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Office Debate Follow Up: Sustainable Solos, Sustainable Families

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This post is a quick follow up to Would You Rent Office Space for $500 or Less? which has generated some useful feedback from other solos weighing in with personal experiences and opinions.  While you should read the comments directly, they generally fall into the following clusters of viewpoints:

  • 1. Don’t start a firm unless you can afford the space:  This group splits into two strains of argument. One group simply argues that lawyers who pony up the cost of starting a firm are going to have skin in the game and therefore, be more motivated to see it through to success. Others in the “don’t start without an office” group assert that it’s foolish or even unethical to start a law firm if you’re undercapitalized – and that lawyers who can’t afford space should save up enough before they start or do something else.
  • 2. Wish I’d gotten space sooner/would rent if I could  This group sees a value to office space as a way to grow a practice or expand opportunities. Some in this group wish they’d rented space earlier while others are growing but still searching for cost effective office solutions.
  • 3. Don’t need space at all   This group has found success without space and/or doesn’t want it due to avoid long commute or allow more flexibility.

Now, for my observations:

1. The majority of solos who aren’t interested in dedicated office space, affordable or not, either have special practices (i.e., national practice involving travel several times a month), part time practice or a practice that’s sustainable for a single lawyer but without interest in growth beyond.  I’m not suggesting that lawyers who work from home offices are losers – I’ve worked with many who had mid-six figure practices and a full or part time associate or paralegal who also worked from home. But these firms never grew – because that’s difficult to do when at the end of the day, there’s no cohesiveness or regular interaction. I know that these days, virtual firms (like VLP are all the rage – but they’re still a reasonably new model. When the dust settles, I wonder if they will have enough cohesion to survive or if each partner will pack up his or her business and move on.

2. Many solos would rent space if they could afford to. Some have practices where the risk of monthly rent is offset by contacts and cross referrals. For others, there’s no comparable trade off, or rent is so expensive that it creates a financial drag. This is the group that needs a solution in terms of affordable space – because these solos will build practices that will be sustainable for future generations. Not necessarily dynasties or gi-normous firms, but sustainable practices of 4-5 lawyers that can hire and train a few associates, deliver high quality service now and then pass the firm down to the next generation. Without sustainable solos, I fear that lower and middle income consumers who now have access to lawyers will be limited to low end, online forms or high cost practitioners. That’s not the road we should be taking.

3. With all due deference to my colleagues who play the “DO NOT PASS GO until you have an office”, I disagree. Perhaps if you already have a job, waiting a few months to save enough to cover rent might make sense – but if you’re unemployed (which is true for many lawyers starting practices today) that advice is ridiculous.  If anything, by waiting to start a firm and remaining in limbo, lawyers will have even less money by the time they get started. Second, while I realize that there are potentially ethics considerations to starting a law firm from home and pretending to have an office when you don’t, so too, there are ethical downsides to taking on rent that you later realize you can’t afford. Some lawyers may wind up taking on matters that they’re not competent to handle to pay rent, while others “borrow” from the trust account or skimp on malpractice.

Third, while having a nice to office to serve clients is all well and good, at the end of the day, my family and my daughters’ livelihood comes before my clients. Always.  For me, what that meant is that if I had a choice between working from home part time to spend more time with my daughters, instead of spending the money on space that I didn’t use, I chose my daughters. When I had to choose between private school tuition and office space, tuition won out again. With those costs in the rear view mirror and college on the horizon, I’m using my space to aggressively build  up my practice – but if I hadn’t started all because I didn’t have space, or hadn’t worked from home when my daughters were younger, I wouldn’t be where I am now. And while it would have been nice to have the sustainable law practice in place before I had children, things didn’t work out that way for me.

My own situation, however, was part-time — and I always realized that I’d eventually go back to renting space as I had before my daughters were born. As I wrote in my first post, what concerns me for the long term of solos/smalls is that the home-based office or virtual firm isn’t viewed as the exception to accommodate special circumstances (e.g., lack of startup costs, family or national practice) but the rule.  Because the technology that liberates lawyers to work from home, or operate on a four-hour work week or run a purely virtual practice is the same technology that will eventually cannibalize many of these business models. Because without lawyers who operate physical offices and who can spend time training a new generation of lawyers on drafting a complaint or how to talk to a client, our profession won’t survive. When we think about the future of solos and smalls, if there’s no physical presence, then I’m not sure there is a future.

  • shg

    There really needs to be a decision made as to whether ethics trumps necessity or not. While it may be true, and quite pragmatic, that new unemployed lawyers have few options other than to start their own virtual office, does that give them a pass on ethical considerations?
    The point is that either we adhere to ethical concerns even when it’s hard, or we can’t afford to, or we’re desperate, or we enjoy situational ethics, where we comply when it’s convenient and ignore ethics when it’s not.
    I appreciate your efforts to accommodate the needs of lawyers with few options, but is there an ethical line (such as Steph Kimbro has drawn in her VLO) that no one can cross, or are ethics out the window for the desperate?

