with entity formation) and simplicity (going with the sole proprietorship model).  Talk to a CPA so you can make an informed decision.

What if I’m planning to practice business law or intellectual property?

Why would your area of practice make a difference?  And didn’t we just say entity choice is driven by risk aversion – wreaking whatever benefit you can from contractual liability protection – and saving money – courtesy of a lower tax burden?  So what difference could practicing business and IP law possibly make?

If your goal is to help clients form entities and protect intellectual property, it could look a little odd that you haven’t followed the usual formalities in establishing your own business.

Fair or not, client perception counts.  So does marketing.  And part of marketing is how you brand your law firm.  Appending a PC or LLC designation to your business name may actually be an important part of how you choose to present yourself to potential clients.

If you plan to have employees …

This is an entirely different ballgame.  Without a doubt, form an entity. If you are a solo, choose a PC or single-member limited liability company (LLC).

Both entity types offer liability protection for non-professional torts committed by your employees.  The contractual liability protection discussed above will also kick in.  Talk to a CPA, but the likelihood is that forming an entity will also result in a noticeable tax savings.

If you plan to practice with others …

This is another occasion when forming an entity is a no brainer.  Do it for the avoidance of liability discussed in the preceding paragraph and for the limitation on vicarious liability.  The ideal structure may be to form a sole owner PC or single-member LLC that belongs to the firm’s entity. This may allow you, as the individual lawyer, to completely escape personal vicarious liability.

Multi-tier entities are complex, administratively messy, and no longer have the tax benefits they once enjoyed.  BUT avoiding vicarious liability is a big plus.  To learn more about this strategy, read Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice and Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, referenced below.

Being fully informed in the premises

This post skates over some pretty significant content that deserves more in-depth thought.  Do your homework.  Recommended reading includes:

  • Sole Proprietorship as a business structure choice, courtesy of the Small Business Administration.  While you’re on the SBA site, poke around.  There is a ton of great content here.  And don’t forget about the help and resources available from the Small Business Development Center.
  • Law Firm Choice of Entity, from the ABA Young Lawyers Division.
  • Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice in Oregon, available on the PLF website. Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, available on the PLF website.  Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Tax Considerations for Choice of Business Entity, Chapter 3 of the OSB CLE Seminar Handbook Broadbrush Taxation: Tax Law for the Nonspecialist (2015). Available in BarBooks behind the member login on the OSB website.

Most importantly

Talk with a CPA.  I can’t say this enough.  This is one of the best investments you can make in getting your practice up and running.  A CPA can help you determine whether forming an entity will result in tax savings.  He or she can also help you select an entity type – which is highly driven by tax considerations.

You’ll also learn about property tax, business income tax, business licensing, and other obligations you may not be familiar with – all of which are determined by where your business is located.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

On Demand CLE Store Now Open

If you weren’t able to attend eCourt Malpractice Traps 2017 or one of my other recent CLEs, don’t fret.  On demand CLE is now one click away through Selz.

Visit my online store to download these programs from 2017 and 2016:

OSB accreditation

All programs are current and accredited by the Oregon State Bar.  Visit the online store for details.

Your on demand CLE purchase includes

  • MP4 download (combined audio and video file)
  • M4a download (audio only)
  • Written program materials, including presentation slides and resources
  • Answers to polling questions asked during the live CLE
  • MCLE Form 6 for self-reporting of MCLE credits

Instant digital delivery with options to save to the cloud or your mobile device

Digital files are delivered instantly at checkout.  Download, stream, save to your Dropbox account, or send files to your Kindle.

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All transactions are handled by Selz and protected with industry standard security, including encryption and SSL secure. The Selz platform is also PCI compliant. Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover accepted.

Ethical Guidelines for Client Files – Live CLE June 7, 2017

If you can’t attend Ethical Guidelines for Client Files live on June 7, it will be available to download from the online store on June 8.

To Boldly Go Solo

How do you know if solo practice is right for you?  Do you have what it takes to organize, manage, and assume all the risks of running a law practice?

solo-with-laptop-cropped

As Bill Nye would say, please consider the following:

Independence

Solos get to call all the shots: client selection, case selection, setting fees, choosing a practice location – every decision that goes into running a practice.  The responsibility rests on your shoulders.  Do you find that appealing, daunting but doable, or overwhelming?  If you answer is appealing or daunting but doable, please proceed.

