General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo Newsletter
WINTER 1999 ISSUE
Ten Rules for Staying Sane and Professional at Home
By jennifer j. rose
Lawyers practicing from home offices used to conjure up images of part-timers, mothers, retirees and moonlighters, bit players seldom taken seriously by the profession. Today more lawyers than ever maintain their sole office just steps from where they sleep, and home offices and the lawyers who practice from them are finally getting respect.
A successful home office requires more than setting up a desk in that idle corner of the dining room. The freedom and relaxation of a home office comes with a set of ground rules that don’t apply in a conventional office setting. Gerry Spence might be able to work at home in his birthday suit, savoring Chinese take-out with a client over the kitchen table, but he’s reached the point where the rules no longer apply.
1. The legal stuff. The buzzwords of Section 280A of the Internal Revenue Code–exclusively, regularly, principal place of business, and ordinary course of business–take on a meaning beyond qualifying for a home office deduction. Pay attention to the zoning and licensing requirements of your neighborhood. And then there’s the matter of insurance. The general homeowner’s policy usually isn’t enough.
2. Location, location, location. Designate a specific area or room as “the office,” as far from the ebb and flow of family traffic as possible, ideally with a separate entrance or the shortest possible route from the front door. Set aside an area for a waiting room and maintain one nearby bathroom, preferably one not adorned by feminine hygiene products, for office use. Bearing in mind that many clients are not the kind of people you’d invite as guests into your home, maintain boundaries.
3. It’s an office, for God’s sake, not the TV room! Family photos, toys, and last month’s issue of Modern Skydiving have their place in an outside office, boding devotion to the office, but those non-essentials signal that the home-based practitioner has time to waste. Clean up that mess of an office. Any signals that could lead a client to suspect that the home office is something less than a place of business devalue the lawyer’s efforts.
4. Regularity means more than eating fiber. Routine is even more important to a home-based lawyer to assure accessibility to clients and others, to prevent the lawyer from working a round-the-clock shift, and to signal “all’s clear” to the rest of the inhabitants of the house.
5. It’s Never “Take a Child to Work Day.” Quell the patter of tiny footsteps, even if this means sending the cute little tykes off to daycare, harboring them in a soundproof backroom chaperoned by Barney or harnessing a teenager’s Marilyn Manson whines with industrial-strength headphones.
6. Look and act professional. It takes only one instance of genuine embarrassment at being caught in a Lantz nightgown mid-morning by a walk-in client to teach a home-based lawyer the importance of keeping office garb within arm’s reach.
7. Glade, Enya, and a white noise machine can go a long way. Domestic noises and smells have no place in the home office. That may mean finding a cleaning person who’s willing to work during your nonbusiness hours or when it’s a sure bet that you’ll be in court. Save those horseradish-grating and cabbage-boiling moments for the weekend.
8. Upgrade your image. Office Depot’s cheapest plywood veneer and letterhead etched on a laser printer may be fine for lawyers paying office rent, but home-based lawyers are wise to go the extra mile to exude a tad more style.
9. Privacy and confidentiality. Take extra steps to underscore the attorney-client relationship, assuring the client that file cabinets are locked, access to the office limited, and the household’s mitts are kept away from the computer.
10. Maintain the mindset. Separate work from home life, and underscore those distinctions with your clients.
Dr. Alex Stone, Donna Reed’s TV husband of the Sixties, was a pediatrician with a home office. Somehow I don’t remember him fretting about these rules.
jennifer j. rose is a lawyer-writer in Morelia, Mexico, where she often works at 3 a.m. in her bathrobe, reading her e-mail at email@example.com.