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Drawings and profitability

19 March 18

The significance of the “make and take” ratio as a measure of a legal firm’s financial stability

by Andrew Otterburn

As all partners know, the key to success of a law firm is managing cash. We need profitability, but above all we need cash. Most partners recognise the importance of prompt billing and trying to get reasonably quick payment. However, one of the tricky areas can relate to drawings and ensuring that partner drawings do not exceed profits – and cash being generated.

In 2014 the Society launched a toolkit to help firms improve their financial stability, and at Journal, February 2014, 34 I described two ratios that banks use to assess a law firm’s financial position, looking at the relationship between a firm’s borrowings and capital. This article describes a third ratio that your bank is likely to calculate and that you should also understand – the “make and take” ratio, which compares drawings with profits.

How do you calculate this?

Simply take the profits available for the partners as shown in the accounts and compare this to total drawings in the accounts: monthly drawings plus payments of income tax.

The illustrations relate to a small firm and a larger firm with £10 million turnover. For each, profits are shown calculated on an accounts basis and also on a cash basis. On the accounts basis, the calculations for both firms appears to indicate all is well – drawings do not exceed the profits being generated.

This is a useful starting point, but “profit” is not the same as cash. Because a firm’s profits are affected by changes in debtors and work in progress, the profits shown in a firm’s accounts may be very different to the cash in the bank.

In the larger firm, the profits shown in the accounts are £3 million. However, part of these profits (£0.5 million) is due to an increase in work in progress. The “cash profit” actually available for the partners to draw is £2.5 million. Debtors have also increased by £0.5 million, so the actual cash generated in the year is just £2 million. The position of the two- partner firm is also bad – profits as shown in the accounts are £132,000; however, £50,000 of this relates to an increase in work in progress and may take months to be translated into cash in the bank. Fortunately there has been no change in opening and closing debtors.

To calculate the “cash” profit, take the profits figure as shown in the accounts and adjust it for any increase/decrease in work in progress. If debtors have changed significantly you should include that movement as well, as that also affects the cash available.

It is very easy for partners to misunderstand the actual cash available for drawings and inadvertently start overdrawing and increasing the firm’s borrowings. If possible, partners should try to keep their drawings within not just the profits as shown by the accounts, but the actual cash being generated by the business.

It can be hard to establish what this might be, but as the financial year progresses it might be possible to predict whether levels of work in progress and debtors are rising or falling and then take action to ensure problems do not arise.

Table 1: "Make and take" ratio, two-partner firm
  £ Accounts basis £ Cash basis
Fees 400,000 400,000
Opening work in progress /accrued income
–100,000 –100,000
Closing work in progress/accrued income
150,000 150,000
Income 450,000 450,000
Staff salaries and overheads
317,500 317,500
Net profit per accounts 132,500 132,500
Adjust for WIP movement (paper profit)
  –50,000
Cash profit   82,500
Change in debtors
Cash available   82,500
Monthly drawings 79,500 79,500
Partner income tax 53,000 53,000
Total drawings 132,500 132,500
"Make and take" ratio 100% 161%
Table 1: "Make and take" ratio, two-partner firm
  £ Accounts basis £ Cash basis
Fees 10,500,000 10,500,000
Opening work in progress /accrued income
–2,000,000 –2,000,000
Closing work in progress/accrued income
2,500,000 2,500,000
Income 11,000,000 11,000,000
Staff salaries and overheads
8,000,000 8,000,000
Net profit per accounts 3,000,000 3,000,000
Adjust for WIP movement (paper profit)
  –500,000
Cash profit   2,500,000
Change in debtors   –500,000
Cash available   2,000,000
Monthly drawings 1,800,000 1,800,000
Partner income tax 1,200,000 1,200,000
Total drawings 3,000,000 3,000,000
"Make and take" ratio 100% 150%

Action needed?

Unless the firm has substantial cash balances, or bank agreement has been obtained, drawings should not exceed profits, so this ratio should always be less than 100%. If the firm has to fund any loan repayments, the drawings need to take account of this.

Because the accounts profit takes account of changes in work in progress, the apparent profit might not actually be available to take, so drawings should be constrained to the actual cash likely to be available. This is often a difficult figure to predict, but as a rule of thumb drawings might be restricted to 75% of profits. This also leaves some headroom for funding working capital.

Andrew Otterburn, Otterburn Legal Consulting LLP. For a longer article updating the 2014 article, see Journal online here.

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