There was great discussion on the fantastic Missouri Bar Small Firm Internet Group mailing list today chock full of advice to a lawyer who was considering starting her new practice from a home office.
Unfortunately, in my continuing saga of the power outages, cable TV outages (during tonight’s repeat of the episode of Monk that we apparently missed, for Chrissakes! You tell me what credit would adequately compensate my daughter and I for that!), customer support call horror stories and other glitches that have greeted my return to St. Louis, my contribution to the discussion was rejected repeated by a mailserver that refused to recognize my email address (OK, Mr. Wiseserver, how come you have no problem sending the emails to my addresses?) and claimed that I was attempting to send an attachment.
Well, I have other options. Here’s the mildly edited and disguised message to the list that originated the discussion:
“I am starting up a solo practice in estate planning and elder law and I have lots of questions. I have been pondering the idea of practicing out of my home, and traveling to my clients. I spoke with a few people at the conference who had had good experience with it, but I am not getting positive feedback from other attorneys in the town where I will be practicing. Opinions and/or advice anyone?”
Here’s my unedited response (that means that I’m sure that I must have intended any typos or other errors):
Let’s see. The other attorneys in your town see you as a likely competitor. You might want to factor that into your evaluation of the objectivity of their advice. By the way, part of this comes down to that old childhood philosophical question: if the other attorneys in your town all jumped off the Empire State Building, would you jump off too?
Seriously, though, all of the other positive encouragement you have received from members of this list is right on track, in my opinion. The world is changing and expectations are very different today than they were even a few years ago. To me, that means that the home office option is one that must be considered in every start-up practice, and probably will be a wise choice in most cases.
As far as estate planning clients, by 1998 when I left the estate planning department at The Stolar Partnership, it was already starting to be the exception when clients came into the office instead of us going to them. While there is a “downtown St. Louis” component to this issue, I can tell you that all of the biggest St. Louis firms now have offices in St. Louis County for the purpose of servicing estate planning clients. Requiring the “elderly” elder law clients to come to your office may not make sense in any number of cases.
I went from law offices on ten floors with 300 lawyers to working out of my house. If you made me pick one word to describe the experience, I would choose “liberating.” My clients are business and technology clients. Do they have an issue? Not at all. Some compliment on my business judgment on cutting overhead and everyone else appreciates my willlingness to make “house calls.” Most of my work is done via phone and email.
On the other hand, I think that the home office approach will work best when you can handle your work by relying on technology, temps or even “virtual legal secretaries.” Once you need full-time employees, it will be much harder. On the other hand, lawyers with leased offices may be willing to “lease” you secretarial hours, storage space, meeting rooms, reception services and the like on an outsourced, or pay-as-you-go basis. In one of the “projects I know that I’ll never get done so why do I kid myself” ideas that I have on my list is creating a web page or exchange where lawyers can offer and seek out these types of arrangements. I hereby donate that idea to anyone of the SFIG list who can put it together.
I believe that in the areas that you intend to practice (especially elder law), the willingness to “make house calls” or meet in a place convenient to your clients could be a “positive market distinguisher.” If you worked out an arrangement with a bank, for example, to use a conference room for meetings, you’d probably develop relationships and get new clients.
If clients have to come to your house (especially felony criminal clients – despite the presumption of innocence), or if you require more than a limited staff, working out of your house might create some problems, zoning or otherwise (consider access and disability issues for elderly clients).
As I tell people in my presentations, a solo practice is ultimately a cash-flow business. If you cut your expenses, you improve your chances to get into the black faster. Is your money more effectively spent on an office lease or on marketing or technology? I can adjust my marketing or tech budget in a poor month, but a lease payment comes due whether you have a good month or a bad month.
Those of us working from home are probably going to be taking over the world in a few years anyway, so climb on board the home office train. As they say, “People get ready, there’s a train a-coming, don’t need no fancy lease, just climb on board.”