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BonaFide Office Rules – A Rejoinder by Tannebaum

by Carolyn Elefant on April 5, 2010 · 19 comments

in Client Service, Office Options, Solo Trends

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Last week, I  criticized a ruling out of New Jersey interpreting the bonafide office rule to prohibit virtual offices.  I argued that the rule (1) would force lawyers to hire staff and rent full time space, thereby raising the cost of legal services and (2) make it difficult for recently unemployed lawyers and female lawyers cutting down to part time to open up or run a law practice.  Over at My Law License, my friend Brian Tannebaum completely disagrees with my position — and he’s generating some comments, pro and con in response (so check out the conversation).

Bonafide offices are one topic where Brian and I will forever disagree.  However, Brian raises a significant point that my post glosses over and that many lawyers, intent on “doing it my way” often forget:  the client’s perspective.  As Brian writes, “clients have the right to have their files kept in a safe place….in a real office with insurance and security than in the trunk of a car or a den in a home with 4 kids, 2 dogs and people visiting…:” He’s right.  Likewise, clients expect to meet an appropriately attired lawyers in a professional looking location with some semblance  of confidentiality (which is why I’ve always favored the virtual office arrangement as a happy medium).

The other point is that working from home is neither a picnic, nor an excuse for vacation.  You work twice as hard, but at least, it gives you a chance to hold on to a career.  When I worked part time, largely from home, both the working world and stay home moms always expressed envy over my perfect situation.  What they didn’t realize is that I was waking up at 5 am to get in an hour of work before my daughters woke up and putting in a shift between 9 and 1 after my husband returned home.  Sometimes, I worked at the coffee shop down the street from my daughter’s school because it allowed me to get in an extra hour of work by not traveling all the way home before pick up.  I rarely exercised, took showers or did anything other than work, handle household chores or spend time with my daughters.   If I’d have had to commute to my downtown office (an hour each way), I’m not sure I could have made this schedule work at all.

Serving clients is really, really hard work – on that, I know that Brian and I agree.  And though working from home or a virtual law office doesn’t make it any easier to serve clients, the convenience and lower cost makes it more feasible by enabling lawyers to spend more money on CLE to master practice areas or  for a mom like me to handle a manageable workload without panicking about paying rent.  For that reason, I’d hate to see these options eliminated.

  • http://technolese.com Vivian Rodriguez

    While I think the points made by your friend, Brian Tannenbaum should be kept in mind, I can’t help but think that they make a lot of assumptions and generalizations.
    As someone who uses the virtual office model, I can tell you that “doing it my way” does not mean throwing common sense out the window.
    Regardless of where a lawyer practices, there are some minimum business best practices that apply. As you point out, it is a matter of cost and convenience, not a matter of practicing “in the wild” as it were.

  • http://technolese.com Vivian Rodriguez

    While I think the points made by your friend, Brian Tannenbaum should be kept in mind, I can’t help but think that they make a lot of assumptions and generalizations.
    As someone who uses the virtual office model, I can tell you that “doing it my way” does not mean throwing common sense out the window.
    Regardless of where a lawyer practices, there are some minimum business best practices that apply. As you point out, it is a matter of cost and convenience, not a matter of practicing “in the wild” as it were.

  • http://mylawlicense.blogspot.com BRIAN TANNEBAUM

    No, it’s not a matter of “cost and convenience.” That’s only the case if the only concern is the lawyer, and not the client. Professions require basic obligations. Doctors are required to have basic tools, and a place to see patients. Lawyers who believe the practice of law is based on their cost and their convenience, are only interested in their own bottom line and their own way of life. Clients deserve to have lawyers who see this as a profession and provide clients with basic things, like privacy in a face to face meeting, and a place where they can go to meet the lawyer, where their file is kept, and where the lawyer works on their case. Practicing law is not mean’t to be something that is cost effective and convenient for the lawyer – it’s also about the client.

  • http://mylawlicense.blogspot.com BRIAN TANNEBAUM

    No, it’s not a matter of “cost and convenience.” That’s only the case if the only concern is the lawyer, and not the client. Professions require basic obligations. Doctors are required to have basic tools, and a place to see patients. Lawyers who believe the practice of law is based on their cost and their convenience, are only interested in their own bottom line and their own way of life. Clients deserve to have lawyers who see this as a profession and provide clients with basic things, like privacy in a face to face meeting, and a place where they can go to meet the lawyer, where their file is kept, and where the lawyer works on their case. Practicing law is not mean’t to be something that is cost effective and convenient for the lawyer – it’s also about the client.

