General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionBest of ABA Sections
Law Student Division
Happiness Is the Home Office
Jane Easter Bahls
Home-based legal practice is growing rapidly, as are all home-based businesses. In the legal profession, big-firm downsizing has played a major role in sending good lawyers home. While no figures are available on the number of home law offices, the National Association of Home-Based Businesses, a trade and training organization, says that there has been an increase in the last two years. While many of those starting home-based practices have years of experience to draw on, brand-new lawyers, disappointed in their job searches, also find a niche at home by catering to small businesses.
Today’s technology makes it far easier to conduct a professional legal practice from home. Such technology includes sophisticated word processing and printers, computerized legal research, and billing software. With computerized research, CD-ROM services, a laptop computer, and a modem, many lawyers can operate just as well from home—without the hassles and expenses of overhead and daily commuting.
For some lawyers, working at home is a way to cope with family issues and changing lifestyles, such as those brought about by the birth of a child. For others, working at home is a lifestyle choice that has nothing to do with family: they may start practicing part-time before retiring from a career in another profession.
Home-based practice isn’t for every lawyer, every client, or every type of case. Many lawyers like the stimulation of working on a team. Large, complex cases often require a law firm setting, with support staff, just to handle the paperwork. When the home practitioner starts getting buried with depositions or getting into high-stakes litigation, that’s when the case needs a law firm.
Certain types of practice are more suited to the home than others. For example, many women will not practice criminal law out of their homes. Specialties in small businesses, community development, domestic relations, probate, or educational law are generally well adapted to meeting clients in the home. Other lawyers will find that a loose affiliation with an established firm, involving two or three days a week in the firm’s office, with the remainder of the work week spent in the home office, will best suit their needs.
Every home-based lawyer faces the problem of support staff. A host of independent support people—secretaries, investigators, paralegals, filing clerks—may need to be assembled and called upon. However, the lawyer must keep a tight rein on subcontractors to preserve quality and confidentiality.
Home-based lawyers either have to let clients into their homes or find someplace else to meet them. This raises the issues of security, household dynamics, and image. To provide an extra measure of security, some home-based lawyers do not list their addresses next to their business phone numbers in the telephone book. Working at home does pose image issues for both lawyers and their clients. While casual dress may be acceptable to some clients, others believe it indicates a lack of professionalism that does not justify the fees charged. And some home-based lawyers prefer to avoid meeting clients at home, particularly if there is no separate office entrance.
For many lawyers, happiness in a home office depends on their vision of home and work. The home is usually seen as a place of nurture and refuge, while the workplace is essentially perceived as a place of productivity and performance. Moving an office into a home brings these two zones together and potentially into conflict. The home-based lawyer must take care to ensure that each area is preserved or enhanced, not diminished, by the presence of the other. While physical differentiation of the space to structure a work zone within the home is one important way to accomplish this goal, the biggest task is psychological.
Before launching a home-based legal practice, here are a few things to consider:
Professional experience. Lawyers just out of school should probably practice with more experienced lawyers for a few years before going it alone.
Professional contacts. A network of contacts from previous jobs is better than a big phone directory ad.
Space. A home office must have adequate space for a working office, client meetings, and storage. Kids must be kept away from the computer and case files.
Computer literacy. A home-based practitioner must be able to create and edit documents without assistance, conduct legal research online or on CD-ROM, and manage a modem for easy transfer of documents so materials don’t always have to be printed and faxed.
Start-up capital. Although it costs less to set up an office at home than in rented space, furniture, filing cabinets, supplies, and equipment are necessary. Basic equipment includes a computer, research software, word processing and billing, a business phone line with voice mail, a copier, and a fax machine.
Support services. Home practitioners must consider who will handle the secretarial needs, filing work, and investigative requirements.
Child care. If small children are at home, either a full-time babysitter in the home or at least a couple of days of child care a week are necessary. Working very late at night or very early in the morning are additional options, although not for everyone.
Legal research. Home-based lawyers don’t have big law firm libraries down the hall. They must determine what type of research is necessary for their areas of practice, whether an online service is affordable, whether the necessary information is available on CD-ROM, and whether a law library is close enough to use.
Schedule. Home-based practitioners need to assess how many hours a week they hope to work, and how many of those are billable.
Isolation. Some lawyers can work happily without other lawyers around to discuss ideas; others can’t. Regardless, everyone needs to maintain the professional contacts that are vital to a successful practice. Good places to do this are through bar association committees, part-time lawyers’ networks, and other professional associations.
Billing. Often home-based lawyers charge less than others with similar experience and qualifications because of lower overhead. Billing and collection procedures must be considered. Some home-based lawyers reduce the hassle of bill collection by asking for retainers up front.
Image. The way you appoint and furnish your office, manage your practice, and dress for clients will demonstrate your professionalism.
Jane Easter Bahls is a free-lance writer in Bexley, Ohio, who writes frequently for Student Lawyer .
This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared in Student Lawyer, November. 1996 (25:3).