Buying Or Selling A Law Firm In Florida
Julianne Frank Provides Her Insights on the Practical and Ethical Issues of Selling Her Law Firm
Ed Alexander of www.orlandobusinesslawyer.com interviews Julianne Frank.
Julianne Frank is a business and consumer bankruptcy lawyer out of Jupiter, Florida. We first met at the NACBA conference in Cleveland. But, as you will hear in the interview below, we crossed paths again at the 2019 Florida Bar Conference where I gave a presentation to the Senior Lawyers Committee on practical and ethical issues of selling a law firm.
After the seminar, Julianne reached out to me to speak about her firm and her background. She told me how she’d started, grown, and sold a previous firm, and how she was now doing it all over again as a solo practitioner at Julianne Frank Law.
I was very intrigued by her story, and I asked her if she’d be willing to share what it was like to grow and sell a successful law practice. She happily agreed.
I very much enjoyed this conversation with Julianne. We discussed her first firm, how she ran and grew it, why it was successful as a firm, and what aspects made it a salable asset. We also talked about some of her concerns and worries as she entered the succession planning process, what she wished she’d known before selling, and how she’s applying the lessons from her first sale to her new firm.
Please listen and enjoy. If you have any questions about your own law firm succession plans, we are here to help. Give me, Ed Alexander, call at (407)649-7777 or download a copy of The Guide to Selling Your Florida Law Practice to learn more about the sale process.
Ed Alexander Interviews Julianne Frank
Full Interview Transcript
Ed Alexander: Hi, I’m Ed Alexander with Alexander Abramson, and I’m here with Julianne Frank, a business and consumer bankruptcy law attorney. Julianne and I crossed paths at the 2019 Florida Bar Conference in Boca Raton. At that conference I gave a presentation on selling your law firm—law practice exit strategies I think was what it was called—and the keys to succession planning before the Senior Lawyers Committee. And, I think, Julianne, you attended the presentation but we didn’t actually talk there. You approached me afterwards, and I certainly appreciate that.
I wanted to talk to Julianne because she had an interesting path as a law firm owner. She sold a previous law firm, I guess at some point went out and did some fun things, and then came back to the practice of law. And once I heard your story I thought, “Wow, this is a great perspective that can help other attorneys who are considering selling their firms.” So welcome Julianne.
Julianne Frank: Good morning Ed. Thank you for having me.
Ed Alexander: All right, great. Great. So, before we jump into the nitty gritty, let me ask you to tell us your story: Who you are, where you’re from, and what areas of law you’re currently working in.
Julianne Frank: Yeah, sure. Thanks Ed. So I’ve practiced in the North Palm Beach area since probably 1980. I actually went to law school very young, I graduated college young. And I was a good 35, 36 years into it, I’d had enough. And it was time to try to figure out if I was going to give myself an opportunity to enjoy the things that my husband and I had long been talking about before, you know, before health and age started to take its toll. And I really didn’t have a clue what I was going to do to make that happen, and really invented the whole process on my own.
Ed Alexander: Well that’s pretty innovative to start it on your own, that’s great. So, you sold the firm, and what did you end up doing that you had wanted to do for a while?
Julianne Frank: So yeah, at that point, the firm that I actually had become the senior partner of was a four lawyer, six person, six staff member law firm. And when I sold it, Joe and I actually got a sailboat and we sailed the Caribbean for almost a year, which had been our dream. And I was glad I did it, and glad I did it when I did it.
Ed Alexander: Sailing the Caribbean is a dream of a lot of, I think, attorneys and professionals generally. So congratulations on making that happen. I love sailing myself, but I will refrain from asking you for the details about your boat and things of that nature. I guess, going back in time here, what led you to become a lawyer?
Julianne Frank: Yeah. Interestingly Ed, I have to answer that question by telling you it was kind of cult indoctrination for lack of a better term. I grew up in a family setting where there was this subliminal underlying presumption that I and all of my siblings would become lawyers. And we all laugh about that today, because we’re not exactly sure where that came from, but we all just marched blindly down that path and that’s where we all ended up.
Ed Alexander: Well that’s interesting. My daughters sometimes accused me of brainwashing them about various things. So I think that’s a time-honored parent tradition, you know, brainwashing your children.
When it came to your first firm there, you had mentioned that you were senior partner and that you had some other partners. Tell me about the structure that you had there.