  • http://solopracticeunivesity.com/proud-to-be-solo Susan Cartier Liebel

    Professionalism is professionalism. When a client hires you they have an expectation you will comply with your professional obligations period. HOW those obligations are met can be varied as long as they are met. Whether it is a parent who practices out of their home because of cost or personal desire or an affluent non-parent who does so regardless their options because it serves their purpose, does not determine the manner in which they execute their professional obligations which is why the NJ law is ridiculous and secondarily happens to be discriminating. I have hired highly competent lawyers NEVER having the need to be at their office nor needing to know (or care)if they practiced in their home or not. The most recent two were out of state. What mattered was their reputation, my ability to work with them confidentially, the ability to reach them when needed, and the ultimate resolution of my problem. One might be surprised what the client DOESN’T want or need.

  • http://solopracticeunivesity.com/proud-to-be-solo Susan Cartier Liebel

    Professionalism is professionalism. When a client hires you they have an expectation you will comply with your professional obligations period. HOW those obligations are met can be varied as long as they are met. Whether it is a parent who practices out of their home because of cost or personal desire or an affluent non-parent who does so regardless their options because it serves their purpose, does not determine the manner in which they execute their professional obligations which is why the NJ law is ridiculous and secondarily happens to be discriminating. I have hired highly competent lawyers NEVER having the need to be at their office nor needing to know (or care)if they practiced in their home or not. The most recent two were out of state. What mattered was their reputation, my ability to work with them confidentially, the ability to reach them when needed, and the ultimate resolution of my problem. One might be surprised what the client DOESN’T want or need.

  • Vivian Rodriguez

    No, lawyers who are concerned with cost and convenience, such as myself, are practical. We are also ethical and professional. The problem is seeing this as an either/or situation.
    As for doctors, plenty of doctors work in areas where they don’t have an office or what they need to take care of their patients. Ever hear of doctors who do “charity work” out in a jungle? I’m pretty certain they don’t worry about anything other than mending their patients-and the patients probably care about nothing other than feeling better and/or not dying.
    Clients are entitled to competent representation, privacy, etc. Those are a given as far as I’m concerned. What they care about most is having access to their lawyer, responsiveness and pro-activity in resolving their problem, etc. None of these things is necessarily negated by a non-traditional office setting.

  • Vivian Rodriguez

    No, lawyers who are concerned with cost and convenience, such as myself, are practical. We are also ethical and professional. The problem is seeing this as an either/or situation.
    As for doctors, plenty of doctors work in areas where they don’t have an office or what they need to take care of their patients. Ever hear of doctors who do “charity work” out in a jungle? I’m pretty certain they don’t worry about anything other than mending their patients-and the patients probably care about nothing other than feeling better and/or not dying.
    Clients are entitled to competent representation, privacy, etc. Those are a given as far as I’m concerned. What they care about most is having access to their lawyer, responsiveness and pro-activity in resolving their problem, etc. None of these things is necessarily negated by a non-traditional office setting.

  • Larry Brown

    I personally believe that “cost and convenience” is something that the client would care about. Imagine that a particular lawyer has a great reputation in a specific niche, and a particular client could benefit tremendously from his services. The problem is that the lawyer’s “office” is 300 miles away. While having a physical office can be great for clients, it can also severely limit legal access for potential clients who might otherwise greatly benefit from a lawyer’s services. This is especially true in highly specialized niche practices or lawyers in smaller towns. Also, I don’t believe doctors are required to have a place to see patients (although I could be wrong). They probably do this because it is more cost effective and convenient for them. As far as I know house calls are still an option and probably would be more convenient for many patients.

  • Larry Brown

    I personally believe that “cost and convenience” is something that the client would care about. Imagine that a particular lawyer has a great reputation in a specific niche, and a particular client could benefit tremendously from his services. The problem is that the lawyer’s “office” is 300 miles away. While having a physical office can be great for clients, it can also severely limit legal access for potential clients who might otherwise greatly benefit from a lawyer’s services. This is especially true in highly specialized niche practices or lawyers in smaller towns. Also, I don’t believe doctors are required to have a place to see patients (although I could be wrong). They probably do this because it is more cost effective and convenient for them. As far as I know house calls are still an option and probably would be more convenient for many patients.

  • Dave!

