The Virtual Office

By Terri Bell

Terri Bell is director of virtual office operations for The Regus Group, the world’s largest provider of workplace solutions. She may be reached at . For more information about The Regus Group, visit www.regus.com.

For solo practices, the workplace of the future may look a lot different than it does today. Most solos will have more freedom to work wherever and however they choose, while still casting a professional image and using the high-powered business tools they need to stay competitive with larger firms.

For years, many one-person legal shops, and millions of other small businesses for that matter, have relied on technology that enables them to office from home and stay connected to clients and associates. But home offices come with inherent limitations, not the least of which is the inability to invite clients to visit the firm in person. Other small firms have struggled with the expenses and complexities of establishing traditional office space, such as negotiating lease terms, working with architects and construction staff on fitting out the space, purchasing furniture, and managing office staff and services—all of which distract them from the more important work of client service.

In response to these problems, a relatively new breed of workplace solutions has emerged to help bridge the office space divide between small players and mega-firms. “Virtual offices” combine the flexibility of working from anywhere with the credibility implied by well-appointed office space at a prestigious address. Home-based attorneys and even small legal firms that already have traditional office space are finding that virtual offices can help them extend their service footprint and grow their practices, whether across town or on the other side of the world.

The Challenge of Being Small

Traditionally, start-up firms have had two choices when deciding where to “hang their shingle”: Turn a spare bedroom at home into an office, or lease commercial office space. Unfortunately, neither option presents a particularly attractive business case.

With the technology revolution of the last 15 years, working from home has become a passable solution for some solos. The availability of high-speed networks at home, coupled with cell phones and portable e-mail devices, allows constant connectivity to clients and colleagues. But even with no morning commute and no dress code, home-based attorneys might find their office scenario more constraining than liberating, for a long list of reasons.

Children or pets may disrupt business calls or make a mess of the office. Avoiding the temptation to work at night (or flip on the TV during the day) may be too difficult. And a lack of professional-grade office equipment such as copiers and fax machines may hamper productivity. Perhaps most importantly, home-based attorneys don’t have the option to host clients for meetings or hold depositions in their offices. As a result, the absence of a professional office may cause clients and others to project a negative stigma of instability or inexperience on the attorney, however unwarranted.

Small firms that decide to open a traditional office face a different set of challenges. First, there’s the time and energy required to find a suitable office, negotiate the lease terms, endure the construction period, purchase furnishings and equipment, and hire office staff and services. While the attorney tends to these jobs, he or she isn’t able to devote complete attention to serving clients and accruing billable hours.

An additional challenge for solos and small firm attorneys is finding affordable office space that works within a limited budget, yet still conveys the sense of professionalism and success that clients demand for their fees. In many cases, solos can’t afford to lease luxurious office space in a central business district near their clients. Rather, they are forced to settle on out-of-the way, lackluster office space that might not instill confidence in visiting clients.

Thirdly, the start-up costs of furnishing and equipping a new office can be prohibitive. To get started, the attorney must pour a substantial amount of capital into outfitting the office with technology infrastructure, office furniture, filing cabinets, signage, artwork, a conference table, computers, telephones, and a copier and fax machine, all of which eat into profits. The same problem beleaguers small but established firms that wish to open a second office in a new market but can’t bear the start-up costs before having the assurance of a steady client base in the new area.

Finally, attorneys must consider the risks associated with signing a long-term lease. Commercial real estate contracts typically dictate that the tenant must either complete the duration of the lease or pay a substantial penalty for vacating early. Few start-up firms can guarantee their future success, and having to pay early termination fees if the venture fails only makes the financial fallout worse. On the other side of the coin, firms that do well may be inclined to take out larger, higher-quality office space after a short time. But if they have signed a long-term lease in their first office, they remain tied to an environment that does not reflect their success.

For years, these challenges have made solos wring their hands in frustration. Many are surprised to find that there is another way.

