On Balance

Solo Lawyers: Where Is Your Office?

By | Mar.08.16 | Daily Dispatch, Ethics, Law Practice

On Balance

I work with a lot of solo lawyers, both in my client base (unfortunately, ethics cases arise more frequently in solo practice), and in my network of professional colleagues. My colleagues in the ethics defense bar are frequently solos, and I cultivate a network of other lone wolves to compensate for the fact that I do sit alone in my office much of the time and have no one to bounce ideas off of, commiserate with when things go wrong or celebrate with when things go right.

Being thus figuratively surrounded by solo lawyers, I’m always curious about where other lawyers work and why — partly because people set up shop for reasons I have never considered, and partly because it helps me better understand the solos I advise.

Here’s what I’ve learned when I ask about where a colleague works.

Traditional Law Office Space

Some solos work in a traditional single office space, with their name on the outside door, a waiting area, mahogany tables and a beautiful conference room. My own personal attorney has such an office, and it is enviable on many levels. It smacks of “real lawyer” when you walk in the door. He has pamphlets pertaining to important areas of personal business, such as handling your credit report, on his waiting area tables. He must really feel like he has arrived at work each morning when he unlocks the front door.

This office has definite advantages over others — space for staff to work, the ability to hire temporary staff (agencies will not send workers to home offices), the name recognition of having your name on the outside door, a place to meet clients, room to spread out and work, and the professionalism that comes from having an address that, when Googled, reveals a proper office building. From an ethics standpoint, this lawyer is in complete control of his space and his office, which is a good thing.

Still, such space does not solve one big problem plaguing solo lawyers: solitude. Unless you share your office with other lawyers, you are still practicing in a vacuum. Plus, it is pricey to set up, furnish and maintain.

Shared Law Office Space

The solitude issue plus cost considerations lead many solos to share office space. The beautiful conference room is expensive for the solo to furnish alone, especially it isn’t needed it every day. Shared space can provide access to conference rooms, electronic facilities, mail delivery, support services (depending on the arrangement) and colleagues to talk to — without breaking the bank. Older lawyers will sometimes refer to the great benefit of a shared library, but this is an outdated reason to share space. To the small extent we cannot get what we need online, county law libraries are frequently the answer for solos.

Certainly there are drawbacks to sharing space. Actual availability of the communal meeting space is one; the inability to control who is sharing the space with you is another. Unless you rent the space yourself and choose your suite mates, you may end up next door to a time-sucking Chatty Cathy, or your direct competition, or your sworn enemy. (This last one seems to be more of a problem in small communities.)

Also, the office building may or may not include your name on the door, so the degree of professional standing provided by the space can vary. There is also an ethical risk in sharing space. Generally, you are not responsible for the actions of someone who is only sharing space with you, even if they are also sharing some support services. The line can get blurry between lawyers in common space, though, and you could find yourself having to defend an investigation due to something done by a suite mate.

The Home Office

The very tempting home office is another common situation among solos. My favorite description from a class action plaintiffs’ lawyer was that her view may not be of high-rise office buildings, but she can litigate against the best of them from her desk with the view of her American flag waving in the backyard.

A home office has some obvious plusses. The commute is perfect; there are tax benefits available; it costs no additional rent; and when you need to get more work done, it’s right there at the ready.

The drawbacks depend in part on your practice. High-volume practices — for example, immigration — need support staff, paper file storage, and frequently used client meeting space. Also, lawyers with high-volume practices often buy advertising space in high-circulation publications with their office address printed; a home office address is best not so widely circulated, and it does not hold the professional appeal of a proper office address.

Practices prone to fewer, larger cases with fewer client meetings work much better out of home offices — practices such as appellate work and complex civil litigation. Also, some practices are better suited to telephone calls and fewer in-person meetings: practices with clients in other jurisdictions, for example, or where the clients are large corporations. Corporate clients appreciate the lawyer coming to them when meetings are needed, and expect a lot of phone communication rather than in-person interaction.

The usual drawbacks of working from home, of course, apply to lawyers as much as anyone. There are more distractions, so it’s easier to end up doing laundry than getting your work done. The ease with which you can always go back to work also makes it hard to separate from work, which can be stressful (on you and everyone else living in your household).

For lawyers getting started as solos, a home office can be a lifesaver that literally makes the difference between being able to strike out on their own or not. Many solos I’ve met who now practice in another environment began in home offices.

The Blended Office

Finally, there is what I call the “blended” office — some lawyers have an office away from home but frequently work from home in a properly equipped home office. This seems to be most common amongst lawyers for whom the drawbacks listed above for shared office space are real problems — such as chatty suite mates who drain the lawyer’s time and energy, or other frustrations within the shared space. For these lawyers, working from home whenever possible, particularly in space dedicated to work, balances the plusses and minuses of their options.

Office Is Where the Laptop Is

Wherever you set up shop as your primary office, there will be good and bad things about your space. In the end, our mobile profession is such that truly, the office is where you and our computer are today — even if that turns out to be an airport terminal or a coffee shop.

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of "The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide." In her law firm, Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing full and limited scope representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action, and providing guidance to practicing attorneys on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. In "On Balance," Megan writes about the issues confronting lawyers in the new world of practicing law. She blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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3 Responses to “Solo Lawyers: Where Is Your Office?”

  1. Jackl
    8 March 2016 at 9:17 am #

    You missed two home office hybrid workarounds: (1) shared coworking spaces, often with several nicely appointed conference rooms which are booked with an online scheduling tool, have a physical address, receptionists, telephone copier/printers, coffee room, and waiting areas and which may or may not include a small office if you need it, WILL display your name on the directory (mine uses a flat screen monitor) and avoids the “perception/liability” of practicing with other lawyers, and (2) the use of a physical address with both The UPS Store AND EVEN the USPS which is enough to convince Google and clients that you have a physical office.

    The coworking space I use is Class A office space at about 80% less than dilipidated Class C office space in older office buildings abound here (or old single family homes in my small city commonly used for law offices with a “shingle” out front).

  2. David Beitzel
    8 March 2016 at 9:25 am #

    When the weather is nice. My laptop and cell phone in my back courtyard.

  3. Matt Johnston
    8 March 2016 at 9:55 am #

    I suppose I am a mixed office kind of guy. I sometimes work from home (at most 2 days per week), but I find working from home I get distracted easily.

    I also use a coworking space three days a week which allows me to have all the office functionality I need, plus access to conference rooms space as well as access to a wide variety of experts who also use the space. There are computer tecs, social media experts, PR, people and other folks working there that give me the ability to ask questions and develop clients. Some of the coworking users have become clients and I have gotten referrals from others-all without explicitly seeking it.

    Usually about 2-3 days a month, my office is at my clients’ offices. I like to do site visits and often is it easier for the client, particularly when dealing with a variety of matters, from HR issues to landlord issues. Plus, I like seeing clients where they work..