Julianne Frank: Yes. So it started with me and two staff people, and things kind of just organically grew over the years until I got to the place where I had two other partners and an associate. And of course we were adding staff as we went. And so it started small, and then it got bigger and more complicated. That was as big and as complicated as I think I ever wanted to be. I had started my career at one of those megalithic law firms with a hundred plus lawyers. And I knew early on that that game wasn’t for me.
Ed Alexander: Ah, I see. Yeah. A lot of entrepreneurial attorneys have that same feeling. They go to work for a large firm, they realize pretty quickly that that kind of environment isn’t really what they’re wanting. They don’t get fulfillment out of it, let’s put it that way. So in your old firm, what areas of law did you concentrate on?
Julianne Frank: Yeah, we were kind of a niche firm. We called ourselves a “financial distress” law firm, because we didn’t want to cubbyhole ourselves. We did bankruptcy at all levels and for all kinds of facets of clients who were involved in the bankruptcy process. And we did what we call debt management, and we did asset protection and wealth preservation planning. So, anything that had to do with asset protection or creditor issues, and workouts and debt issues is kind of what that firm specialized in.
Ed Alexander: That’s a fantastic way to describe the firm, financial distress law firm. So many attorneys utilize the legal world’s practice area descriptions, which no client ever comes and wants a commercial litigator, right? They want a particular outcome. So relieving financial distress is certainly a great outcome. So I’m sure as you went out there people understood exactly what you did right away?
Julianne Frank: Yeah, exactly.
Ed Alexander: You mentioned kind of growing it to a level of complexity that you were done with at that point. What was most challenging about growing and managing the firm, and what was most rewarding as well?
Julianne Frank: So the problem with that kind of growth was, I was having a difficult time deciding how to delegate because I always had trouble getting my own fantastic perception of my own skillset. I had to always continuously try to figure out how I could get out of the way of the progress. Because in fact, for the first 10 or 18 years I had done it on my own. And then it just got to the point where it sort of rapidly grew into this larger subset of law firms. And it took me a while to get to the place where I could be comfortable just trusting that we would produce the kind of quality and that we were continuing to have the proper, what I call, client public relations going on at all time.
And, to me, a lot of it was just common sense, but for some reason I probably had had some bad experiences that I’ve now blocked out, where I found there was a lack of common sense among lawyers that I had been associating with. And so it took me a while to get to this place where I could really step back and just be an overseer and an outreach manager, and kind of be the conductor of the orchestra, and know that the orchestra was going to play good music even if I didn’t have my hands in everything. I think that was the most challenging part of it.
Ed Alexander: Another great analogy there. I like that because we call it killing the hero, right? Because we naturally—I don’t know whether it’s through law school or the initial stages of practice—most lawyers get that hero mentality, wanting to be the white knight that helps the client, making sure that everything is done absolutely perfectly, that type of thing. And you are 100% correct that moving from that kind of mental viewpoint of the world to a viewpoint where you can have a team, is truly essential to having a salable practice. Because at the end of the day, you want to be sure that when you leave the practice that the clients still have a relationship with the practice, rather than just the relationship with you. So that’s great.
What was most rewarding?
Julianne Frank: I think it was that. That we, or I, always knew intuitively early on if you were going to make a success out of an organization, the way to do that was to treat everybody as a team member. The way to do that was to not create class striation. It was to make everybody feel like they were part of a team, make everybody feel like the ups and downs fell as much in their hands as it did the people who were allegedly wearing the more badges on their coat. And I was pretty proud of the fact that as we got to those final years, I really had a very happy family that I had created there, and everybody really had kind of a ra-ra spirit about the whole thing.
And I rewarded that by making sure that we spent a lot of time doing non-law firmy things together. I think that was an important element to that, and I think that paid off in big dividends. So, I really agree with you wholeheartedly that having a happy family team concept in a law firm is one of the most valuable assets that you can create in a firm and that has its ups and downs. And when you’re getting to this point where you’re ready to sell the thing.
Ed Alexander: Oh yeah. Yeah. In fact, my prior history, I worked for a technology company that was growing very quickly, but the entrepreneur, guy essentially who started it, always had that team atmosphere. So, we would do things as a group, and you always felt like, “Wow, I’m working for an organization that’s really bigger than myself.” Right? And that adds to wanting to come to work. So that is a great reward from doing it, both from your perspective of putting that together, but also from the team perspective of participating in that. So how long ago was it that you sold that firm?
