Office Debate Follow Up: Sustainable Solos, Sustainable Families

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.