GPSOLO January/February 2009
Do You Really Need a Big Office?
It’s a bright, sunny morning in April when I pull into my parking space in front of my spacious office. I walk through the waiting room, greet my paralegal in her office and mosey on into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I take my coffee into my wood-paneled office and sit down in my leather executive chair behind my polished mahogany desk. Ah, success! The sweet smell of it begins to dissipate as I begin to sift through the stack of telephone calls I didn’t get the chance to return yesterday despite the fact I was at work until 8:00 pm. After an hour of returning calls I pick up the mail. Telephone bill. Yellow Pages bill. Department of Revenue bill. Department of Labor bill. Internet bill. Rent bill. Health insurance bill for my paralegal. Oh, yes, and today is my para- legal’s payday. Before my coffee is cold I have written several thousand dollars’ worth of checks, and not one of them has my name on it. Suddenly it occurs to me: I am a sole practitioner, yet I am working for everyone except myself.
Legal professionals and laypeople alike have come to view a big, well-appointed office with a bustling staff as the quintessential symbol of a lawyer’s success. The irony is that many solos and members of small firms who have shied away from the larger firms because of the Herculean hours necessary to pay for custom-built buildings at tony addresses find themselves putting in the same number of hours—if not more—paying for similar frills themselves.
Is a large office with a staff and a full-page ad in the telephone book really essential to a lawyer’s success? Clearly, the answer depends on the definition of success. If, like many solos and members of small firms, the definition of success is being able to practice law, pay the bills, and have family members who remember what one looks like, the answer is a resounding no.
Office Space: Bigger Is Not Always Better
Is a potential client influenced by the size and location of the lawyer’s office? Certainly, but the relationship between a large office and a lawyer’s client base is more indirect than one would think. After more than ten years of practice, I have yet to hear about a potential client failing to retain a lawyer based solely on the size of his or her office; rather, the most common refrain from clients that leave a large, plush office without hiring the lawyer is that they could not afford the fee the lawyer quoted. If a lawyer must quote higher-than-average rates as a result of needing to meet the overhead a large office requires, then that lawyer will lose business.
Although a client may subconsciously take the size and condition of a lawyer’s office into account when making the decision whether or not to retain that lawyer, clients tend to base their final decision on the “fit” between the lawyer and the client and not whether the staircase is carpeted or marble. By “fit” I mean whether the client feels the lawyer has adequately answered all questions and provided good solutions, whether the client feels comfortable with the lawyer, and, yes, whether the client can afford the retainer. I have fielded my share of telephone calls from disaffected clients of lawyers who had large, plush offices who were looking for new counsel because the clients felt that Big Office Attorney did not return their calls in a timely fashion.
My research may be anecdotal, but year after year ethics committees and bar associations nationwide find that the most common attorney complaint is not the quality of a lawyer’s work, but a lawyer’s lack of responsiveness and lack of communication with the client. Big Office Syndrome more often than not becomes a vicious cycle. The lawyer rents a big office and hires an expensive staff in order to create an image designed to lure clients. Unfortunately, the lawyer must then take on more work than he or she can handle in an effort to cover the bills and winds up losing clients because he or she is too busy treading water to return telephone calls. And if a lawyer is too busy to return telephone calls, then most likely that lawyer will not have the work-life balance that is necessary to avoid a flaming burnout.
So how much office does one really need to maintain a professional image yet keep a handle on expenses? Is it possible to work from home and still maintain that professional image? How does a lawyer create the impression of a large office without the astronomical overhead and reap the benefits of a full-service office without hiring the full-time staff? The advancement of affordable, usable technology and availability of reasonably priced office solutions makes it possible to dramatically cut overhead, thus allowing a lawyer to make more money and work fewer hours than ever before.
A Complete Office for Every Work Style
The arguments for and against a home office exceed the capacity of this article; the bottom line is that whether it is a workable solution depends on an individual’s personal habits. I admire people who are able to get up, get dressed, have coffee, and retreat to a home office where they ignore the dirty laundry, the television set, and the neighbor’s kids screaming next door and put in a productive eight-hour day before emerging for dinner. I am not one of them. As I write this article, I realize that it has taken me almost an hour to write two paragraphs because I have answered the phone three times, gotten up for a snack, and flipped between CNN and Headline News more often than the politicians I am watching change their socks. Being brutally honest about your work habits is the first step toward addressing professional and personal needs. But regardless of your work style, there is an office solution available that will convey success to the client without breaking the bank.
As the nine-to-five work week inside a brick-and-mortar office becomes the exception rather than the rule, the availability of different office opportunities has boomed. The traditional, free-standing office with the big sign is alluring, but it is the most pricy of the options available. Rent for standard office space is likewise expensive and rarely includes things such as Internet access, telephone lines, or someone to answer them. Office suites, on the other hand, are generally full-service packages that give a thrifty lawyer the impressive frills of an expensive office at a fraction of the price.
