The Virtual Truth: Seven Factors to Consider Before Opening a Virtual Law Practice

Vol. 3, No. 4

Stacey L. Romberg is a Seattle attorney focusing on business law, estate planning and probate. For further information, please see Stacey’s website at www.staceyromberg.com.

 

  • A virtual law practice works best for what sort of person?
  • How can I make sure that my virtual law office saves me money?

 

As I write this, I am sitting in my virtual law office—more specifically, a spare bedroom in my townhouse that has been converted into an office. My attire, admittedly, is quite casual: black running tights paired with a T-shirt. Tonight, I’m attending the annual Washington Women Lawyers dinner in downtown Seattle.  I’ll need to change clothes at some point, but for now I’m quite comfortable. My cat, Roger, snoozes contentedly downstairs on the sofa. The tea kettle simmers in the kitchen. And, consistent with the stereotype of a home office, the washing machine spins away while I work.

I opened my virtual law firm in 1999 after an eclectic first decade of legal work, which included five years in Washington, DC, writing legislation for the US Senate and working as a registered foreign lobbyist, and then a move to Seattle to work both in private practice and as a pro-tem magistrate. 

When I started my solo practice, a woman operating a law firm out of her home conjured up images of someone fitting in a few hours of work before picking up the kids at school and driving them to soccer practice. Some attorneys assumed, and a few verbalized, that my practice was not “serious” and that a home-based law practice could never survive on a long-term basis.

In reality, a home-based law office is often a smart option for lawyers starting a solo or small-firm practice, or changing the physical environment of their existing practice. Far from lacking in seriousness, a virtual practice can be cutting edge, technologically savvy, environmentally conscious, and profitable. If you are contemplating the merits and drawbacks of a virtual office, you should consider the following.

 

Factor 1: Legal Requirements

Are there any legal constraints regarding home-based businesses that might impact your decision? To ensure that your business model is in compliance, it’s important that you check all state and local legal requirements. For example, the City of Seattle imposes various restrictions on home-based businesses in order to reduce the impact of commercial activity within residential neighborhoods, such as limiting business deliveries to one per day on weekdays. Make sure you feel comfortable with any restrictions before you proceed.

 

Factor 2: Home Environment

I do not have children, and I live in a quiet neighborhood. My home offers sufficient space so that my office is set apart and completely dedicated to my law firm. When guests come, I don’t have to clean out my office so it can be used as a spare bedroom. If your home environment is noisy, disruptive, or does not have the capacity for you to permanently and consistently dedicate a specific room as office space, operating a successful virtual law practice becomes much more problematic.

 

Factor 3: Practice Areas

My practice focuses on business law, estate planning, and probate. Other than the occasional probate hearing, my firm does not handle litigation. A transactional practice lends itself to a virtual environment more readily than a litigation practice, due to the practicalities involved in serving and receiving pleadings, conducting discovery, etc.

 

Factor 4: Staffing

My primary office consists of an office administrator/legal assistant, an of counsel attorney, and a paralegal. Our team has worked together on a long-term basis, always out of our individual home offices. The larger your team is, the more difficulties you’ll face in implementing a virtual office structure, due in part to your inability to physically monitor the work being performed.

 

Factor 5: Costs

I rent a $35-per-hour conference room in an office suite filled with lawyers, located less than a mile from my home. Additionally, for $28 per month I rent a nearby private mail box so that my home address is not associated with my law firm, and delivery of office supplies and documents is convenient. In 2012, my average monthly cost for the conference room and mailbox combined came to $160—undoubtedly, a tremendous savings over typical office rent! However, you’ll need to budget for additional technology costs to run a virtual firm effectively.

 

Factor 6: Time

I create significant time savings for my virtual law firm by avoiding a daily commute, office chit chat, and the need to dress up on the days without meetings. However, my set up also requires some tasks that a brick-and-mortar lawyer would not face, including the need to drive to my conference room and private mailbox, additional organizational time, and time spent communicating with staff by telephone, email, and instant messaging as opposed to the efficiency of direct in-person communication. In deciding whether to choose a virtual model, consider which aspects of your practice will be time savers and which will be time consumers. For example, if you are driving back and forth five times every day to a conference room to meet with your clients, your virtual law firm will cost time rather than save it. If you are communicating daily with 10 staff members rather than three, again, the virtual office may not save time.

 

Factor 7: Personal Priorities

This tops my list of factors to consider when contemplating a virtual practice. As a former college tennis player and a lifelong athlete, I currently work out six days a week. My fitness program, although time consuming, creates a foundation for my life. Having a home-based office allows for the extra flexibility I need to meet my fitness goals. As an additional component to my law practice, I speak frequently to groups, teach continuing legal education courses, and publish articles. Additionally, I serve on the Board of Directors of the nonprofit organization Tennis Outreach Programs. My days tend to be jam-packed and time pressured. I appreciate every bit of time saved and flexibility achieved with my virtual structure, and I put it to good use! Spending time commuting or in office chatter would seem unproductive and frustrating to me. And despite my outside activities, I’m an introvert at heart. I love being at home, enjoying the calmness of being around pets during the day, and the luxury of concentrating on work without continuous interruptions.

Not everyone is wired to work virtually. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you enjoy daily personal interactions with colleagues, or do you often shut the door to your office, hoping to have quiet uninterrupted work time? If you were to work at home, would you consistently be able to stop working, shut the office door, and relax when it’s time for your workday to conclude? What are your personal aspirations outside of work? Would a virtual model help you achieve these goals? Take an honest look at yourself, and visualize how your life might change—for better and for worse—if you were to have a home office.

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