How to Value a Law Firm

November 9, 2023

Adam Hoeksema

When it comes to putting a price on a law firm, be it a solo practice or a larger partnership, one needs to closely examine finances, client base, and market conditions. If you're thinking of buying or selling a law practice, understanding its true financial standing is key. In this guide, we'll outline the essential steps and factors to consider in determining a law firm's value by answering these questions: 

What Are the Most Common Valuation Methods for Law Firms

Estimating a business's value involves closely examining its financial and operational elements. For a thorough analysis, you might want to explore our guide, 'How to Determine the Value of a Business’.

Various techniques exist for assessing a business's value, with the optimal approach typically influenced by the business's unique nature and industry segment:

1. Income Approach

Rationale: This method considers a law firm's ability to generate future income, which is an important measure due to the reliance on billable hours and client retainers.

Usage: Discounted Cash Flow (DCF): Estimates future cash flows and applies a discount rate to account for the time value of money and risk, providing a present value of expected earnings.

Capitalization of Earnings: Calculates the firm's average historical earnings and divides this figure by a capitalization rate to estimate current value based on expected profitability.

2. Market Approach

Rationale: Valuation is derived by comparing the law firm to recent sales or acquisitions of similar firms in the market, providing a context-based valuation.

Usage: Comparable Firm Analysis: Evaluates the sale prices of similar law firms and applies comparable multiples to the subject firm's financial metrics.

Benchmarking: Uses industry benchmarks and performance ratios to gauge the firm's standing and potential valuation in the current market.

3. Asset Approach

Rationale: While not as commonly applied due to the service-oriented nature of law firms, this method is based on the firm's assets and liabilities, which can be more relevant for firms with significant owned real estate or valuable libraries.

Usage: Book Value: Measures assets minus liabilities on the balance sheet to give a net asset value.

Liquidation Value: Estimates what assets would bring in if the firm were liquidated, after settling liabilities.

How to Calculate the Value of a Law Firm

Valuing a law firm requires an understanding of both tangible and intangible assets, income potential, and market comparisons. Below we’ll assess a fictional law firm – LegalEagle Partners using are three approaches to valuation:

1. Asset-Based Valuation 

This method calculates the value by determining the net equity of the firm's assets.

Identify and Value Tangible Assets:

  • Office Furniture: $50,000
  • Law Library: $30,000
  • Office Equipment: $20,000

Identify and Value Intangible Assets:

  • Client List: $300,000
  • Firm Reputation (Goodwill): $500,000

Calculate Liabilities:

  • Outstanding Loans: $100,000
  • Accounts Payable: $50,000

Calculate Net Asset Value:

  • Total Assets (Tangible + Intangible): $50,000 + $30,000 + $20,000 + $300,000 + $500,000 = $900,000
  • Total Liabilities: $100,000 + $50,000 = $150,000
  • Net Asset Value: $900,000 - $150,000 = $750,000

Using the Asset-Based Valuation, LegalEagle Partners is valued at approximately $750,000.

2. Income-Based Valuation for LegalEagle Partners:

This approach values the firm based on the present value of its expected future earnings.

Forecast Future Cash Flows:

  • Year 1: $600,000
  • Year 2: $650,000
  • Year 3: $700,000
  • Year 4: $750,000
  • Year 5: $800,000

Identify the Discount Rate:

  • Let's use a discount rate of 10% considering the risk profile and alternative investment opportunities.

Calculate Discounted Cash Flows:

  • Year 1 DCF: $600,000 / (1 + 0.10)^1 = $545,455
  • ...and so on for each year.

Estimate Terminal Value:

  • Assuming a perpetual growth rate of 3% beyond Year 5:
  • Terminal Value: $800,000 x (1 + 0.03) / (0.10 - 0.03) = $11,428,571
  • Discounted Terminal Value: $11,428,571 / (1 + 0.10)^5 = $7,056,485

Calculate Total Firm Value:

  • Assuming a total DCF for 5 years of $2,500,000:
  • Total Value of LegalEagle Partners: $2,500,000 + $7,056,485 = $9,556,485

LegalEagle Partners, using the Income-Based Valuation, is estimated to be valued at approximately $9.56 million.

3. Market-Based Valuation

This method compares the firm to recent sales of similar law firms in the market.

Identify Comparable Sales:

  • Comparable Law Firm A sold for $3 million.
  • Comparable Law Firm B sold for $3.5 million.
  • Comparable Law Firm C sold for $4 million.

