Many lawyers starting a practice opt for virtual office space — basically, a physical location that provides various amenities such as a mailing address and forwarding, a few hours of office or conference room space and/or receptionist of answering services. For lawyers with limited resources or who prefer to work from home, virtual space, in my view, offers the best of both worlds – an affordable spot to meet clients as well as a way maintain the privacy of your home address.
Of course, I’m partial to virtual offices. I started out in one when I launched my firm twenty years ago. Today, however, there are far more options, including co-working space, the virtual office’s slightly more down to earth cousin. In fact, there are even some law firms with extra space that provide virtual office services to generate additional revenue.
So if you decide to start out in a virtual space, how to choose? Here are some considerations that I’ve gathered from my experience and that of my colleagues.
One of the most significant factors that goes into the decision of whether to lease a virtual office is cost. Here, you can’t assume that a virtual office is always the cheapest option. Some high-end virtual spaces can run several hundred dollars a month and in some parts of the country, there’s not much difference in cost between a virtual office space and a full-time location of reasonable quality. On the other hand, virtual offices generally offer more flexibility than a full time space which will often come with a one-year lease or more. In addition, some of the more affordable office space may not be very attractive so if you work with high end clients, you may be better off with a posh virtual space than a low-rent permanent office.
You’ll also need to determine what a virtual office’s base rates include. If there’s no office or conference room time and you need to pay $60/he each time you need a space, your costs can add up quickly and diminish the benefits
In some jurisdictions like Delaware , certain virtual arrangements won’t comply with the bonafide office rule. New York has certain rules governing lawyer advertising of bonafide offices, and the bar maintains a list of virtual offices that comply. In addition, the New York City Bar now offers a virtual office program guaranteed to meet ethics requirements.
Level of Services Provided
Virtual offices generally offer a wide range of amenities – with a price tag attached, of course. Many virtual offices include services that you may not want or need. For example, many virtual spaces include an answering service – though you may want to think twice before using it. In my first virtual space, the receptionists on phone duty would bluntly inform callers that I wasn’t available and would dispatch them through to voice mail – a practice that my clients did not appreciate. Today, there are so many options for answering services – from outsourced services like Ruby Receptionists or Total Attorneys to simply using Google Voice or a cell phone – so in many cases, a virtual office’s answering services may not be needed.
Other unnecessary charges may even include a mail forwarding service (even though you plan to pick up mail yourself), a listing on the building directory or an email address.
What kind of access will you have?
It’s important to pin down what kind of access the virtual office will provide? Can you get into the building 24/7 or only between 9 and 5. This is important if, for example, you’re looking for a place that will allow you to meet with clients off hours.
Will you be nickel and dimed?
What kinds of extra charges are imposed by the virtual office? Are there substantial markups on services like photocopying, scanning and receipt of faxes? In many instances, you can avoid these charges as well but it’s always good to know what they are in case you find yourself captive.
Is the facility oversubscribed?
With so many virtual options available, many spaces aren’t as filled up as they were back when I started out. At the same time, some of the lower rent spaces tend to be more popular and potentially oversubscribed. For example, you may find it difficult to book conference rooms or window office spaces to meet with clients even though they’re included in your plan. You can ask about availability issues but also, visit the facility once or twice during different hours to get a sense of the level of traffic flowing through.
Is there permanent storage space or open work areas?
Many lawyers often choose a virtual space near the courthouse, clients or colleagues. If you’re in the area for court or a day of meetings, it’s nice to be able to use your virtual office to get some work done between meetings. Some virtual offices will require you to use your office hours as a quota or pay for space, but others often have drop in areas in the lobby or mailroom where you check email or finish up some work on your laptop. Some spaces will also provide permanent storage space, where you might leave chargers, power cords, dress shoes or various other items that you might need but don’t necessarily want to lug around.
Is the facility set up as a virtual space?
Increasingly, many law firms with extra space are offering virtual office services – with varying degrees of success. One law firm sponsored virtual office service was really just a mail drop that allowed attorneys access to a dirty conference room a few hours a month. Another firm used a storage room as its “virtual space.” Virtual space within a law firm can be a nice option – maybe even lead to a permanent rental – but don’t assume that a virtual office will be more impressive simply because it’s located within a law firm.
Google the address
Years ago, when I returned to a virtual office after having worked from home when my daughters were young, I signed up for one of the cheaper spaces. Over the next year, I frequently received phone calls for all kinds of shady, fly-by-night businesses that were using the same space. Apparently, callers trying to track these places down, would google the address and come up with my website (ah, the benefit of great SEO!). One colleague of mine who works at a federal enforcement agency was investigating a ne’er do well using my address – and actually called me to find out if somehow, I might be involved in the scam. Though you can’t tell what kind of reputation a virtual office may have, you can get a decent idea of the types of tenants by googling the address.
Terms of Lease
Many virtual offices run month to month, but you can often get a better deal by locking in for a slightly longer period. If you do – beware. Many virtual offices, Regus in particular, are notorious for burying onerous auto-renewal clauses in the leases (for example, providing that the lease will auto-renew for a year without 4 month advance notice of termination). Although it’s easy to be careless in reviewing terms of a short-term lease, you don’t want to skimp on your review of a virtual office contract.
Virtual offices can be a boon for attorneys – or they can be a big bust. These factors can help you find a space that works well for you.
Do you have any other tips about choosing virtual office space? Care to share your personal anecdotes – positive or negative. Please comment below.