Don’t Let Not Having An Office Deter You From Your Dream of Starting A Practice

After reading the recent posts and ensuing discussion on the perennial question of home office versus rental office over at Lawyerist and Above the Law , feels like it’s deja- Foonberg all over again.  Because just like Foonberg, both Tannebaum at ATL and most of commenters on Josh Camson’s Lawyerist post uniformly maintain that Renting Office Space is one of the black-letter laws of starting a law firm. Not so.

The great home versus office debate is one that’s close to my heart for a number of reasons. For starters, it was Foonberg’s unwavering insistence on the importance of a rented office in the earlier editions of his book that drove me to write Solo by Choice. I feared that Foonberg’s dogmatic views on office space might deter otherwise qualified lawyers who yearned to solo or had no other options from hanging a shingle because they couldn’t afford rent. Moreover, the assumption that office space should take priority over the other start-up costs, or that a lawyer should have the connections to cut a deal for cheap space from a colleague reflects a rather narrow view on the range of diversity among solo practices.

Though office space may be an unavoidable cost for criminal defense lawyers like Brian or Josh who cannot realistically meet clients at home, for an appellate lawyer who deals with clients by phone or online, spending that first five or six hundred dollars of earnings a month on top-of-the-line commercial legal research tools makes far more sense than blowing it on rent. In my industry and other similar regulatory practices, I meet colleagues and potential referrals not because they come to me but because I go to them. That means that I should be attending four or five industry conferences a year ranging in cost from a low of $600 for a local event to as much as $1500 for one held in another city. That amounts to a minimum of $2500 a year, or roughly half the cost of an office right there. Yet pressing the flesh at a costly conference makes the point that I’m doing well far more impressively than a mediocre office.  For IP lawyers, malpractice insurance can cost several thousand dollars a year – and one that is far more important than a physical office. The point is that while office space is mission critical for some practices, for others, there are far more compelling expenses starting out.

As for snagging a deal on space with other lawyers, sure, it’s worth a try. But most of the attorneys in my neck of the woods aren’t exactly keen on giving a deal to a newbie who may eventually become a competitor. Things may be different in more collegial parts of the country where rents are cheap, but not here in DC and many other large metropolitan areas. Moreover, because it can sometimes take time to find an inexpensive arrangement, a lawyer is better off keeping options open for the first 12-18 months of practice to allow time to find these kind if hidden deals.

All of this is not to say that I’m a raving fan of working in Starbucks or that I don’t think that having an office matters. Though I started out working from home, I didn’t feel as if I really hit my stride until a year later when I found (through networking) a sweet little sublet in a suite with an energy lawyer and lobbyist a block from the White House.  But please — can we get past the one-dimensional argument that only real lawyers have real offices? Because it’s not only one of the least important reasons to rent space, but also, one of the most unoriginal.

If you’re going to rent space, do it for a sound business reason – such as the recognition that working in proximity to others creates a synergy that can boost productivity and earnings or to find collegiality, mentorship and backup or to be in close proximity to a segment of the population that you’d like to serve or to incubate your own clients.  Do it because you want to rely on interns, law clerks and other lower cost support staff and for that, you need a space to put them to provide the necessary supervision and training for these arrangements to work.  But don’t just get an office because someone said so.

On the other side of the coin, can we also dispense with the wishful thinking that office space isn’t important or desirable to cool, upstart 21st century clients? If that were true, how do you explain the enormous demand for incubator and co-working spaces – not to mention the investment that Google devotes to its meal plan just to ensure that employees stick around the office as long as possible? Just as investors are more comfortable putting money into companies that have a permanent address, the truth, like it or not, is that some clients — even the uber-trendy- simply feel more comfortable meeting with an attorney in an office setting because it gives them the assurance that the lawyer will be in business for a long time (though as Brian points out, those considerations diminish over time when you’ve established a solid reputation).  Making the best of not having an office by putting a positive spin one on it is one thing; proudly shouting from the rooftops about bucking a trend reflects a narcissistic approach that isn’t necessarily consistent with or respectful of the preferences of many of the clients a lawyer may seek to serve.

Still, even though my current preference lies with maintaining and working from a rented office at least part of the time, for lawyers — either moms or dads — who split their time evenly between parenting and practicing law, there’s simply no substitute for the home office. I’m not saying that parents who work from home ought to flaunt it to clients – I never took phone calls with a child crying in the background or excused myself to pick up my girls at the bus or revealed to any but the closest of my colleagues that I worked from a small table at the edge of my daughters’ playroom because with my reduced schedule, my rented space was a waste of money, and I could barely afford it anyway. In short, even as I kept my dirty laundry to myself and burned the candle at both ends, I still endured insulting remarks from friends and family (probably earning less than I did) about how nice it was that my husband allowed me to “dabble” in the law all because I worked part-time (granted, in dirty sweats with unwashed hair) from home. To be clear, neither Foonberg or Brian or Josh’s commenters have ever dissed parents who work from home, but constantly invoking the mantra that only “real lawyers have real offices” doesn’t do much to help the cause of parents who practice.

The home versus office decisions is one of the toughest choices to make starting out and its increasingly difficult given some of the ethical considerations related to the office address, not to mention the increased availability of a new generation of emerging options like co- working spaces and virtual offices and the increased reliability of cloud and video technologies that make the work force more mobile. In this context, the ongoing and one dimensional I’m right, they’re wrong shouting match between the office and home rule crowd isn’t all that useful. Sometimes, the best answer really is “it depends.”