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Is Using a PO Box as A Law Firm Address Penny Wise, Pound Foolish?

by Carolyn Elefant on January 17, 2012 · 11 comments

in Office Options, Solo Trends

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Over at Attorney at Work, solo Ruth Carter discusses her reasons for choosing a post office box as a mailing address for her newly launched, home-based law firm. Not surprising for a new solo, cost considerations played a significant role; at a price of around $17-$22 per month, Carter explains that a post office box is cheaper than either a corporate office mail service or a virtual office operation, which each start at around $125/month. In addition, in Carter’s situation, the PO Box was not just cheaper, but also more convenient since it’s located close to her house, so she can easily retrieve mail on a daily basis. Finally, Carter believes that her target clientele of entrepreneurs and innovators will value her work and the cost savings she brings far more than a fancy address.

While Carter’s philosophy of avoiding unnecessary expenditures is admirable, I’m not so sure that one’s office address is really the best place to cut costs to nothing in most situations (the one exception being a purely virtual law office where a lawyer will only interact with clients online). First, it bears noting that in many locations, the cost differential between a PO box and a virtual office space is often far less than the $100 per month cited in Carter’s article. For example, here in the DC area, a virtual mailing address with access to office space can be had for as low as $50 or $60 per month, while there are co-working spaces that can also be used for mail that go for around $90/month and up. What’s more, many of the virtual office locations here will forward mail several times a week, thus obviating the need for regular visits. Moreover, the benefit to having a virtual offices space is that if a prospective client wants to meet at your office, you can book a room quickly, as opposed to scrambling around, calling colleagues or the bar association in search of space. In short, don’t assume that a PO box will necessarily provide the cheapest or most convenient office solution without first shopping around.

Second, there are often practical or ethics considerations that make use of a PO box infeasible, or inconvenient. Some jurisdictions do not allow lawyers to use a PO Box on websites or letterhead; if that’s the case in your state, then a PO box really isn’t an option. The other issue is that Federal Express doesn’t deliver to PO boxes. Although fortunately, with email and scanning prevalent, Fed Ex is no longer as important for last minute matters, there are still some law firms and businesses, not to mention clients, that may actually want to send something by Fed Ex (like a check!) It’s kind of awkward to have to give out your home address to receive a Fed Ex mailing, and it’s inconvenient for a sender, who wants to rush something out, to have to ask for an address.

Third, even though some clients won’t care about use of a PO box, others may wonder about your firm’s financial stability or long term potential. True, clients want low overhead, but equally importantly, they want a lawyer who’s going to be in business for the long haul. Moreover, even if clients don’t care about your address, the unfortunate but frank truth is that many others in the profession — like opposing counsel or judges — look down on lawyers who use a PO box. Sure, you can let them underestimate you and then work like crazy to ensure that you wow them with your legal prowess…but is it worth putting your client at a disadvantage to save an extra $100 per month on rent?

A PO box can also limit your earnings potential in other ways as well. Although I don’t agree with Brian Tannebaum that you need to spend $2000 a month on office space (nor should you even consider doing so if you need to take on even more debt to do so), Brian’s point about working around other lawyers is well taken. As I learned while researching the second edition of Solo by Choice, recent bar studies on attorney income show that lawyers who work in shared space arrangement earn up to 30 percent more than home-based lawyers or lawyers who lease stand alone space. Not only are there opportunities for referrals in a shared space, but also a synergy and peer pressure that forces you to be more productive.

On the other hand, with tech advancements like webcams and video-chat so pervasive, it may be possible to replicate the co-working space virtually by leaving a webcam open while you work and share the screen with a bunch of solos in different locations…has anyone ever tried that?

Controlling costs and minimizing overhead when starting a practice remain one of the most important rules for starting a practice. Even so, there’s a difference between acting fiscally responsible and recklessly cheap – for example, using free vista print business cards with the “vista print” logo on the back. Although a using a PO box isn’t necessarily reckless (unless you practice in a state where it’s unethical), in many places, it may not provide all that much of a cost savings, plus, depending upon practice area, a PO box may reflect poorly on your practice, not just to your detriment but potentially to that of your clients. In short, the money saved may not be worth it.

What’s your view?