Julianne Frank: We struck pen to paper on that deal in 2016, early 2016.
Ed Alexander: So would you characterize that as an internal sale or an external sale?
Julianne Frank: Oh, absolutely an external sale. Yeah.
Yeah, that was literally a guy who came and came down to kick the tires, and look under the hood, and apparently had in his mind a vision of buying a law firm in Florida. And as good fortune had it, that is exactly how this whole thing came to fruition.
Ed Alexander: What were some of your biggest concerns about completing the sale and then also the process itself?
Julianne Frank: I think the biggest concern as I was even pondering the process, Ed, was “who’s going to want to buy a law firm that is effectively what I call kind of a turnstile law firm?” We weren’t doing the kind of law that had a consistent, steady client base that was relying on us for all their needs and coming back to us time and time again. I mean, literally our law firm was a turnstile. We would get a client in the door, we’d patch them up, fix them up, pat them on the back, send them on their way, and hope that they said good things and that the next person would come through the door. So, I always had this fear that the only time anybody was going to be interested in buying a law firm was if it was a law firm that had this bank of steady, consistent, long-term legacy clients, who were producing a definitive ascertainable ongoing stream of income. And I was sure not having that was going to be the biggest impedance to this process.
Ed Alexander: And obviously the buyer wasn’t necessarily as concerned as you were about that. And did that issue come up in the process with the buyer?
Julianne Frank: Yeah. When I had come to the emotional, psychological place in the universe where I really wanted to make a serious effort at this, I did my homework, I ended up hiring a business brokerage firm that actually had had some history and some reputations for being able to sell law firms. And I sat down with their principal, and I talked this all through with him. And I said, “Look, these are my concerns, and am I just… Is this a pipe dream? Is there any reality to the prospect that I could do this?” And through much discussion he convinced me that it was absolutely salable and marketable. And he did that not because of the things that were necessarily my concerns, but because of some of the other things that I brought to the table that he thought were interesting and marketable. And so I had to be convinced that my concerns were not going to be the big impedance, and he was right.
Ed Alexander: Yeah. And it’s very common from a lawyer perspective, I’d say also from an accountant perspective, that in our profession we focus on what’s wrong and try to fix it. And the accountants look for what’s wrong. And so, I think, that invades all aspects of your life, no matter what you come up with, you’re looking for the problem area, and that unfortunately does it when it comes to selling your law firm as well.
So, what you talked about, I forgot the exact phrase you used, but basically you made the mental decision that you are going to sell the firm. What other prep work did you do in that process?
Julianne Frank: Literally after having these conversations with this broker, I had decided that I had somehow intuitively been embarking all of these many years on the facets of a law practice that would potentially make it marketable. I’m not sure if maybe at some subconscious level I wasn’t doing that with this goal in mind, but I had been doing that, and that’s what made this broker excited. And they are the kinds of things, Ed, and I have to say, when I sat there and watched your PowerPoint presentation I kept finding myself nodding my head going, “Exactly, exactly.”
The PowerPoint presentation was given at the 2019 Florida Bar Convention to the Senior Lawyer Committee. We recorded it, and you can request access to the webinar. Plus, you also get the free CLE credit!
Because the kind of things that you were talking about were the kinds of things that I just intuitively knew I would have to have in order to have a marketable law practice. For example, systemization. I mean, what I think excited this broker so much was that I had spent so much time creating, for lack of a better term, operating manuals that related to almost every element of the practice, from how we systematized the creation of templates, and what the rules and protocols were for that, to what the intake procedures were, and what the follow up with clients requirements were going to be; and what my expectations would be as to how we would best convince clients that they needed to go out in the world and tell other people about what we had done.
And we had created certain kinds of proprietary methodologies for providing services to the clients, particularly in the debt management arena, that nobody else had been doing. And over the years I had just made it a requisite to everybody who was doing anything, that it needed to be documented, it needed to be manualized. And so when I sat with the broker and I told him this package of things that I had created, he was very excited about that. And you underscored how important those things are when I sat and listened to you make your presentation. They are vital, and especially in a turnstile law firm operation. You have to have something to sell. And what I had to sell was a streamlined, technology-based, systematized law firm operation. And I think that’s what enticed the guy who came to kick the tires.
Ed Alexander: Oh, very nice. Very nice.
