Entrepreneurial lawyers taking the risk of setting up a law firm today might be considered mad to deal with profit sharing in the same way as established law firms.

One reason is that law firms have traditionally ascribed a nil value to goodwill and consequently failed to credit partners with any rights over the goodwill of the business. Instead, the model has been for partners to contribute a capital sum on joining a partnership and be repaid the same sum when they leave. If they are lucky, this may earn interest at a rate roughly equivalent to a savings account.

In effect, their return on investment is limited to the profit shares they earn while partners. Under this model, if the business is sold a day after a partner leaves, any proceeds will be paid to those lucky enough to be partners on the day, who may not be those primarily responsible for having built up the goodwill over the years.

This state of affairs was unimportant when law firms, being people businesses distributing their entire profits annually, were perceived as having little capital value. But this has not been true for some time. Factors such as restrictive covenants, client panels and better branding have helped firms to institutionalise clients, giving them a value independent of their individual partners.

Impact of the Legal Services Act

From October 2011, the potential pool of investors in a UK law firm will dramatically widen, increasing its prospects for a sale or external investment.

Partnership agreements have yet to catch up with reality. In principle, it seems unfair to exclude former partners from sharing in a capital gain for which they are partly responsible. However, few firms currently have a legal obligation to share any gains with former partners.

Partners at the time of a sale may argue that they are the ones who have secured the opportunity for a capital gain and who must, by their continuing efforts, assure any earn-out and give up a proportion of future income to an outside investor. This is all true, yet in the company context, many do not begrudge former shareholders sharing in a gain in these circumstances.

Travers Smith has publicly stated that it has reviewed as an option to insert an ‘anti-embarrassment’ clause into its partnership agreement, but it has decided to maintain the status quo for now. It would be surprising if more firms did not now actively consider including such a clause.

Possible approaches

How should such a provision work? Some guidance can be found in antiembarrassment
provisions in share sales, where a seller of a company may secure the right to share in the proceeds of the sale if the buyer sells the company for a higher price within a year or two of the purchase.

Often this is structured as a contractual right, rather than a continuing equity stake and may be subject to various conditions, such as excluding any increase in the company’s value due to the buyer’s investment.

Some adaptations would be necessary since, unlike private equity funds, which have a limited lifespan, law firms would need to incorporate provisions to taper former partners’ capital interests over time to make room for other retiring partners and to ensure that the ongoing partners’ capital interests are not devalued to an unacceptable extent.

Designing a fair system is a task that lies somewhere between very difficult and impossible. But designing a system which is fairer than the current norm should be relatively easy.

Even though an anti-embarrassment clause may prove time-consuming to negotiate and even ultimately redundant, it could help a firm to prevent tensions arising. At its worst, the absence of such a provision might result in partners nearing retirement lobbying for a sale earlier than the ideal time, or hanging on as partners in the hope of being in place to share in the proceeds of a sale which appears not too distant.

Even if a firm has no present intention of seeking external investment or putting itself up for sale, airing the topic may prove beneficial. Moreover, it will be far easier to reach a consensus when a sale is not in prospect than when a pot of gold is in view.

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