For many solo and small firm lawyers, virtual office space offers the optimal compromise between an entirely home-based operation on the one hand, and renting full time office space on the other. A virtual office arrangement, which may include a mailing address, receptionist service and per diem use of office or conference room space, enables lawyers to convey to clients the appearance of having a full time, professional office without the attendant costs. But for all of their benefits, virtual office arrangements may raise some quirky problems that aren’t widely addressed, and which I discuss below, in a Q&A format.
1. Many of the offices in my virtual space arrangement are barren and impersonal, devoid of artwork or even a computer on the desk. Isn’t it fairly obvious to my clients that I’m working in a temporary space?
While most of the individual cubicles in virtual space arrangements are impersonal, the conference room space is often quite high end. When you schedule client meetings, reserve one of the conference rooms for the meeting instead of the cubicle space. Clients won’t even think to ask about your office. In fact, when you choose virtual office space, you should ask how many conference rooms are available for meetings, and consider the ratio of tenants to conference room space.
In a worst case scenario where you’re unable to book a conference room, you can make a couple of quick fixes to the office space. Put your laptop, cell phone and legal pad on the desk so the space looks occupied and spread some papers around. You can also carry a couple of knick-knacks – perhaps a few framed photos or a decorative business card holder to further personalize the desk area. Finally, position the chairs to take the client’s focus off of the desk — for example, by pulling a chair up next to the client, rather than conducting the interview while sitting at the desk.
2. My former office always offered refreshments. How can I do that in virtual space?
Just because you’re in virtual space doesn’t mean that you can’t be hospitable…it may just take a bit of extra planning and quick thinking. Some virtual offices will have coffee and tea available, and have a fridge where you can stock sodas and bottled water for visitors. You can also carry an inexpensive decorative plate with you and lay out an assortment of easy to carry packaged snacks like granola bars or crackers that you can recycle meeting to meeting (you can also pick up donuts or muffins but those won’t keep between meetings) — you’d be surprised at how much of a difference these small amenities can make. If you haven’t planned ahead and there’s a decent coffee shop in your building, you could even step out quickly and pick up a cup of coffee for your client.
3. The client wants to sign a retainer and cut a check — how do I print it out and have it ready on the spot?
Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought on signing retainer agreements on the spot. My own preference, if feasible, is to send a custom retainer agreement that highlights some of the matters that I will, and more importantly, won’t address during the course of representation (I always insist on drafting a road map and budget for my clients as well, but I realize I’m in the minority here). If you are reasonably confident that the client will still agree to retain you if you offer to email a retainer letter after he leaves, then that’s the easiest solution.
If the client insists on signing an agreement on the spot, ask the client to wait in the conference room (or to move to reception if you’re in a cubicle). Most virtual offices have printers or Internet accessible machines and you can make some quick modifications to your form retainer agreement — e.g., adding the client’s name and address, scope of work — and print out a clean copy (don’t forget to bring along some decent paper or stationary). You could also carry a fill-in-the blank retainer, but to me, that’s just not very professional. After you’ve printed out the agreement, invite the client to sit with you and review it to avoid any misunderstanding down the line.
4. Sometimes, a client wants to get me a document ASAP and will fed ex or fax it to my office, which can actually take longer to get to me than at home. What can I do without letting on that I work primarily from home?
With electronic services like e-fax (there are many others, but I’ve been using that one eight years now), you don’t have to rely on the fax in your virtual office to receive documents. Federal Express or messenger service is trickier to deal with. First, you might explain to your clients that if they need to get you documents in a hurry, the best and most cost-effective approach for all is via email. However, if clients still courier or Fed-Ex materials, you should instruct personnel at your office to contact you immediately so that you can make a decision whether to wait until you’re next at your office to pick up the materials (or have them sent if your office sends mail to you) or to have them messengered to your home.
Finally, if a client advises that he or she wants to Fed-Ex materials to discuss them the next day and you don’t plan on coming into the office, ask the client to send them to your home address. You don’t have to admit that you work from home if you’d rather not – you can simply say that you’ll be away at another location and didn’t plan on coming into the office so by sending materials directly to your home, you’ll receive them more quickly.
5. I’ve had a few busy weeks with meetings and depositions, and find that I’m paying more for my virtual space than I would for a monthly rental. Is it time to move?
It depends. Even though you’re spending more on your space, presumably, you’re earning more. That’s one of the benefits of virtual space — it lets you match your usage to your revenues. Still, if you’ve reached a point where you’re regularly paying more for the virtual office than you might for space, consider the following in deciding whether to rent space full time:
Is your virtual space nicer than what you could rent? Many times, virtual space is much nicer looking than what you could afford to rent, so the slightly higher cost may be worthwhile for a prestigious address or attractive location.
Are you using your virtual space more than you need to? Some lawyers use virtual space more than they actually need. For example, if you’re scheduling depositions, perhaps you could hold them at opposing counsel’s office or in space at a courtroom or bar association (some have free space available for this). Other times, a lawyer might schedule a meeting with a colleague or law clerk in the virtual space, when they could meet at a coffee shop and save the hourly fee. Of course, if you prefer conducting these kinds of meetings in your virtual office, that’s probably a good sign that you’re ready to upgrade to full time space.
If you have any other suggestions about making use of virtual space, please send your tips below.