The Best of Both Worlds

A virtual office can be a powerful tool for solos and small firm practitioners who want to limit their start-up costs and establish themselves alongside larger competitors. For a fraction of the cost required to set up and maintain a full-time office, attorneys can use virtual offices to create a more professional image, enhance productivity, and offer service in new markets.

It’s first important to clarify exactly what a virtual office is in this case, and what it isn’t. The term “virtual” is often associated with web-based applications and a complete lack of a brick-and-mortar presence. In fact, many solo attorneys conduct much of their business online and refer to their websites as “virtual law offices.” But for the purposes of this article, virtual offices are actually based in the very tangible world of high-end commercial real estate.

Essentially, a virtual office acts as an extension of the attorney’s physical presence.

To set up a virtual office, you work with an outsourced office provider to establish a mailing address and local phone number at a location of your preference. While you continue to work at home or at your current office, an assistant at the “virtual” location answers incoming calls in the firm’s name and receives and forwards mail and faxes.

It’s a strategy attorneys can use to meet a number of objectives. First, a virtual office can give you a prestigious business address and local phone number, which can make a positive impression on potential clients and business associates. For example, The Regus Group, the world’s largest provider of workplace solutions, boasts a network of more than 950 business centers in 400 cities worldwide. All of the business centers are located in first-class office buildings in key business districts, and you could establish a virtual office at any of them. So, imagine a client looking in the phone book to find your address in New York’s Rockefeller Center and with a Manhattan area code—more impressive than your apartment number in the suburbs.

Beyond sheer image improvement, a virtual office can also enable more direct business benefits. Attorneys who have an address in the same area or city as their customers may have an advantage over cross-town or out-of-town competitors. If you’re targeting clients in San Francisco’s financial district, for example, your business card reading Montgomery Street is likely to draw more calls than if you were across the Bay Bridge in Oakland.

By that same rationale, virtual offices can be used as a tool to enter new markets. Some companies require that contractors be based in the same city in order to bid on new business projects. With a virtual office, an attorney could establish a local address in another city and make the commute when personal introductions and meetings are necessary.

Although these benefits of virtual offices do offer value on their own, shrewd attorneys would naturally be inclined to ask: What happens when your customer asks to visit that office in Rockefeller Center or downtown San Francisco? To answer that need, some providers such as Regus offer virtual office clients the use of day offices or meeting rooms at the “virtual” location for a set number of days every month. These business centers are full-service facilities with fully furnished private offices, meeting rooms, videoconferencing facilities, and administrative and other services.

Using this model, attorneys can host clients and other meetings in an elegant and professional setting, or even use the virtual office location as a drop-off point to receive documents.

Combining a virtual presence with fully furnished and equipped office space in a premier setting, virtual office users have millions of dollars of infrastructure supporting them, for as little as $150 a month.

On the Edge of Technology

The past decade has brought sweeping technological advancements that allow law firms to operate more efficiently and provide even stronger client service. Unfortunately, much of this technology only serves to broaden the gap between budget-minded small firms and the largest outfits with seemingly inexhaustible resources. Virtual office solutions may help to level the technology playing field here, as well.

At-home attorneys and other small firms typically can’t afford state-of-the-art equipment such as videoconferencing or high-powered copiers. But when a virtual office also allows them to access fully equipped business centers, these same micro-firms may even find themselves at an advantage over their deep-pocketed counterparts.

For example, Regus business centers offer all of the equipment and services you’d expect to find in a major company office: the latest copiers, scanners, fax machines, high-speed Internet access, and advanced telecommunications services, all of which is supported by an on-site IT team. Furthermore, most of the centers also offer videoconferencing studios that can be booked by the hour, allowing even single attorneys to hold face-to-face meetings or depositions with far-off clients or associates.

The flexibility of the virtual office with the option to access real-world, high-quality space and amenities opens a new realm of possibilities for attorneys seeking to grow their businesses. With no long-term contracts and few overhead expenses, small firms can be more agile in the marketplace and more responsive to their clients’ needs. Free from the high costs and constraints of traditional real estate, the virtual office may be the solo attorney’s ticket to tangible, bottom-line results.

Copyright 2007

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