Would You Rent Office Space If It Only Cost $500/Month – And What Can We Do To Make That Happen?

[Note – this is a long read, and it’s about much more than the home vs. office debate but rather, the importance of affordable office space to the sustainability of solos and long term access to justice]

Fishtown Lawyer Jordan Rushie makes some strong arguments in favor of renting office space when starting a firm.  As Jordan explains, office space gives lawyers a presence in the community and an opportunity to open up that space to local businesses that might become clients. An office also imposes discipline and routine, and can make lawyers feel more like business owners rather than unemployed or self-employed – and therefore, increases the chances of success.

Jordan’s not imagining this either; the stats back him up. As I’ve written previously, studies show that lawyers who work in office or office share environments earn more than their home-office counter parts.  And based on my own experience and observations, those solos and smalls who have some kind of dedicated office space generally tend to have more sustainable practices that they’ve grown beyond one lawyer than those who continue to work from home (the exception being lawyers who have bonafide national practices and spend large amounts of time traveling to other locations and therefore, have no need for a real space).

But here’s my beef with Jordan’s post and others like it: they suggest that if lawyers don’t start out with an office, then at best, they’re destined to fail and at worst, are either frauds or losers.  And that’s just not so.  Rather, many lawyers simply can’t justify the cost of an office starting out and conserve their resources for other priorities.

Ever transparent, Jordan discloses that his law firm’s multi-office space with conference room that  he shares with his partner and is located in the community that the firm serves costs $1000/month with utilities and taxes (or around $500/per partner). At those rates, office space is almost a no-brainer even for a complete newbie.

The trouble is that space costs far more in most metropolitan areas – and the added cost isn’t necessarily offset by ability to charge higher rates. Here in Washington D.C., one thousand dollars might get a small space in a class B building or a sublet from an existing law firm. (Here’s what $1600/month  gets you, for example). Jordan recommends renting cheap space – but bringing a client to a dingy office that reeks of cigarette smoke and is located in a seedy part of town isn’t exactly going to inspire confidence or generate client referrals.

My guess is that if practice-appropriate office space (i.e., attractive space for lawyers serving business or high worth clients, plainer space near the courts for consumer practices, etc.) were available for $500/month or less, the majority of lawyers who currently office from home would rent space precisely for the reasons that Jordan describes.  Unfortunately, the cost of renting office space as a solo remains the one expense that hasn’t been slashed because of technology — as has been the case for legal research, cloud-based practice management tools and computer equipment.

Sure, technology has enabled lawyers to displace the cost of an office since the cloud and mobile devices allow lawyers to work from anywhere. But virtual solutions are most effective either for the short term (early days of practice or working part time while raising a family) or as a hybrid (online alternatives that supplement brick and mortar services).  In this regard, I agree with Jordan that for lawyers, physical presence is imperative to long term sustainability and opportunity.  Indeed, if virtual practice was all that was needed, South Dakota wouldn’t have to pay to import lawyers to represent the underserved.

You can call me old-fashioned if you want, but even today’s most cutting edge technology companies that so many lawyers seek to emulate recognize that office space and regular physical interaction is critical. That’s why Marissa Mayer is calling all homebound workers to return to the office, that’s why Google provides three square meals to employees (to keep them on site) and that’s why the most successful incubator programs offer chosen startups free office space as part of the funding award package.  Coworking space also abounds in the technology industry and makes low cost, but dedicated work space available.

Contrary to some of the LexThink/Ignite Speakers, predictions of the death of the brick and mortar office have been greatly exaggerated. Of course, even brick and mortar offices must have the capability to serve clients online – but as Jordan points out, the physical space itself is also needed to enable solos to blossom and grow into sustainable businesses that will serve clients for generations to come.  Because of the importance of physical space to a firm’s longterm success and the lack of affordable space in many locations, the legal profession needs to address the problem of the high cost of office space in some way other than simply relying on virtual platforms.

One reason that I signed on to advise LegalForce is because the concept is anchored by a brick and mortar store that gives lawyers the opportunity to serve the community and [DISCLOSURE – I ADVISE THIS COMPANY!] But there should be other solutions – maybe bar associations or (more likely) private aggregators who could bundle solos into groups and negotiate rent for a larger shared space. Maybe law firm vendors could create sponsored spaces that they could rent at reduced costs. Lawyers don’t necessarily need a 500 square foot corner office with a view; at a minimum, a dedicated cubicle which can be accessed 24/7 as well as use of private conference rooms for client meetings or public seminars should suffice to give lawyers a presence in the community and a work environment conducive to success.

So to summarize, do you need office space when you’re starting a practice? No – and you shouldn’t take on the cost unless you’re certain you can cover it. But if cost isn’t an option, should you rent practice-appropriate space? Absolutely. Now, what can we do it make it happen?

Do you agree that physical presence is important for the long term vitality of a law practice? If not, why not? On the flip side, do you believe that a virtual law practice can be financially viable in the long term? Please share your thoughts below.