Adjust for Firm Size and Market Position:

  • If LegalEagle Partners is larger or has a stronger market position than the comparables, adjustments upward are warranted.

Calculate Average Market Multiple:

  • If the average market multiple based on the comparable sales is 1.5 times annual revenues and LegalEagle Partners has annual revenues of $2 million:
  • Market-Based Value: $2 million x 1.5 = $3 million

Using the Market-Based Valuation, LegalEagle Partners is estimated to be valued at approximately $3 million.

How to Buy a Law Firm

Law firms stand as cornerstones in the legal community, offering the promise of professional prestige and financial return. Are you contemplating the acquisition of a law firm? Here's an essential guide to inform your process. Refer to our complete guide on How to Buy a Law Firm for a more comprehensive understanding. 

Law Firm Industry Overview

The legal services industry is robust, marked by its resilience and adaptability to economic fluctuations. In the US, law firms contribute significantly to the economy, with a blend of large firms and smaller practices catering to diverse legal needs. The industry's growth is influenced by factors such as regulatory changes, technological advancements, and market demand for legal expertise.

Law Firm Acquisition Costs

The cost of acquiring a law firm varies widely, influenced by the firm’s size, reputation, practice areas, and geographical location. Investments can span from modest sums for small boutique firms to substantial amounts for well-established practices. Typically, a firm is valued at a multiple of its annual revenues or profits, which can range from one to several times these figures, depending on the firm’s financial health and market presence.

Choosing the Ideal Law Firm

Begin your quest by consulting with legal industry brokers, perusing online business-for-sale listings, or leveraging professional networks. Evaluate crucial elements such as the firm's legal specialty, client base, lawyer talent, and operational structure. Look for firms with a solid track record and potential for growth or niche market positioning.

Find Funding

Funding avenues include personal investment, legal industry loans, or partnership arrangements. An in-depth law practice business plan articulating financial projections and strategic direction is vital when approaching potential financiers or partners.

Conducting Due Diligence

Conduct exhaustive due diligence to assess the firm’s financial performance, client retention rates, case success history, and compliance with legal industry standards. Scrutinize existing partnerships, client agreements, and the status of ongoing cases. This assessment is critical to ensure a fair valuation and informed negotiation.

Closing the Deal

With due diligence complete, negotiate the terms of purchase. It’s essential to have a comprehensive understanding of the firm’s financial standing, legal obligations, and operational dynamics before finalizing the deal. Careful planning and strategic assessment can lead to a successful acquisition in the legal profession.

Looking to acquire a law firm? A QofE Sniff Test can shed light on the firm's financial intricacies, helping guide your decision.

How to Fund the Acquisition of a Law Firm

Interested in purchasing a law firm? An SBA loan is a robust financing option to consider. The SBA typically approves funding for professional service entities like law firms. For targeted advice, examine the guidelines for SBA Funding for Law Firm Acquisition. 

in your loan application, underscore your active involvement in the legal sector and any management experience you have. When buying an established firm, providing proof of its financial stability and past performance will support your case. An SBA loan comes with numerous benefits, such as competitive interest rates, a variety of fund use options, and generally lower down payments, all of which can set you up for success in your legal venture.

Creating Financial Projections for a Law Firm Acquisition

Each law firm has unique financial dynamics, from client retention rates to billable hours. When creating financial projections for the acquisition of a law firm, focus on:

Gather Historical Data: Analyze past earnings, including retainer fees, hourly billing records, case settlements, expenses, and net profit.

Analyze Physical Assets: Assess the state of office premises, legal libraries, technology systems, and office furnishings.

Forecast Revenue: Consider client demand, potential growth in various practice areas, historical case win rates, and the impact of any existing reputation or firm specialization.

Project Expenses: Estimate ongoing costs such as salaries for attorneys and support staff, office lease payments, professional liability insurance, and administrative expenses.

Determine Valuation: Synthesize all financial data using valuation methods suited for professional service firms, like discounted cash flow (DCF) or multiples of earnings.

Using a tailored law firm or an acquisition financial template can streamline this intricate process. This template would merge income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow projections designed specifically for legal practices. With this detailed financial analysis, you're well-equipped to negotiate the value of the law firm with potential sellers or partners.

I hope this has provided you with clarity. If you have any questions about assessing the value of your law firm, please reach out to us.

About the Author

Adam is the Co-founder of ProjectionHub which helps entrepreneurs create financial projections for potential investors, lenders and internal business planning. Since 2012, over 50,000 entrepreneurs from around the world have used ProjectionHub to help create financial projections.

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