Overhead

Bruce Stachenfeld

“Low overhead is great!” That is one of our sayings. We recite it all the time — yes, even out loud at meetings — as it is a powerful competitive advantage for a law firm. It seems pretty obvious, but if so, why doesn’t everyone get with this concept?

There is a term informally used to describe how overhead impacts a law firm called “Implied Overhead.” The “Implied Overhead” of a law firm is the cost of everything except the lawyers divided by the number of lawyers. So if you have 50 lawyers and the cost of “everything” except the lawyers is $10,000,000, then you have implied overhead of $200,000 per lawyer.

Our Implied Overhead for last year was about $165,000. Anecdotally I believe that Implied Overhead for major law firms averages about $300,000. (I admit I don’t really have this data for sure; it is just what I have heard.) If your firm has 100 lawyers and implied overhead of $200,000 and the average for major law firms is $300,000, then you have a $100,000 per lawyer competitive advantage over your major law firm competition. Multiply that by 100 lawyers and you just made $10,000,000! And this flows right to the bottom line! If there are, say, 30 partners at this firm, then each partner just got a check for $333,333!

Yikes — did I do that math right? Was that $333,333 per partner merely by reducing the implied overhead?  I just double checked and $10,000,000 divided by 30 partners does indeed equal $333,333. That’s a sizable number, so maybe you should read the rest of my article….

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Tom Wallerstein

Smaller firms which compete with their Biglaw brethren on cost often promote their efficiency and lower overhead. Understandably, these firms impliedly or expressly try to associate lower overhead with lower fees for their clients. Smaller firms have been so successful with this approach that overhead often seems to connote waste and inefficiency. But overhead is sometimes a necessary evil, and it behooves small firm entrepreneurs to remember the “necessary” aspect as well.

For example, forsaking a physical office in favor of a virtual shop obviously lowers a firm’s overhead and allows the firm to offer lower fees. But many people, including me, have written about the several benefits of having a physical office. I pointed to benefits such as credibility with clients and other lawyers, and helping yourself stay motivated and focused. This is an easy example of how lower overhead may impose a hidden cost on the business.

Of course, the biggest overhead expense for most law firms is payroll. Limiting the number of employees is the surest way to keep expenses under control. But is it always the right move?

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