GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2004
For Better or for Worse Is Working with Family a Good Idea?
“H ow can you stand to be around each other for 24 hours each day?” That seems to be the first question from everyone who finds out we both work and live together. For us, it is easy. But the question of whether to practice with a spouse or family member requires analyzing not only your professional but also your personal relationship.
First, let us tell you about our circumstances. We met in law school and began to date our third year. As our relationship developed, so did our desire to “go solo” as attorneys. I (Deborah) practice mostly bankruptcy and family law, with business set-ups as a third area of concentration. Frank practices primarily immigration law, along with some bankruptcy and family law. While we are in the same office suite and share overhead expenses, we each have our own clients and manage our practices separately. We have always operated as two distinct and separate practices.
It’s great to have a sounding board. If one of us is stuck analyzing a problem, we can discuss the fact pattern together. In developing a case or a theory, we can brainstorm. As our backgrounds are very different, we bring unique perspectives to bear. I approach a case by starting at the beginning and working forward. Frank prefers to start where he’d like to end up and then work his way back to the start—reverse engineering, if you will. Often, we also play devil’s advocate, preparing each other for what the adversary might bring to the table.
We’re each other’s support staff. If a deadline is approaching, either of us can step in as the other’s “paralegal,” inputting information, organizing and labeling files, handling client calls, making copies, etc. The temporary paralegal understands what needs to be done, so less time is wasted explaining it all. And the attorney under stress can be confident that things will be done correctly, so his or her energy can be expended more productively.
Safety is a priority. If one of us has to work late at the office or has a case involving a person who seems potentially unpredictable or unsafe (especially in a divorce or custody dispute), asking each other to be at the office is no imposition. On the other hand, asking unrelated co-workers to stay can make you feel as if you’re imposing on their personal time. You’re less likely to ask them to stay, and that hesitation could lead to an unsafe situation.
Shoptalk is welcome. A non-attorney spouse may find shoptalk uninteresting, or the legal minutiae incomprehensible. But when we read about a U.S. Supreme Court case or see a topic on the news, we really enjoy debating different sides of the legal argument over dinner. Try that with someone not in the profession. We are able to discuss theories, whether they deal with a specific case or not, work through abstract thoughts, or even focus only on style or management issues—whatever pops into our heads.
We moderate each other. Frank might review and revise a piece of work all night to get it just right, if left alone. That might not be what he needs at that point. I can say it’s time to let it go, without feeling any resentment coming back at me. I might obsess over a deposition I’m taking the next day, and Frank will get me to relax and get a good night’s sleep. We can offer constructive criticism at a level that might make an unrelated law partner or staff member uncomfortable.
We remind each other what needs to be done. Ever forget one of those pesky recurring annual dates, such as renewing your business license or bar membership, paying dreaded quarterly taxes, or filing a continuing legal education affidavit? If one of us has to do it, so does the other. Thank goodness for reminding each other. Knowing there’s another person covering your back takes a measure of stress out of managing your office.
Backup, backup, backup! When Frank has got a hearing in two different cities at the same time, it’s easy for him to find someone he trusts to cover for him. When my mother recently became seriously ill 1,000 miles away, I was able to drop everything and leave after a brief rundown of what I had pending. Instead of rescheduling all my hearings and office appointments, we were able to coordinate. Some matters were reset by Frank, but others he attended. I did not have to find someone on short notice or impose on someone else. I could also call late at night to get caught up on what was happening at work. Don’t try that with a hired secretary.
We better manage personal time together. If it looks like we have no hearings in two weeks and can clear our desks, we can slip away for a long weekend or short vacation with little notice. Several shorter, more frequent vacations really refresh not only our business, but also our personal relationship—even if it is just playing “hooky” for the day at a Braves baseball game. We feel more in control of our lives, instead of feeling that clients and our practice control us. We don’t feel the resentment that could adversely color our relationship. Striking the balance between work and personal time is important. Having your better half understand time constraints and why they occur can prevent friction in your personal relationship.
Conflicting styles can cause problems. Frank is a reluctant bookkeeper; I balance every month to the penny. He is much more precise with his timekeeping, knowing where all his time is devoted in a case, whereas I do a lot more that I prefer not to charge my clients, so I don’t track. If we were in a partnership, I think we would kill each other because of the style differences. However, being separate yet together, we can have our own ways of doing things without directly impacting the other’s practice. Such freedom is part of why so many of us are solos anyway. Just because you work with family does not mean there won’t be differences in style or goals. Are these differences ones you can appreciate and work with?
Too much togetherness is not a good thing. By having some outside interests and hobbies we don’t share, we avoid getting on each other’s nerves. Having different areas of practice helps, too. When we feel like we are right on top of each other, we seem naturally to vary our hours away from each other, decide not to commute together, and get a bit more time alone. It’s not avoidance in a negative way, just an implicit understanding of what needs to be done.
Sometimes the office never seems to close. There’s always work to be done: client cases, marketing, administrative work. It seems there aren’t enough hours in a day. We find ourselves talking law too much, especially when we’re under pressure. All these things can act as a wedge. We have solved this problem by sharing hobbies that are totally unrelated to our profession. Whenever we get too caught up in the practice of law, we make a pact not to talk shop for the rest of the day. Although we recognize, as solos, that we can never let ourselves stray too far from the office, either physically or mentally, at the same time we know that we need to stay fresh and energized.
Clients think we’re each other’s secretaries. Everyone has clients who, given half a chance, will abuse the staff—or whomever they mistakenly believe to be the staff. Such abuse is unacceptable under any circumstance, but for us the resulting resentments could hurt our personal relationship. When one of Frank’s clients puts me through the ringer, I certainly have vented at Frank, even though I know it’s not his fault. It’s unavoidable that such abuse will occur. Both of us have to be prepared for it, act professional in the client’s presence, and not make it personal.
Questions to Consider
Who’s the boss, and can you deal with that arrangement? We know several couples who’ve set up an office in which he’s the attorney and she’s the support staff. While she has input, he’s got the last say. It works for them, but not all relationships can handle one person giving orders to the other. This situation will affect the dynamic between the family members outside the office. If it proves unworkable, hiring unrelated staff might be the better option.
Do your styles work together? If one of you is a slob and the other is obsessively neat, overcoming the resulting conflicts at home and at the office might just be too much. Is one of you a morning person, and the other a night owl? Will having overlapping office hours be an asset or a hindrance? Will the loss of time together at home create a problem?
How do you handle money in the firm? Money management is the root cause of most divorce. How much worse would it be if you also had to deal with different approaches to handling business funds? And will all money earned in a partnership be “ours,” or will each person have a draw? How will that draw be determined?
Sure, there are challenges to working together. But the advantages for us have far outweighed the disadvantages. We have only become closer by spending so much time together. We certainly seem to be more in sync than other couples, since we have so much shared history. We believe the secret to successfully working together is finding that elusive balance between office and home. The fact that we both have a strong sense of humor has made working together that much easier. As a matter of fact, we are considering bringing Frank’s retired mother in as a receptionist. But that is a whole other set of pluses and minuses. . . .
Deborah J. Torras and Frank E. Martínez are sole practitioners who share an office suite in Atlanta, Georgia. She can be reached at 770/541-1050. He can be reached at email@example.com.