You’ve chosen a practice area and engraved your shingle. Where to hang it? Depends on the kind of work you’re going to do–no one size fits all.
Once upon a time, setting up your own physical office was the only option. (I grew up in New Jersey, which until recently required every lawyer admitted to the bar to have a physical office in the state.) A physical office might be a storefront, a share with other solos, or a lease from a larger firm.
Having your own physical space has definite advantages. At a minimum, it’s separate from the rest of your life. An office may be more secure than home, have storage space, and meeting space. If you share space with other lawyers, you may also share paralegals and other staff for greater efficiency. Also, simply being around other lawyers creates opportunities for networking and referrals and easy access to a second opinion on a thorny legal issue.
Yet when I asked more experienced solos about what they would do differently in their first year, the response was overwhelming: spend less on office space. Physical office space costs money and time spent commuting. Until you have income, a physical office may not make financial sense.
If you frequently need meeting space or a secure location, a physical office is essential. If not, read on.
At other end of spectrum, the home office has evolved far from the fax-and-file cabinet days. Technology now allows us to do almost everything at home. You can communicate with clients and opposing counsel, share documents, send faxes, do research, and file most court papers from a home office. Indeed, with a desktop scanner, there’s little need for paper files or a file cabinet. The increasing popularity of web-based software offers an alternative to investing in (and maintaining) your own server and software.
Working from home has great advantages: it’s the lowest cost option and eliminates commuting time. You may be eligible for a home office deduction (consult your tax preparer). As working from home becomes more accepted across many fields, many once-common prejudices against home offices are starting to dissipate.
But of course there’s a downside. Without careful attention, working at home can be lonely and work-life balance can utterly disappear. You may find you need a safe place to meet clients and store materials (trial exhibits anyone?). You may not want upset clients (or their families) to know where you live. Your home may not be convenient to local courts. Lastly some lawyers and clients think a home office lacks the appearance of professionalism.
For certain practice areas, such as appellate work, freelance work, and estate planning, where client contact tends to be over the phone or at client’s home, a home office may be the most efficient and cost-effective option.
Virtual office space is an interesting hybrid option that has grown more sophisticated in recent years. Done right, it should offer some advantages of a physical office (professional address, meeting spaces, networking opportunities) at lower cost and lower commitment. Options range from open-plan coworking spaces aimed at a wide spectrum of professionals and entrepreneurs, to more traditional spaces like MoreLaw, which are tailored to solo and small firm lawyers.
A virtual office can be a great option for solos who are able to work productively at home, but don’t love the idea of meeting clients in their living room. Virtual spaces emphasize flexibility, can connect you with skilled administrative staff, and are great places to network with other professionals, so they can be especially helpful in the early stages of practice.
Experienced solos: how many of these options have you tried, and which have worked best for you? Which would you recommend to a new solo?