Pros and cons of a virtual office from successful solos
Jayne Sykora graduated from law school during one of the worst legal job markets in 25 years. After spending several months unsuccessfully looking for employment, she teamed up with another new lawyer to open Sykora & Santini PLLP in Edina, Minn. Even with little money and experience, the two lawyers are doing well with a steady stream of business, only about a year after hanging their shingle.
Sykora tells the story of opening her firm in the April issue of The Young Lawyer, sharing that methodical, strategic and resourceful decision making was critical to achieving success, especially given their lack of resources. Among key decisions was securing an alternative to renting traditional office space.
“Our initial plan was to operate the business out of our homes,” Sykora recalls. “However, we quickly realized that working exclusively from our homes was probably not the best approach.” While an entirely home-based business was the affordable choice, Sykora and her partner realized that the option presented several limitations. They felt uncomfortable with clients knowing their home addresses, and wondered how they would coordinate phone lines between homes. They also lacked an appropriate place to meet clients, and worried that clients would not perceive them as legitimate without office space.
More law grads going solo
According to a recent article from MSNBC.com, the bad economy has prompted a growing number graduates to open their own law firms rather than take the more traditional employment route. “Many of these newly minted solo practitioners are succeeding by turning to digital media to hang their own virtual shingles,” says author Anika Anand.
As cited by Anand, the number of recent law graduates going solo increased from 3.5 percent in 2008 to 5.5 percent in 2009, the biggest one year jump since 1982. That percentage increased to 5.7 percent of all private practice jobs for the class of 2010, the highest it’s been since 1997.
Sykora and her partner resolved their concerns by opening a virtual office—a place available to them during the times they meet with clients. The business partners also receive phone calls and mail there, and can take advantage of on-site secretarial services. They still primarily work from home, but the virtual office is available as the public face of their firm.
“The number one advantage of a virtual office for us is a very low monthly cost,” explains Sykora. “For a couple hundred dollars a month, we have everything we need to run our firm.” Besides the cost advantage, another benefit is their month-to-month lease, which gives them the flexibility to make quick changes.
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Sykora notes some challenges, such as the limited availability of the office after-hours and on weekends. Also, “the virtual office is not ours. Although our conference room spaces are comfortable and have great staffs, it can feel as though we are guests because we are not in the office every day.”
Still, Sykora says they have been very satisfied with their decision to utilize a virtual office.
Expanding on the topic of virtual offices, Stephanie Kimbro—author of the ABA bestseller, Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online—offers more pros and cons of a virtual law practice in a post on ABA Publishing’s Book Briefs Blog.
Operating a virtual law practice since 2006, Kimbro shares her list below.
The benefits of operating a virtual law practice turn on what the practitioner hopes to accomplish with the practice. Some of the main benefits could include the following:
- Lower overhead;
- Eco-friendly, paperless, less office waste;
- Greater work/life balance and flexibility;
- Ability to expand client base across jurisdictions;
- Flexibility to transition between different phases in life and career to meet professional and personal needs;
- Capability of tapping into a broader market of consumers seeking legal services;
- Serving as an amenity for existing clients of a traditional law practice;
- Added security of hosted backups and other cost-effective benefits of using software as a service;
- Reduced malpractice risks through the use of technology to automate checks; and
- Ability to streamline administrative features of a law practice to permit the lawyer to focus on the actual "practice" of law.
Many of the risks in operating a virtual law practice are related to either security or ethics and malpractice concerns. Some of the risks that require consideration and mitigation before opening a virtual law office include the following:
- Security of the technology, including third-party control and storage of law office data;
- Retention and return of law office data;
- Competency of providing unbundled legal services; and
- Unauthorized practice of law in other jurisdictions.
The Young Lawyer is a publication of the Young Lawyers Division. Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online is published by the Law Practice Management Section.
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