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Solo & Small Law Firms

Does It Make Your Heart Sing? A Litmus Test for Law Firm Decisions

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My first permanent office, a sublet space in a marble-column-ed Class B building down the street from the White House,  was hardly the fanciest in Washington D.C., particularly back in the mid-’90s when big law firm partners still tried to impress clients with mahogany conference room tables and ginormous corner offices.  Furnished with cast-offs from a previous tenants and windows overlooking an alley and another office building, the best thing that the place had going for it was that it was in a great location, well-maintained, cheap and odor-free.  Still, once I decorated the office with my knick-knacks and bar certificates and diploma, the office felt like a palace because it was mine.  I frequently spent late nights, working to the tinny sound of oldies from my red plastic radio (a freebie with my business cards) and even came in to work there on the weekend. That office made my heart sing.

Ever since I gave up the space when my daughters were young, I’ve bounced nomadically between home offices, virtual spaces and most recently, a space near my home in Bethesda. After years of looking, though, I’ve finally moved into another space – brightly lit, modern in a bustling part of D.C.  It’s also located just 10 blocks off the bike path that runs from D.C. to a spot near my home (also an intentional choice), and I’ve been biking the ten mile route to and from my a few times a week.  But what’s most important is that it’s a place I want to go to – and when I’m there, I’m productive and content.

In the ongoing discussions over the nuts and bolts of starting a law practice — office in the home versus out of the home, ipad or no ipad or do you need a business card, there’s lots of analysis of which choice makes the most sense for business or is necessary to serve clients or conveys the best impression.  Lost in the process though is any thought to how these choices affect us: whether they make us proud of what we do or make us want to keep working long after the 9-5 day has ended. 

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not saying that new lawyers ought to spend thousands of dollars on gadgets or fancy office space or designer shoes that they don’t need and can’t afford just to buy a little happiness or look cool.   But at the same time, why grudgingly spend money on a dumpy office because someone says you should when the place is so depressing that you don’t want to spend any time there?  On the other hand, why work out of a messy table in the corner of a tiny apartment because working from home has been rebranded as cutting edge?  We’d all like to say that our desire to be the best in the world or to expand access to justice is what gets us up every day, but the truth is that sometimes it’s just little things like a great coffee or a neat gadget that put a little spring in our step, and a little extra energy into our practice.

What practice choice have you made that makes your heart sing? Or, on the flip side, what choice did you make because someone else said to or your felt you had no options that made your heart sink?

  • Jeffrey

    Congratulations on your new office Carolyn.  I’m enjoying spending more time in my small town little office now that my kids are off to college and Navy.

  • Solo by day

    I work from home, in my basement. While my ‘make my heart sing’ place is about 15 feet higher, and about 15 feet to the east, I am pretty content. Working from home allows me to work beyond/around the 9-5, with little childcare worries or concern. Knowing my son is playing outside, whilst I answer the phone, makes me happy. I am forced to take a lunch, and enjoy it with my near 8 year old at my side.  I sneak down here before he awakens, and sometimes again after he falls asleep. I let out my dog more times than he needs, and tell everyone of my clients (if the conversation drifts that way) THIS is what works best for me at this stage, and makes me more available to them, makes them happy.  

  • Guest

    I work in an office and have a dilemma. My rent is less expensive because I have an interior office in a Class B building. But is it worth an extra $6k/year to work out of an office with a window versus saving $6k/year to work from an interior office? The window office creates computer screen glare, hot air when it is sunny, but natural light is a plus over flourescent. But at what cost? $6k (plus, using future increases) is a lot of money, especially over time, but the office physical space creates no joy.

    Or maybe I need an Extreme Makeover in my 9×12 quasi cube with a door.

  • myshingle

    That’s a good point – there is always a cost benefit analysis, with lots of different variables. And it’s hard to justify such a substantial price differential under any circumstances.

    That said, office space is not always going to be the thing that makes you sing but at least doesn’t make your heart sink. For example, maybe the interior space isn’t the most attractive spot but are you there 8 hours a day, 5 days a week? Maybe you are in court or on travel and only spend 30-40% of your time there. In that situation, even if it’s not a great office, it might be acceptable.

    Having said that, if you are set on a well lit space (as I was on this last go-round), maybe you need to try to find an nicely lit office that is smaller or less expensive. In my case, I am currently in a cubicle type space (with separate offices available for security) but it is worth it for the building and client amenities (work space available for them) and also location. But I only have clients here a few times a year so a large office isn’t as necessary.

  • carolynelefant

    Imfelt that way too when my daughters were young. It’s a dream to be able to do what you’re doing

  • Guest

    Thanks for your response. Yes, I’m here most days (5 days/8+ hours). The building, amenities, research facility, referrals, etc make it worthwhile to stay in this space, with nice conference rooms to meet with clients (and never in my actual office), but none of this makes my heart sing (even with kid photos and their hand drawn pictures).

    It could be the physical space, could be burn out, could be boredom (not from lack of clients but the repetitive nature and being a very well paid hourly employee), could be anything, but I what I look at mainly all day is a computer screen with work stuff. The spring in my step is from winning, or doing well by my client, not from the physical space, but your post raises a good point: I don’t look forward to coming here.

  • Melinda

    When I first started out (estate planning) I drafted at home and traveled to clients for meetings.  It worked well for a few years.  As demand grew my desire to drive in Wisconsin winters fell.  Now I have a small office where I meet clients two afternoons a week.  Two other afternoons I draft in my home office.  The rest of the time I am with my two small children.  I love having a small space to meet clients.  I do not miss driving around, but do make house calls for those with mobility issues.  The upside to it all is that I never needed to borrow money for my practice; I’ve made a profit every single month because I keep expenses low.


    What made my heart sing is LEAVING the practice of Big Law after 21 years! Finally leaving a practice that literally drove my health into the ground and has left me with chronic pain, surgical problems, and an autoimmune disease. I felt it all coming on for about 2 years before it sidelined me — for good. I only wish I had paid attention to the signs earlier. It took me about 5 years to get over “the end of my career.” Now, I see clearly the strain and damage I suffered because Partners in Big Law are expected to devote every single molecule they have to the practice, including their life. Being a single mom with two kids didn’t help. Even though I’m disabled now and live a very limited life, my heart sings every time I realize I don’t have to walk into that building, get on the elevator to the 52nd floor, and watch myself die a little more every day! The tens of millions I could’ve earned had I been able to survive another 10 years aren’t worth it. No amount of money is worth what I went through and what I gave up for my career. Even from my bed, medicated and in pain, I finally got to see my kids. Finally got to watch them grow up, meet their friends, read some of their schoolwork, be there when they were sick, and finally start to actually know them…..really know them. I don’t need the St. John suits, or the BMW, or the manis-pedis, or expensive nights out at cool LA bars and restaurants, or the Italian vacations. In fact, I can’t even do those things now. But I can breathe now. I can meditate now. I can stop my heart from racing with anxiety now. I can listen to audiobooks now. I can sleep in past 4:30 am and go to bed before midnight (in fact, I MUST because the pain medications and other medications force me to do that). I regret that I didn’t listen to my inner intuition before things got beyond repairable, but I’m over dwelling on it. What’s done is done. I hope others don’t sacrifice their health for prestige and money (and passion for law) as I did because you quickly find out you have nothing without your health. And if you have pain, you literally live your life in various stages of torture. Nothing is worth that. So 8 years on now, and a million doctors, surgeries, treatments, PT sessions, acupuncture sessions, and medications later, I’m finally turning a corner to some level of wellness again. It will be a long slog, but I’m well trained for that!!

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