Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported on the changing look of law firm offices. To make more efficient use of space in a down economy, firms are reducing office size, assigning the same sized offices irrespective of seniority and moving lawyers to interior spaces once reserved for administrative staff.  Firms are also shifting resources to spiff up group space like cafeterias and group meeting space and transitioning from mahogany and wood panelling to soundproof glass to lighten up the space.  Across the pond, some UK firms have  gone a step farther, ditching the offices entirely and using an open layout with work stations and open rooms.

Yet even as  big firms are changing their look to keep pace with the times, the offerings for solo and small law firms haven’t changed much since the time I first started looking for office space 18 years ago.  Back then, the only options I could find in my price range were interior closet-sized rooms, in a suite with worn carpet, stained walls and reeking of smoke or virtual offices, which include a mailing address and a few hours of office use each month.  Flash forward to two years ago, and the choices are virtually the same.  Sure, there are now a wider variety of virtual office arrangements and there are more places than just the bar weekly to find a seedy, Class D space.  But even though the quantity of offices has changed, the quality (or lack thereof) hasn’t.

With technology, today’s lawyers aren’t necessarily wedded to a permanent space.  They can work equally efficiently from a client site one day, a home office the other or a Starbucks or library on other days for a change of pace.  Of course, none of these options are suitable for meeting with current clients or scheduling a last minute meeting with a prospective client.  So it’s also useful to have permanent space to work a few days a week.  Trouble is, permanent space is priced on the assumption that you’re using it 24/7.  Here in DC., a full time office in a location that you wouldn’t be ashamed to show a Fortune 1000 client can easily start at $1000/month and more likely, will cost  $1500+.  Certainly, that’s not awful for a viable practice, but the real question is, does it make sense to blow $16,000 a year on office space that you only use two to three days a week?

In the tech industry, one option is  co-working space.  There, for a combination of a membership fee (maybe $100-$300 per year) and monthly charges that differ depending upon service level, small businesses can gain access to a seat at a communal table or a private, dedicated workspace or small office.  What sets these spaces apart from virtual spaces is that with many arrangements, tenants can team up and share access – so three individuals could sign up to use one office and split the cost.  In addition, there’s also a variety of space options; for many lawyers, the ability to have guaranteed 24/7 access to a private carrel that you can personalize with photos and actually leave a few things  is a much more useful choice than a virtual space where you have to give a few days notice to book an office.

Of couse, not all co-working spaces are ideal for lawyers.  There are confidentiality concerns involved when you speak with clients in a public space.  There’s a also a concern that co-working space can give the impression that the lawyers are working together as part of a common law practice (though I think that’s unlikely – the public has grown familiar with co-working space or even different doctors sharing offices, and realizes that they’re not all working together).  Likewise, while the amenities available in co-working spaces – like use of public scanners and printers and charging hubs are useful for lawyers – lawyers could also benefit from access to computerized legal research tools, legal books and forms.

These deficiencies are easily remedied.  A lawyer-specific space would be designed with slightly more secure work carrels to minimize the possibility of others listening in.  The space could procure computerized legal research services and publications in bulk and make these amenities available to tenants.  And maybe someday, with changes to ethics rules, more experienced lawyers could “invest” in a new generation of lawyers with financial support and mentorship, and in exchange, would reap a portion of the firm’s profits when they attain financial security.

Would you subscribe to a lawyer co working space? Do you think the incubator concept works for lawyers?  Share your thoughts below.

Don’t forget – Thursday is our usual “Thank You Thursday” edition as discussed here.  Send submissions to Carolyn Elefant, carolyn.elefant@gmail.com