During the past seventeen years of my practice, I’ve alternated between a traditional office (which I had before my first daughter was born, and currently have now) and maintaining a virtual space while working from home. I strongly believe that home-based offices offer many benefits for both lawyers and clients. For lawyers, particularly for cash-strapped newbies just starting out, the low overhead of a home-based office means that they don’t have to load up on lots of matters just to make rent – and a more manageable workload means higher quality work and better service for clients. Likewise, a rented office is a waste of money for lawyers who travel frequently and rarely use their space anyway. Finally, for lawyers who need to make time for family, a home office eliminates commuting time and gives lawyers more time to spend on their cases.
Still, for all of the benefits of home-based offices, as a personal matter, I’ve always been concerned that publicly broadcasting that I worked from home when I did might cost me business. Of course, if clients or referral sources asked directly if I worked from home, I’d respond truthfully. But otherwise, I simply never discussed my office situation one way or another. So long as I got the work done and was accessible to my clients 24/7, where I did the work didn’t worthy of discussion.
I was fairly comfortable with my own personal don’t ask, don’t tell policy. But now, I’m reconsidering – partly in light of Brian Tannebaum’s post on lawyers putting a photo of a fancy building where they don’t work on their website. And partly because of the emergence of a a new feature for Google Places called Business Photos, where Google photographers will schedule a business shoot of your company which will appear on your Google Place page. What’s to prevent a lawyer from setting up a shoot in a borrowed office with assistants bustling in the background, when he’s running a practice alone and on a shoestring? Moreover, because it’s Google photographers who take the video, it confers another layer of credibility. After all, Google wouldn’t send photographers to photograph a fake office, most people would assume.
Ironically, the technology that lets us to portray ourselves to our clients in a more personal and authentic manner – by showing photos of where we work on websites or on Google Places – at the same time, enables us to engage in even more proactive and elaborate deception. Of course, part of our profession has always relied on appearances to some extent – a lawyer may barely be able to pay the rent, but will invest in a $1000 suit to make sure he comes across as professional and successful in public. But at what point do we draw the line? At what point does an appearance that we create become so pervasive that it implies a false reality? Is it using a mailing address at a downtown office but working from home? Putting up a photo of a building? Creating a video showing you in a the lobby of a court where you’ve never practiced, or sitting behind a mahogany desk in a borrowed office? Billing a company as a law firm when it’s really more like a high-end placement agency? Presenting a blog as your own first person work when it’s ghostwritten.
I don’t know the answer to all these questions. But moving forward, I think that we need to err on the side of transparency. In other words, telling – even if no one’s asking.