Are You a Decider?

Some people are decisive, others are not.  If you agonize over choices and normally poll multiple friends and family members before making a decision, solo practice will be difficult.

Solos need to make business and practice decisions every day.  Some of these decisions must be made under pressure with little time to reflect. The reward, of course, is that you get to decide.  You have the freedom and independence to use your creativity, knowledge, and skills to solve problems.

Are You a Self-Starter?

Solo practitioners must be self-regulating. Can you get the work out without someone supervising?  Give regular attention to administrative tasks like billing and bookkeeping? It will be up to you to meet deadlines, organize your time, and follow through on details. If you are a good planner and organizer, your solo practice will be successful.

Are You a Marketer?

All lawyers in private practice are expected to develop business, but in a solo practice the pressure is greater.  You’re it.  Can you create your own networking opportunities and business contacts?   Devote time to blogging or updating your website?  Post to social media?  Speak at CLEs?  Write articles for bar publications?  Build business referral relationships?

Financially Speaking

What resources are available to you?  What financial demands and commitments do you have?  Is it possible (or desirable) to apply for a micro loan, regular loan, or line of credit?  Are you up for crowdfunding?  Start by reviewing your expenses, then prepare a start-up and monthly budget.  Read about other business/financial essentials here.

Drive, Stamina, and Work-Life Balance

Can you practice law, run a business, and keep it all in balance with your personal life? Are you strongly motivated?  Healthy?  Is your family supportive of your efforts?  These are all good markers.  Nonetheless, make a plan to care for yourself and manage stress.  If you are looking for ideas or resources, contact the attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program.  Services are confidential and free to Oregon attorneys.

Final Thoughts

Solo practice requires a lot of time and work, but it also has benefits: no one looking over your shoulder, no pressure to take a particular client, freedom to work in the areas of law that you prefer, and complete flexibility in deciding when, where, and how to work.  Is it a match for you?

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Looking at Fees and Billing with a Fresh Eye

What if collection problems prevail across your entire clientele – not just a few accounts?  It may be time to turn a critical eye toward your current fee structure and billing practices:legal_document_istock_0

Switch to AFAs – Alternative Fee Arrangements

Combining flat and hourly or hourly and contingent fees may solve at least some of your cashflow problems. In litigation it’s easy to dismiss flat fees as unworkable: “I just can’t do it because the nature of the case is too unpredictable.”

Is this really true or is it an excuse not to change?

Let’s take dissolution.  I would expect nine out of ten lawyers to reject flat fees outright, but wait a minute.  Fees aren’t “all or nothing.”  More accurately, they’re anything you want them to be (almost). Therefore, it is perfectly doable in dissolution to flat fee at least the first stage of the case:  initial client interview, client follow-up, preparing and serving the petition, initial mandatory discovery.  Go hourly thereafter, but look for other opportunities (stages/discrete tasks) where you can propose flat fees.  In short, be more flexible.  Done right, an AFA could mean collecting a flat fee up front for the initial stage of the case with a requirement for an evergreen retainer once hourly billing kicks in.

Do a Better Job of Educating Clients

As I’ve noted before, many a collection problem can be traced back to the initial client interview when the lawyer failed to adequately discuss billing practices. If you don’t have an honest, open discussion about fees, costs, and billing practices, reform now!

  • Reinforce what you tell the client by using billing brochures enclosed with your fee agreement.
  • Or if you don’t like the brochure idea, attach a one page bullet list of your billing procedures.
  • Prefer to be paperless?  Send clients to a private web page that serves the same purpose. Consider requiring clients to read and accept your web-based billing procedures before eSigning your fee agreement.

Why am I suggesting brochures, lists, and web pages?  The brutal truth is that even the shortest fee agreement is probably too long for the average client to digest.  But we can make billing more understandable!

When you separate and reformat billing details using brochures or bulleted lists you improve readability.  [Much like what I did in the preceding paragraphs.]  Improving readability increases comprehension and understanding.  If you go the Web page route, use the same or similar formatting techniques.

