How much super should law firm owners pay themselves?

06 April 2022 By Jerome Doraisamy

Practitioners running their own businesses have to ensure, in an ever-changing market, that they are making concerted efforts to take care of personal matters such as insurance and estate planning. Superannuation has to be a foremost priority in such considerations, said three firm owners.  

Factors impeding superannuation planning

In Richard Prangell’s experience, many, if not most, sole practitioners start off with the best of intentions when it comes to their superannuation and overall nest eggs.

They will often, he said, develop a practice of putting money aside, “but as the pressures of running a firm creep in, consistency goes out the window”.

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“Worse still, late super payments aren’t tax-deductible, so there’s a very tangible short-term cost to getting behind,” he added.

According to Balance Family Law founder Perpetua Kish – who last year won the Sole Practitioner of the Year category at the Australian Law Awards – colleagues she’s spoken to (who are in their mid-40s or older) are definitely worried about super, with some only recently having taken steps to address it.

“Getting our super sorted”, Ms Kish suggested, is something that people may generally only do when they can comfortably afford to.

“My observations are that there are several factors which impact our superannuation business planning. Those who have older children (or no children), a financially successful spouse, or even financially supportive parents, are more focused on building their super – because they can be,” she submitted.

“For others, superannuation and retirement planning falls into the ever-expanding list of the self-care issues we neglect. For boutique law firm owners, particularly mothers, often the needs of our children, our spouse, the business, and our employees take precedence over our own.”

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“Thinking about super is one of those things we worry about, but the lack of immediacy, means it is not prioritised,” Ms Kish surmised.

However, by neglecting your super, Mr Prangell said, “you aren’t being realistic about your business’ success, and are trading off your own financial future in the process”.

Why paying yourself super is so important

Many business owners, including lawyers, fail to take care of personal matters such as super, insurance, estate planning, Ailier principal Paula Robinson mused.

“We have to make a concerted effort to prioritise these things … if we don’t discipline ourselves, life will do it for us,” she warned.

Mr Prangell – who is the principal at Viridian Lawyers – observed that with many sole practitioners opting to work from home, and the current market volatility showing no signs of easing up, it is “particularly important” for firm owners to look after their own needs.

“Small firms are more likely to experience ‘boom and bust’ work cycles, so it becomes especially critical that lawyers in those spaces are maintaining some much-needed consistency,” he advised.

“As an added bonus, having peace of mind around your super payments gives you added flexibility with your other investments, and allows you to better budget in your firm overheads.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world at the moment, Ms Robinson reflected. “Knowing you’ve planned well for retirement can give peace of mind – one less thing to worry about.

“Like any business owner, there is always the risk that you prioritise putting money into meeting operational or business development requirements and super is the ‘nice to have’ if there’s anything left over,” she said.

“Making super contributions doesn’t always feel like an urgent priority, but it is important and business owners have to approach it with discipline,” Ms Robinson stressed.

It’s also about setting good habits, Ms Kish added – right from the start.

“It’s sensible to set money aside each pay cycle for your super obligations – these smaller payments are more manageable and easier to budget for, when finances are limited. Good habits build good foundations, which is essential for sustainability and prosperity,” she outlined.

“Failing to pay superannuation on time will result in penalties, adverse taxation consequences and disciplinary action. All of which can be difficulty to recover from and may threaten a firm’s viability (and reputation).”

What’s the right amount to pay yourself?

When asked whether a set amount exists that sole practitioners and boutique firm owners can and should be paying themselves, so as to secure their financial futures, Ms Robinson espoused that – at a minimum – it is “prudent” to at least pay one’s self the same as what one would receive as an employee.

“Personally, I put as much into super as I can each year, but everyone’s tax situation will be different,” she noted.

This means, Mr Prangell said in support, that firm owners should be depositing 10 per cent or more of their monthly income into super, and in high-income months, they should consider additional voluntary contributions.

“I like to make a habit of doing this on the same day each month, and once a year, I check how my super fund is performing and adjust my risk profile where appropriate,” he detailed.

What such firm owners have to realise, Ms Kish advised, is that superannuation forms part of one’s broader wealth-generation strategy.

“As boutique firm owners, the plans we make for business are often inextricably linked to our ‘whole of life’ plans. If, in terms of resources, we separately consider business and personal objectives, the two will compete and one or the other, or both, may suffer,” she mused.

“Superannuation is one of those things that impacts our business and personal lives and all the more reason we should be thinking about it more holistically. It’s a part of our future, and our present: What small changes can we make now to make a tangible difference in the future, for ourselves, our families, and our society?”

Other reflections

In lieu of greater accessibility to education on super, Ms Kish posited, on top of navigating limited resources and other competing priorities, law firm owners have to think more creatively.

“Knowledge is currency and boutique firm owners can take the initiative here and utilise their existing networks to foster such education. For example, we have a family law and estate planning firm, and recently, we visited some accountants and presented to them on what we do, and how we could potentially assist them (or their clients). The accountants, in turn, are happy to present to us, on similar topics, including superannuation, which again may demonstrate how they may potentially assist us (or our clients),” she recalled.

“Boutique firm owners should not feel like they should ‘know it all’ just because they work in a business and there may be that ostensible expectation.” 

How much super should law firm owners pay themselves?
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