    I noted this at Brian’s blog, too. But for me, a VLO *is* all about the client. My clients are busy business people who don’t necessarily want to take the time to schlep to my office. They don’t care where I work. They care about 1) the quality of my work and 2) their costs.
    Not having a “traditional” office has no impact on the quality of my work. And not having the overhead of a traditional office also helps me offer a lower price to them.
    I also so see a benefit to visiting my client’s places of business; I get to know their business better. Yes, I could still do that and maintain a traditional office, but why? If the clients don’t care and I don’t need to work in one (some people prefer to go to an office) then why should I be required to maintain one?
    As for files… my files are every bit as secure as someone who maintains a traditional office. I would argue the are more secure. Unless of course those attorneys are encrypting those paper files…
    And to be fair: I don’t think Brian has never said he believes a home/virtual office is unethical. He’s said he *prefers* a traditional office.

  • Dave!

    I noted this at Brian’s blog, too. But for me, a VLO *is* all about the client. My clients are busy business people who don’t necessarily want to take the time to schlep to my office. They don’t care where I work. They care about 1) the quality of my work and 2) their costs.
    Not having a “traditional” office has no impact on the quality of my work. And not having the overhead of a traditional office also helps me offer a lower price to them.
    I also so see a benefit to visiting my client’s places of business; I get to know their business better. Yes, I could still do that and maintain a traditional office, but why? If the clients don’t care and I don’t need to work in one (some people prefer to go to an office) then why should I be required to maintain one?
    As for files… my files are every bit as secure as someone who maintains a traditional office. I would argue the are more secure. Unless of course those attorneys are encrypting those paper files…
    And to be fair: I don’t think Brian has never said he believes a home/virtual office is unethical. He’s said he *prefers* a traditional office.

  • Tanya

    Brian says that clients have the right to a “real office” so that their files are kept secure as opposed to a home with kids, dogs and visitors. What if the clients’ files are digital, encrypted and in two locations (home office and online backup)? That would make a home office much more secure than a outside-the-home office. There are janitors, temps and other clients coming to an outside-the-home office more than guests coming to a home. Lastly, the federal government is pushing for digital medical files and investing lots of money. If it is acceptable for doctors and medical data, isn’t it acceptable for lawyers and legal data?

  • Tanya

    Brian says that clients have the right to a “real office” so that their files are kept secure as opposed to a home with kids, dogs and visitors. What if the clients’ files are digital, encrypted and in two locations (home office and online backup)? That would make a home office much more secure than a outside-the-home office. There are janitors, temps and other clients coming to an outside-the-home office more than guests coming to a home. Lastly, the federal government is pushing for digital medical files and investing lots of money. If it is acceptable for doctors and medical data, isn’t it acceptable for lawyers and legal data?

  • http://mylawlicense.blogspot.com Brian Tannebaum

    Susan, do you believe it’s discriminatory because it affects solos or because of the notion traveling around the internet that it’s anti-”mommy?” I think there is a complete lack of understanding of the purpose of this opinion. It is not to discipline work at home moms OR DADS. It is to prevent virtual offices. The Bar has the right to do that, even though today’s lawyer disagrees. I’ve said 300 times I have no problem with a home office, as long as it’s a legitimate office – meaning a dedicated space, not a file on a kitchen table. Every practice is different. Some lawyers actually do have real files with real documents and can’t have everything scanned electronically. Original documents are still part of the practice of law.

  • http://mylawlicense.blogspot.com Brian Tannebaum

    Susan, do you believe it’s discriminatory because it affects solos or because of the notion traveling around the internet that it’s anti-”mommy?” I think there is a complete lack of understanding of the purpose of this opinion. It is not to discipline work at home moms OR DADS. It is to prevent virtual offices. The Bar has the right to do that, even though today’s lawyer disagrees. I’ve said 300 times I have no problem with a home office, as long as it’s a legitimate office – meaning a dedicated space, not a file on a kitchen table. Every practice is different. Some lawyers actually do have real files with real documents and can’t have everything scanned electronically. Original documents are still part of the practice of law.

  • Anonymous

    ***”Clients deserve to have lawyers who see this as a profession …”

    What, exactly, does it mean if I see my lawyering not as a “profession” but as a “job?” Does that somehow suggest I’m going to be less effective? Less knowledgeable? Less skilled? I don’t think so. Certainly my peer rankings suggest otherwise.