Now you said, “Over the years,” so clearly those types of systems don’t pop out of the ground in a month or even a year, right? Because they take time to develop. So, if you were sitting here today with a law firm and you were looking to sell that law firm, is that the first thing that you would put in place, was the systems?
Julianne Frank: Yes. If I had systems. I mean, a lot of law firms I notice kind of make it up as they go. And I think that that’s kind of what led me to creating the systems in the years before I was even thinking about selling. It was because I thought, “You know what, as soon as this associate or bookkeeper or whoever leaves, then we’re going to have to, somebody’s got to sit down with them and train them all over again in the processes and procedures,” and a couple of times early in my career when that would happen, I realized how completely non-productive or unproductive that was. And wouldn’t it make more sense for whoever is in that job now to make them document every single thing they did? And then either if they had the skill set, make them manualize it.
And I make up that word, I know it’s probably not a real word, but we did a lot of “manualizing” in my firm. And if I didn’t think that the person themselves could do anything other than bullet point what it was they were doing with every single procedure they had, then I would take that and I would manualize that and make sure they read it and tell me if I had gotten it right. And I think that was just to prevent unproductive turnover processes. But as the years went on, I realized what an incredibly valuable product that was going to be when it came to turning around and handing the reins over on this thing to somebody else.
Ed Alexander: And you probably recall from the seminar, I told the story about our system for the legal assistant, and how my long-term legal assistant got pneumonia and was out of the office for a solid month in December. December being for transactional attorneys such as myself, a very, very busy time. And the manual enabled me to take my college-aged daughter who knew nothing about law firms, sit her in that spot and make her functional pretty much from day one.
Julianne Frank: Yep. I remember your story, and again, my neck was sore from nodding in affirmation that everything I heard you say, so…
Ed Alexander: Hindsight is always 20/20, right? So if you look back on the sale, what do you wish you’d known or asked about selling your firm before you got into that process, that now you look back on it and say, “Wow, that would have been great to know.”
Julianne Frank: Well again, I don’t want to sound too aggrandizing, but it would have been fantastic to know that there was an Alexander Abramson firm that actually was out there and talking about this. That there was somebody who had developed a real honest to goodness evaluation of this process, and could give skillful professional advice about this press. I mean literally Ed, I kind of thought I was inventing this from the ground floor up, because even when I went to talk to the broker, he kind of was giving me the vague concepts about the law firms that he had sold and how that had happened. And a lot of those were internal rather than external sales.
And so I understood all that, but I thought, “You know, I’m the first person in the universe who ever thought about selling a law firm like this, where for all intents and purposes, I wasn’t a sole proprietor, but I was the head of the herd, and I was still the top of the food chain there. And if I was gone, who would possibly want to buy this thing?” If I had had the ability to… Or if I had had exposure to somebody like you and your firm, I would’ve like, “Wow, first thing I got to do is I got to hire somebody like your firm to guide me and see if I’m on the right track and if I’m doing the right things, and maybe I need to slow down and wait on this for a while.” So I’d say in retrospect, Ed, I did not know there was anybody like you doing this. I had concerns about the ethical issues, and I had to invent that wheel on my own.
It would’ve been lovely to have you to go to so I could have asked those direct questions about the ethical constraints, and would they be a problem? And could I get around them? So yeah, I would say to anybody out there who’s a lawyer who’s thinking about selling, you should, to me, sit down first and hire a guy like you who’s in the business of talking about this, and has thought it through, and has seen firsthand experience of the things that will help and the things that will hinder. And to take good heed of the very, very cogent advice that you offer.
Ed Alexander: Oh, thank you. So if we look now, after you sold the firm, you went and sailed the Caribbean for a year, and at some point you decided to come back to the law. So you created another practice from scratch, right? And tell us about that practice and what are you doing now?
Julianne Frank: Yeah. So long and sordid tale, how I made my way out of my non-competition clause that I had with the buyer of my firm, and I’m not going to blow your audience with that at this moment, but I did. And the reason I did was because at the tail end of my tenure in the original firm, I had just begun to develop an offshore asset protection practice, and really didn’t feel as I closed up that chapter in my life that I had fully exploited all of the information and knowledge that I had gained in that area. And then traveling to the Caribbean and actually making part of that trip, taking the time to meet with some people who were actually in that industry and the various venues that we went to, and making connections. I thought, “Man, I am so well armed to be a force in this industry, it would really be tragic if I didn’t exploit that in some fashion.” So coming back and then able to be in a position to continue to operate at some level, that’s kind of what I’ve done now, I’ve created this brand new niche area, and I’m moving into these last few years that I intend to do this, trying to focus on doing that.
