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.]