    Does it mean that I will be any less faithful, or adhere in any lesser respect, to the Bar’s ethical rules? That I will be any less honest? That I will be more likely to skirt the law? If you knew me, you would know that the opposite is true.And in almost thirty years of practice, no one has ever suggested otherwise, either formally or informally.

    I most certainly do provide clients with privacy, though I very rarely meet with clients in face to face meetings. And I suggest to you that my paperless files are demonstrably many times better protected from BOTH inadvertent destruction AND undesired disclosure than ANY paper files maintained by ANY lawyer using ANY system in ANY physical office. And wherever I am, I am reachable by my clients 24x7x365.using military-grade encryption over secure transmission methods, and every client document and every prior written communication is accessible by me using the same sort of secured access methods.

    But, I do all this not because I think the practice of law is a “profession,” but rather because I want to be the best at everything I do, and because I believe truthfulness and honesty are fundamentally important to our society. I will not work with a client who is not honest. I rain down like showers of brimstone upon any opposing counsel who is not honest with me or my client, or whose client is not honest.

    Just about everything written about “professionalism” has its roots in “promoting the fundamental ideals and values of the justice system,” or “resolving our disputes fairly and honestly,” or something similar. Stuff that might be important to litigators, trial and appellate lawyers, criminal and family lawyers … all those folks who spend time in courtrooms. Me? I know where the courthouse is, but only because my friend the real estate lawyer pointed me in that direction once to look up a mortgage. I have an office practice. And like all the contract and counseling lawyers out there who practice in the fields of corporate, tax, estate planning, real estate, environmental, employee benefits/ERISA, and lots of other boring practice areas, we came out of the law school womb with ten times the “professionalism” of any litigator, and our lead has been growing every day since law school graduation. It’s just that we don’t call it “professionalism,” we call it “doing a good job” and “being honest.”

    I know a hundred litigators who will swear they are more professional than me. But they will gladly find some way to mislead me and anyone else. But, you see, that’s not “lying,” it’s “negotiating.” Deal lawyers call it lying.

    When all the “professionals” get off their high horse and start recognizing reality, being truthful, open and honest — using precise and accurate words to describe what they are doing instead of trying to BS the public — then these discussions will make sense. Until then, your comments and my coments simply combine to convince the public that they were right about lawyers all along.

    ***”Practicing law is not mean’t to be something that is cost effective and convenient for the lawyer.”

    I suppose, technically, that’s true. But it darned sure is not ethical for a lawyer to carelessly allow costs to run wild. Nor would that be very “professional.”

  • The Barrister

    I watched my friend, Brian, make this argument often. I believe that Brian fights against the inevitable digitalization of our profession (with State courts joining the Feds in electronic filing) and the changing expectation of the newer generations who are more savvy in their use of the internet, social media and other technologies that make getting information more efficient for the client as well as the lawyer. There is a growing acceptance of business owner, entrepreneurs and everyday individuals who would prefer to get their legal advice without leaving the office, job or home. I understand the that some folks in our profession long for the office with their name on the wall, conference rooms, employee lounges, paralegal pools and all that jazz. However, law can be practiced ethically, skillfully and professionally from the virtual office model. Most virtual office vendors offer conference rooms for day rental, cloud servers or applications offering secure access to client files and some platforms that allow clients to view their files and the progress of their case. Most new generation clients find that virtual attorneys are more accessible via email and social media forums and don’t often follow the traditional 9-5 model of most brick-and-mortar firms. Bi personal use a hybrid of the two forms, because I find myself more productive away from the home a rent a decent size office space fit for one person (some may opt for an executive office set up) but I employ all of today’s technological advance in our profession such as VOIP phone system, smart phone, iPad,

  • The Barrister

    etc … I find that many of my clients opt for telephonic consultations (thus saving me money on conference rooms – free is still better than low cost), most clients feel comfortable faxing or emailing any documents needed and with the advent of such programs as DocuSign I can electronically deliver my retainer agreement (or pleadings) and the client can sign and return via the same secure format. I can send an electronic invoice via email for payment by credit or debit card or they client can make payment via our website. clients who want to send checks can do so by snail mail and those who prefer to bring cash can drop it off at one of my virtual locations located conveniently in a city near their residence or employment and will be greeted by a lovely receptionist who will take payment and provide a receipt to the client. Technology and virtual office companies have allowed the solo or small firm to take down the walls and compete with their larger competitors by giving them a smarter, more cost efficient, more flexible, more secure, more modern alternative to the tradition brick-and-mortar model.

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