Ed Alexander: Excellent. Excellent. So now, it’s always easier the second time around, right? So running your new firm, how is it different from your experience with your first firm?
Julianne Frank: Yeah. So, to me, this is one of the most fascinating elements of my tale is what I have done now. And what I have done now, is I have created this one woman operation that literally is a law firm that does not require any other human beings in order to operate it. I really latched on to everything that was available in the technological world to make the running and operating of a law practice simplified and expedited, and technologically advanced. And in doing that, I have really found that I am capable of running a law firm all by myself. And people look at me and they go, “Yeah, but you still need somebody to do this, that, and the other thing.” And I’m like, “Yep, nope. Don’t need any of that.” It is actually physically possible to run a law firm… I mean obviously there are some limitations—there are days I’m doing some ministerial things that it would be nice if I had somebody else to do. But so little of that Ed, that I have entered into this very much reduced-stress, high-profit arena, that I kind of wish I had known existed, or that I had been in a position to have the time to be able to put together. But back in those days I didn’t. We were so focused on doing all the things it takes to run a law practice that I never envisioned there would be a way to not run a law practice, but to physically be the law practice. And that’s where I am now. And it’s absolutely fantastic.
Ed Alexander: Oh, that’s great. That’s great. So at some point, will you retire again?
Julianne Frank: Yeah. I certainly don’t plan on doing this forever, so I have this vision that in another three or four years down the road I’m going to once again figure out a way to package this that I have created, and market this in some way. Not sure exactly what I mean by that yet, but I know it’s out there, and it’s tapping at the side of my skull. And I know I will figure out a way to make what I just created marketable. I guess for all intents and purposes that will be selling the way to do this, and/or the way to take this version of it away from me. And so I’m looking forward to that next transition, but I’m really having a good time in this mode right now.
Ed Alexander: Fantastic. So if you look forward, and you say to yourself, “Let me apply the lessons of my first transaction to this one.” What are you doing differently in terms of the sale process itself, that might be helpful to your colleagues reading this?
Julianne Frank: So, obviously the whole team construct is not going to be part of this next transition, because there is no team. But you talked in your presentation about how important, what you called I think “the herd” was, and I think your iteration of that is vital. And that is, your herd is the database of everybody that you both have connective tissue with in terms of potential referral sources, as well as everybody who’s crossed your path who you provided some kind of a legal service to, who probably has some sense of satisfaction from that.
I think you have to nurture those things, and systematize those things. And when I say that, I mean make sure that there’s constant outreach to keep that connective tissue. You talked about that, and I think that’s going to be valuable to me on this next round. And I certainly am a, as I have probably said ad nauseam here, I am a big believer in systems. And in my world we called it manualization. But, you know, making everything so that you can plug in somebody else. And like you said, day one, they can sit in that chair and do what it takes in order to generate what is necessary to run a law practice.
Ed Alexander: Excellent. Excellent. I love that word “manualization,” because we sometimes use systematization but it’s way too tough to say. So I think I might adopt your word manualization.
Julianne Frank: Feel free.
Ed Alexander: We need to make the English language grow to include that. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about this. I mean, as we always say, the issue with selling a law practice is that goodwill component. It’s the ability for the law practice to move forward in the same fashion that it worked with you when a buyer comes in. And that is directly proportional to the value of the firm, right? So no matter what you look at, if you have a law firm, the value is proportional to cashflow and the likelihood that that cashflow will continue in the same historical fashion. And that’s all about being able to put different people in the seats and make that work. So, I think you’ve given your colleagues some valuable information, and I really appreciate your perspective here. So with that I’m going to say thank you. Is it all right if anybody has questions, if they were to email or contact you?
Julianne Frank: Yep. Happy to help Ed, and I appreciate the service that you’re offering out there. I wish I’d known about it earlier, and your listeners should take heed.
Ed Alexander: Oh, thank you. So if you just give us the best email address for people to communicate with you if they have questions?
Julianne Frank: They should contact me at email@example.com, and they can find me at juliannefranklaw.com as well.
Ed Alexander: Julianne, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and everything you’ve said here today.
Julianne Frank: It’s been my pleasure Ed.
Ed Alexander: All right, take care.
Julianne Frank: Bye-Bye.
Ed Alexander: Bye.