  • myshingle

    Why is it unethical to start a practice from a home office? I am assuming that the person working from home would meet clients in person if they wanted (or make clear that they are virtual inly and dont meet clients) carry malpractice insurance, keep files secure and not engage in UPL. I guess I am missing the ethics implications because If the choice is starting an unethical practice from home of not at all, of course I would say don’t do it

  • shg

    Starting a practice from a home office isn’t itself unethical at all, but there are a laundry list of ethical issues in virtual practices, many of which are chronicled by Steph Kimbro and ignored by others.
    A practice with a physical existence within the jurisdiction where the lawyer is licensed and where a client can go to retrieve a file if the lawyer is discharged is still a brick and mortar practice, whether it’s in an office building or a den. You’ve moved from talking about virtual practices (as Jordan wrote about) whose only existence for clients is on the internet, to home offices, which may or may not be virtual practices.

  • myshingle

    Personally, I don’t think a virtual-only unbundled practice is a long term viable business model. It’s basically Volume Practice 2.0. It works for part-time – lawyers who are parents, work day jobs or are semi-retired or who offer it as an add-on to a traditional practice — but I don’t consider it a long term option. To me, the focus on the virtual office as a solution is harmful to solos because it boxes them into low end volume work that creates the kind of environment conducive to ethics violations. But – if a lawyer falls into a category for which a virtual practice makes sense, it has to be done ethically – I don’t disagree with you at all. And even we probably do disagree about some of the rules that apply to virtual practice (I would prefer more stringent regulation in some instances, less in others) rules are rules and lawyers have to abide them, like it or not until they’re changed.

  • Let me be clear about something. I am not necessarily against having a home office if it’s located in the jurisdiction where you practice. It makes sense for retired practitioners, or people who have a practice that doesn’t require office space. A home office is not necessarily a virtual space. The decision as to what kind of space you need is dictated by practice area, clients, and volume. I know many exceptional attorneys who are semi-retired and work from home now. Nothing wrong with that. However, I firmly believe this arrangement is not ideal for people just starting their practices, especially if the only reason for not having an office is lack of a very small amount of money.

    What I have a problem with are those who are undercapitalized trying to cut corners by saying their office is “virtual.” A big, flashy website with pictures of downtown, when in actuality, the lawyer doesn’t have any money. If you cannot afford to start a law practice, don’t start one. And pretending that you do is even worse.

    More fundamentally, I am also a fan of investing in your practice. My space cost us $250 a month at one point. As our client base has grown, so has our office space. Rather than scale back, or try and serve the lowest common denominator, our goal is to get better. As lawyers, and to echo Tannebaum, we ought to be stressing ways to get better – not who can get to the bottom first and fastest.

    We could have taken the money put into our expansion and paid ourselves with it, or taken a nice vacation. But we chose to invest in our practice.

  • myshingle

    Your point about investing in your practice is important – I completely agree. In some ways (and somewhat counter-intuitively), that’s one of the advantages of starting a practice when you’re young- you may have student loans, but don’t have daycare or tuition expenses for kids, and may not even have a mortgage. I also don’t think that there’s a problem with running a firm from a home or residence – it’s just that (as you pointed out), doing so limits growth. During the periods that I worked from home, I found it impossible to hire law students or new lawyers remotely because without a layer of ongoing supervision, I could not get quality work (or in some cases, any work) out of them.
    I think that the one place where I part ways with you, Brian and Scott (as well as Foonberg 1.0 since he changed his view eventually but maybe he changed back – who knows?) is whether to start a firm without money for an office and work from home or virtually until it gets rolling.

  • DuBose Law

    My practice is in New York City where there are plenty of co-working options. I started a practice with a co- working space until I could afford a more dedicated office space, it costs me about $200 a month. I know co-working spaces exist in places like Boston and Philadelphia but I am not sure if it would be an option for a solo who practices in a more rural area.

    Co-working spaces allow you to have a quiet place to work. It may be just a cubicle or an open desk with other small business owners working near by. It also gives you access to printers, scanners, and there is a receptionist to take your mail. Most of these spaces also offer access to conference rooms for private meetings.

    I practice criminal, family, and civl law so I had to have a place where I could meet clients and co-working was excellent for that.

    I am firmly in the camp that one needs some kind of office and a virtual office does not give the client a sense of security they need. My clients at least need to feel like they have a place they can go that will be consistent before they hand over their hard earned cash.

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