[Update, 1/17/2012 – 7:30 pm: I was mistaken about several aspects of Ruth Carter’s office situation, which she has pointed out in the comments. Ms. Carter has uses a UPS/Mailboxes store as her office address, not a PO Box – and thus, she’s able to receive Fed Ex packages. In addition, Ms. Carter notes that her set-up is ethical in the jurisdiction where she practices, and I did not intend to suggest otherwise. Rather, I was thinking about New York’s requirement that lawyers must use a street address of an office location (though a virtual office will suffice). For the record, even though I personally disagree with use of a PO box or UPS office as an address, I don’t think that the bars should prohibit lawyers from using them.  To the extent that the bars have concerns about the reliability of a PO Box lawyer, they should sanction the conduct – i.e.,  if a client can’t get in touch with a PO Box lawyer, the bar can take appropriate disciplinary action –  just as it would if a client can’t get in touch with a lawyer working out of a fancy bricks and mortar office.]

  • Bob Jessup

    When I started on my own, I had an office address that didn’t necessarily sound like a business address. When I had that on my card with my PO Box, I found some folks assumed I worked out of my house and that therefore I wasn’t really all that serious about my law practice. I like using a PO Box to get bills, periodicals, catalogues, but find that most clients want to know there’s a physical address they can send stuff to you and find you, even if you as the lawyer don’t think it’s that important. 

  • Bob Jessup

    When I started on my own, I had an office address that didn’t necessarily sound like a business address. When I had that on my card with my PO Box, I found some folks assumed I worked out of my house and that therefore I wasn’t really all that serious about my law practice. I like using a PO Box to get bills, periodicals, catalogues, but find that most clients want to know there’s a physical address they can send stuff to you and find you, even if you as the lawyer don’t think it’s that important. 

  • Anonymous

    I think that’s it great that these addresses are on a month-to-month basis so that the attorney can see what will work best for him/her. Also, Ruth’s idea of using UPS or Mailbox Etc will allow her to have a street address and not just a PO Box. I’m sure that if she finds that she is needing to meet with clients more often she will be able to switch to a more ideal VO setting.

  • Rogerk

    The weakness w/a UPS Store is that all a client or prospective client has to do is enter the address into Google, and it will instantly show up as a UPS Store.  This is not a good image to have – sorry, but I would be concerned about the staying power and the professionalism of an attorney who used a UPS Store (or a PO Box) as their address.

  • http://twitter.com/rbcarter Ruth Carter

    For clarification, I don’t have a PO Box for my law firm. I
    have a mail service that provides a street address. I can receive US mail as
    well as deliveries from UPS and FedEx there. My service emails me when I have a
    package to pick up, and I can call during business hours and inquire whether I have
    mail in my box.

     

    My mail service is in a convenient location so I can’t easily
    stop by while I’m out doing other errands. There’s no need for me to pay an
    extra fee for mail forwarding.

     

    Additionally, I contacted the ethics hotline at the State
    Bar of Arizona when I was debating my options for a mail service. My mail
    service complies with my State’s ethical requirements. At least one other Arizona
    attorney uses my mail service location for their law firm’s mailing address, so
    I know what I’m doing is not unique. 

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for the corrections. I have updated my post accordingly to reflect your comments.

    For the record, I did not intend to suggest that your use of a PO Box was unethical and I apologize for the misunderstanding. When I said that a po box may not be an option because of ethics rules, I thought it should have been clear that since you were using a PO box, it was obviously an option, and therefore ethical. I only raised the ethics issue because I was concerned that lawyers in other jurisdictions might follow your example of using a PO Box without examining whether it was permitted where they practice.

    I should add that here in DC, perhaps because of the transient nature of the population, there’s always been an abundance of low cost virtual space, even dating back 20 years before virtual space became pervasive. Oddly, in many lower cost jurisdictions like Arizona (which I think is where you are located) or less urban states, many of the virtual office options are, as you point out, somewhat pricier than PO boxes but also, not that much more costly than full time space. I suspect that many times, regional costs also play a role in clients’ expectations.

  • Anonymous

    In California, numerous locations are not served by traditional postal service — therefore, the U.S. Postal Service put everyone – people and businesses alike – on a post office only system.  When I practiced up in Lake Arrowhead, I would have people make comments about my “hiding” behind a post office box to which I would reply, “No one up here gets mailed delivered.  Not even the McDonald’s.” That backed them off of thinking my use of a P.O. Box was for the purpose of hiding away.  Because the UPSP makes these policies, the State Bar accepts them.  It had nothing to do with money — it had to do with getting any mail, period.

