General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo Newsletter
WINTER 1999 ISSUE
Where to Put an Office in Your Home
By Warren R. EhnPrivacy Concerns: Meeting Clients in Your Home
In opening and maintaining a home office practice, “good boundaries make for good clients.” Here are some ideas:
• Marketing. Consider a permanent post office box number as your business address, and use it when marketing your practice (business cards, brochures, handouts). This preserves your privacy. If a client must know where you work/live, you can decide whether to tell them.
• Office considerations. If you have a house with a separate room and/or bathroom on one end, take advantage of it. Consider putting in a separate door which opens to an outside corridor or directly outdoors for the office entrance. Put in a separate phone line for business calls only. Keep family pictures, mementos facing you on main desk.
• Family/friends. Show your family that, while you may work in your house, your job demands will not intrude on private time together. Stick to your professional and personal boundaries, and have a good reason on the few times that you can’t. Instruct them on how to handle client calls (write it down!) should a client call your home number by mistake, having taught them not to answer your office phone at all. Finally, tell young children what to in the event of an emergency, how to call 911 or a trusted adult.
• Screening the client. Get as much information about the client, and the client’s problem, as you can over the phone. At a minimum, get both home and business addresses and phone numbers, and call back to verify them if you’re not sure. If the client is a business, check its background and history through the Internet and other public sources if time permits. Ask where (s)he got your name; if (s)he was referred by someone, call the referring source and ask for more information on the client and the problem. Above all, trust your instincts. If something about the client just isn’t right, don’t hesitate to decline the case or at least to take a more guarded approach.
• Alternate meeting places. A lunch meeting in a public place, such as a restaurant, coffee shop, or park, is a pleasant, acceptable way to ‘size up’ the client without intruding upon your home. Other places include a meeting room at the local library, city hall, or bank, or an extra/unused office at a friend or business acquaintance’s office. Don’t forget the possibility of meeting at the client’s office (during regular business hours), particularly if you are likely to need invoices, personal data, or other information that would otherwise require a second meeting. This can save both you and your client time and money — a fact you can point out in arranging the meeting.
• The initial interview. Spell out in writing what your business hours and procedures are, and have the client sign off on them. Stress that phone calls after business hours will be returned the next business day unless you make other arrangements in advance. In the event of a true emergency, consider giving the client a private beeper number with a private code identifying them as the caller, giving you discretion on whether to take the call, and warning them not to abuse the privilege. Tell them they should not, under any circumstances, come to your home office unannounced. Put in your signed contract that failure to obey these rules will result in denial of privileges, and ultimately in termination of your representation.
• Emergencies. Should the worst case happen, and you are threatened directly by a client, stay calm. Many home security systems have a ‘panic button’ that can be worn around the neck or placed in a drawer to set off an alarm and/or call the police. If you don’t have such a system, consider getting a panic button of your own installed by a licensed electrician. Put an auto dial on your business and personal telephones for the police department. Have a ‘code word’ with your family and friends, so that if you use the word, they will know you are acting under duress and will call the police immediately.
Your home office is your castle — but some castles are better located than others. After being sure that a home office is permitted in your area, a few minutes of planning will make for a better kingdom. Here are some things to consider.
Deed restrictions/local ordinances. Check your own deed restrictions to be sure that a business is allowed on your property. If you are in an apartment or townhome, check with the landlord/homeowner’s association. Don’t expect that your business will go unnoticed; if it takes off , the increased parking and foot traffic will be obvious to even the most reclusive neighbor. Next, check with your municipality. Many towns and cities prohibit or strictly regulate the types of businesses that can be run out of a private residence, and some require permits and charge other fees. If necessary, apply for a zoning variance, and be sure to budget these and other fees into your start-up costs.
Access. The ideal home office should take advantage of the home’s peculiarities. Many older homes are designed to split off into two separate living areas, or at least have a large room with bathroom facilities nearby located on one end of the house. These homes often have a separate entrance as well, and are easily separated from the living area with partitions and outside signage. If your house is not one of these, consider putting in a separate opening for your office entrance. Be sure that your parking area, sidewalks, paths, and office facilities comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Stay flexible. Before moving everything into your new office, try it out for a while, particularly if the room in question is a spare room that you haven’t used in some time. When I moved my office into a back bedroom of my own home, I belatedly found out that our southern-exposure home got quite warm from mid-afternoon to early evening during the summer and fall months, requiring a ceiling and/or floor fan to make it bearable. While my problem did not require a move, be sure your office is all you thought it would be before making expensive renovations.
Technical problems. With today’s increasingly ‘wired’ law offices, check the wiring in the proposed office to be sure it will hold the electrical load. I have a 486 Pentium computer, laser printer, fax/scanner/copier, and two answering machines in my office, all sometimes going at the same time, and I became concerned enough after seeing a couple of ‘brownouts’ in my overhead lights to have an electrician check the wiring to see that it would hold under the strain. I also had the phone jacks rewired (twice) in order to try and get the fax machine to recognize a distinctive ring (it never did). My back office wall may look like an electrical substation, but I don’t have to worry about a computer crash or a house fire — and you shouldn’t have to worry either. Check now and be safe.
Lifestyle. Sit down and figure out how your private life and your work space can co-exist. If you have a baby or young children, can you keep the baby in the office with you unobtrusively, or can you arrange to have the children’s play area nearby? Can you use a folding screen or other barrier that can be opened after office hours? Can you arrange for clients to take a particular entrance or follow a particular path to get to it when the kids are/aren’t in school?
Feedback. Ask both your clients and your family/friends for their reactions.
Warren R. Ehn is a sole practitioner living in Arlington, Texas. He reads his mail at email@example.com.