The biggest benefit of an office suite over a stand-alone building or standard office space is that it is possible to personalize the services paid for. For the lawyer who has the ability to work from home but not the desire to place the family address on a business card, many office suites offer a virtual office package. A virtual office provides a lawyer with the benefits of an office outside the home without the usually hefty price tag. Such arrangements provide a lawyer with a brick-and-mortar address for mailing and meeting purposes—usually at a well-known and easily accessible location—for a nominal fee. The buildings have well-appointed waiting areas for clients, a live receptionist to answer an individual telephone number during business hours, and call forwarding, a fax number, the use of a conference room for a preset number of hours each month, and the ability to utilize secretarial services at a reasonable rate. Many office suites also offer the use of a fully furnished office on an appointment basis for a small additional fee. Most office suite packages are also flexible regarding the number of hours of conference room time and the level of secretarial work provided so a lawyer doesn’t have to pay for more than he or she needs. A brief Google search revealed that such arrangements are available at respectable addresses even in New York City and Los Angeles for as little as $300 per month. Because the common areas—and the expenses associated with them—are shared by all who use a particular location, the impression of such arrangements on the client will greatly exceed its overall price tag.
For the lawyer without the willpower to avoid the lure of the couch and television remote during office hours, these same office suites also offer more traditional packages that include offices in a variety of sizes. The cost of such packages naturally depends on the square footage and location of the office desired. For example, an office on the outer perimeter of a building or the coveted “corner office” will command a larger monthly rate than an inner office without windows. A telephone line, a personal fax line, and high-speed Internet access are included in the rent. As the name suggests, an office suite includes many individuals and small companies, so the networking possibilities are endless.
But What about My Files?
The space client files demand escalates the longer a lawyer practices. In litigation- intensive practices, a single case can grow to fill many bankers’ boxes; however, the affordability of quality computer equipment and software makes it possible to downsize even the most paper-intensive practices with little or no visible impact on the client. A lawyer can substantially reduce the amount of physical space necessary to house both current and closed files simply by scanning them onto either a hard drive or a disk. Clients will appreciate the ability to choose between hard copies of documents or a scanned copy, and the ability to exchange bulky file cabinets for a sleek DVD tower will save money on storage space. The ability to advertise a “green” office will also appeal to potential clients and possibly even lure new ones.
The other practical benefit of scanning all the paper in a file is that search functions allow a practitioner to find any given document, word, or sentence in a matter of seconds. Gone are the days of spending billable hour after billable hour riffling through folders and boxes and transcripts looking for a particular item—now all that is necessary is a word or a phrase typed into the computer and the search engine does the rest. Although it does take time to scan the documents, this task can be easily and inexpensively farmed out to a first-year law student, college student, or even an eager high school student on an hourly basis.
Talk about advertising and the first thing that comes to mind is a glossy, full-page ad in the telephone book or a deep voice asking, “Have you been injured?” in between the daily talk shows. These obvious forms of advertising tend to be extremely expensive and are not guaranteed to generate the business a lawyer is looking for. The type of advertising a lawyer requires to generate business is very geographic- and specialty-specific. For example, a lawyer who practices family law or criminal defense may have more success with an ad in the telephone book than a lawyer who practices business law or entertainment law, where clients tend to contact a lawyer based on referrals or personal knowledge. Telephone book and television advertising may also generate more revenue more quickly in a big city than a small town or rural area, where name recognition is more easily attained. If one wants to advertise in a local telephone book, a smaller ad may actually generate more business than a full-page ad. After more than a year of unscientifically polling each and every person who responded to my mid-sized telephone book ad, the most common refrain was; “I jut skipped over the full-page attorneys’ ads because I was sure I couldn’t afford them.”
Although telephone book and television ads will generate business, most successful lawyers do not solely rely on them; lawyers who enjoy long-term success build their practice gradually through networking and providing quality services along with a stack of business cards. Jay Foonberg’s books How to Get and Keep Good Clients and How to Start and Build a Law Practice are absolutely indispensable tools for hungry lawyers looking for practical, inexpensive, and creative alternatives to standard advertising.
Less Is More
Solos and members of small firms face innumerable challenges in today’s legal market; exorbitant overhead does not have to be one of them. The advancement of affordable and usable technology as well as a fundamental change in the way that people do business allow a savvy lawyer to create a Big Office atmosphere that doesn’t require a Big Office budget. The net result is that now more than ever it is possible to make more money by working less.
Miriam Rittmaster practices family and criminal law in Overland Park, Kansas. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.