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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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