    My experience with using a regular USPS Box is over seventeen years and the only time I didn’t get my mail was when my 4WD wouldn’t make it out of the driveway (so the mail wasn’t getting through, either).  The one problem I had was when someone would misfile my mail into another person’s box or mislabel my address.  Ironically, I met a couple clients returning their mail or getting my mail from them.  Also, the people in the post office came to know me and my family and would give me mail even badly addressed — one letter in block print came to me as “The Lawyer Lady in Lake Arrowhead.”  The postal worker I asked about it laughed and said, “No, you aren’t the only female lawyer up here but we figured you would get it to the right person if we guessed wrong” which I would have done.  I thanked them for not returning it as it contained time-sensitive documents on a matter I was court appointed on and had not received notice from the court before my disabled client sent me the materials.

    When my clients ask why I keep using a P.O. Box in Roseville, I tell them the truth — I work out of my home.  I have done that approximately 13 years out of the last 21 years.  I had a home office in 2 homes with a separate entrance and three times I have just used a dedicated part of the home.  I don’t want someone I don’t know just showing up; conversely, most of clients feel it is a prudent use of my time not traveling between my home, a different office, etc.  

    If there are clients who judged me as being “inferior” or “cheap,” I don’t know it.  I have had clients who are multi-millionaires and also represent people on Medicaid.  I have worked for AV rated law firms and beaten even more in my career.  

    The worst financial decision I ever made came after a CFP said I needed to have a car that matched the upscale image he believed the wealthier clients expected so I traded in my paid for Jeep Cherokee in order to get a model with more bells and whistles.  In fact, nothing good came from the trade-up, I put myself into debt at a very vulnerable time of my life, and when I went back to a more basic SUV (because we really need them in Lake Arrowhead), I had a couple clients approach me at the store and say they were glad to see I wasn’t wasting their money on frills.  

    I honestly believe that we, as attorneys, over think a lot of these issues.  While on the phone with an attorney whose office address is on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A., I laughed when I saw a squirrel jump on a branch laden with snow and go flying as the snow it knocked off fell; it was propelled like off a catapult.  When the lawyer on the other end asked what happened, I told him.  He said, “Wow.  You have a window looking out at a forest; I overlook a parking lot where a guy is urinating on the side of a building.  So much for a prestigious address.”  And yes, I beat him too.  

    If it is accepted by your State Bar, there is nothing wrong with having a P.O. Box.  Most clients don’t care and those who do might not be your cup of tea.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    As I suggested in my comments, there are definitely regional considerations.  I would guess that in many more rural communities, a PO Box may be deemed more accepted because they are the best available option. Likewise, there are probably enough clients who do not care about where you are located so it does not harm business. However, as you also point out, lawyers can over think things – and I know that there are many lawyers in my area who would hesitate to refer cases to lawyers with a PO Box and as a result, a solo could lose out on a potential stream of revenue

  • erin schmidt

    I think it just depends on the practice.  I have started out with a PO box.  It cost my $22.00 for 6 months, or $3.66/month.  I am working out of my home and not ready to take office space yet (and probably not for awhile).  But then again, my practice area (social Security) also means I can reduce significantly any mail that needs to come to me.
    Further, the PO Box is cheap enough that even if I decide I need to go to more virtual space, I am not losing much from the investment.  I also feel more comfortable using a PO Box than my home address and there were very few alternatives very close by (within 25-30 minute drive there are more, but I am not wishing to move that far out yet).

  • Mitch

    I tell my clients that I use that address so that they can always find me. Office addresses change, but that address will be permanent.

    I meet with clients at physical addresses. I have arrangements for one and I rent another. The only catch is that I do not have drop-ins.

    I have not had any issues with it. I prefer working in a more virtual way rather than being tied down. Also, I tell clients that it allows me to be mobile and we can meet anywhere instead of hauling downtown and having to find parking.

  • Neil J. Squillante

    Just remember that prospective clients will look at your address on Google Maps and Street View. When they see Mailboxes Etc. they may choose a different lawyer.

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