Change How You’re Paid

It’s hard to imagine a law firm that doesn’t accept credit cards, but I know you’re out there.  If you’re part of this group, and you’re also experiencing collection problems, start taking credit cards.  Yes, there are a few things you need to know – for example – how to pick a merchant to process payments and what to do about merchant fees (aka credit card surcharges or transaction fees).  But I’ve got your back.  Read the hyperlinked posts included above and you’ll get the answers you need.

Not convinced? Statistics reveal that 43% of consumers prefer to pay by debit card, 35% with a credit card.  Granted, legal fees are not a typical consumer purchase, but still: why would you disregard what many consider a preferable payment method?

Credit cards can be an ideal solution for collecting flat fees earned upon receipt or the cost of an initial consultation.  Many a family law lawyer has shared that clients would not be able to afford their services without the ability to put their bill on a credit card…

Be More Like Bugs Bunny

Yes, this is the carrot/stick metaphor.  It’s this simple: discounts are a client motivator.  If you want to collect a retainer, up-front fee, or take care of an outstanding balance give the client a financial incentive to pay you.

Here are some examples:

  • Your rate is $250 per hour if the client is invoiced, but if the client establishes a retainer, your rate is reduced to $200 per hour.  [Establishing a retainer triggers the lower hourly rate.]
  • You offer preparation of a complete estate plan at $2,500, due and payable upon completion.  If the client is willing to pay up front before work begins, your flat fee is reduced to $2,000.  [The earned upon receipt fee triggers a $500 savings to the client in return for being paid now.  Remember to comply with earned upon receipt payment rules and get your fee agreement in writing.]
  • You offer 10% off your bill if the client remits payment within 10 days (instead of the usual 30 or more).  [Your early payment discount saves the client money and allows you to collect the outstanding receivable in one-third the usual time.]

There is no magic wand in collections, but a willingness to start over and shake things up can make a difference.

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis – 2017.

Ethical Guidelines for Client Files CLE

Join me for a CLE on June 7, 2017 about OSB Formal Ethics Opinions 2016-191 – Client Property: Electronic-Only or “Paperless” Client Documents and 2017-192 – Client Property: Duplication Charges for Client Files, Production or Withholding of Client Files. Learn:

What are lawyers required to produce and when?

  • In some cases, lawyer notes and communications must be produced, in other instances they can be withheld: do you know the difference?
  • If you store data in proprietary law office software (e.g. in a docketing or practice management program), must you extract and convert the data for the client?
  • What circumstance might provoke disclosure of “confidential” information belonging to another client?
  • Can you refuse to deliver file material on the grounds that it is too burdensome or expensive to produce?
  • Is it possible to deliver less than the “entire client file” if the client consents?
  • Are you required to produce work product? Conflict information? Time and expense records? Reports about the client’s creditworthiness? Expert witness information? Metadata? Text messages?

Standards governing retention and storage of client files – Is it ethical to store client files electronically? Do any exceptions apply? What duties does a lawyer have when using electronic-only storage?

When to charge for locating, segregating, or duplicating file material – When you can (and can’t) pass costs on to the client, whether client originals can ever be destroyed, and your ethical responsibilities to the “impecunious client.”

Appreciate the difference between ethical duties and discoverability – The interplay of the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct vs. state and federal rules of civil procedure.

Throughout the program “best practice” tips will be shared.

Date/Time/Location

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time.  This is a live, online webinar. Watch from your desktop computer or mobile device. Connect to audio via telephone or computer/device speakers.

Who Should Attend?

Lawyers, office managers or administrators, staff – anyone interested in learning more about Oregon’s new formal ethics opinions, 2016-191 and 2017-192.

Does the Program Include Written Materials?

Yes.  Written materials will be distributed electronically to all registered attendees before the event.

Ask Questions/Participate in Live Polling

Questions are welcome during the live event.  Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

Registration Fee

$25 – Visit the Upcoming CLE, click here, or choose the Register button below. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the registration price.

Eventbrite - Ethical Guidelines for Client Files

MCLE Credits
1.5 Ethics MCLE Credits pending.

Can’t Attend?

Video and audio recordings of Ethical Guidelines for Client Files will be available to download along with the program materials following the June 7 CLE. Price: $25. Contact me for more information or visit my CLE on demand store after June 7.

All Rights Reserved [2017] Beverly Michaelis