Forging Ahead: A Young Lawyer’s Continuing Experiences in Developing a Solo Law Practice
(Part Three of a Series)
By Brian Annino
"The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time."
This is the third installment in my series of articles based on my experiences in starting and building my law practice. In this series, I outline lessons I have learned and provide opinions and ideas to help you in starting your own law practice or analyzing your current practice.
My first article, “Hanging the Shingle,” discusses selecting the right time to open your own law practice, the central role of budgeting, and the importance of networking in the real and virtual worlds. My second article, “Extending the Reach,” continues the discussion on networking and provides strategies and tips that I have utilized in growing my law practice.
In this article, I write about the important considerations involved in selecting your law office. Future articles will continue to discuss additional ideas, opinions, and lessons learned from my own practice. As always, please feel free to reach out to me and let me know your comments, ideas, and experiences. I greatly enjoy receiving your comments generated from my previous articles and welcome the opportunity to speak with other attorneys about the joys and challenges of solo and small firm practice.
My grandfather was a big believer in having the “right tools for the job.” Building on this belief, I am a strong proponent of having the “right office for the job.” This does not mean that you should devote your cash resources into a lavish office space at the expense of other firm needs. However, you should select and utilize an office space within your budget that best fits your needs.
The Home Office
I recognize that many of us (particularly in this extended down economy) are forced to practice law out of our homes and apartments out of pure necessity. I was in the same boat and started my law practice in January 2009, working out of a home office. However, I still applied the mantra of “having the right office for the job” in creating this space. With the significant help of my wife, we converted our (generally unused) dining room into a fully functional law office.
To accomplish this, we first moved out every piece of furniture in the room to get a fresh perspective on the room. Our second step was to select a new paint color and choose wall hangings that we wanted in our office space. Never underestimate the use of good paint to change the character of any room.
As I have discussed at length in my first article, we were on a very strict budget. Within this budget, we purchased a nice office desk and other office furniture. It was nothing fancy, but frankly as nice as any furniture provided to me as a junior law firm associate. Upon determining that our existing DSL internet connection was sufficient for our needs, we moved in our computer and printer/fax machine.
Before long, we had a fully functioning law office through which I was able to produce the same amount of work (if not more) than any typical law office I had worked in. However, the major drawback that I could never fully overcome involved client meetings. I never felt comfortable enough to invite clients to my home office for meetings. This was largely driven by the fact that our home is tucked away in a residential subdivision that lacks any other businesses. I wanted to project an image as a trustworthy and experienced attorney, but I felt that it would be difficult for clients to overcome the fact of driving up our driveway and parking next to the basketball hoop and garden hose. Much of this concern may have been magnified in my own mind because I just recently went into solo practice, but I continue to believe that it is important to have an office that projects the image you want clients to perceive. Therefore, after a couple months of working out of my home and meeting clients at their offices or other attorney’s conference rooms, I decided that it was time to select a more traditional office space. That being the case, I kept my home office fully functional and enjoy working there on nights, weekends, and those days when you would rather just work from home.
Locating a Law Office
The first and most important step in the process is choosing a location for the office. Your options for office space will be provided by your choice of location. I purposely chose my location so I would be situated in a major metropolitan area that provides a large number of potential clients and great options for office space.
In my decision-making process, I paid close attention to the reasons for opening my own practice. As I desired a better work-life balance, I wanted my office to be closer to home. In my previous law firm position, I commuted nearly 90 minutes a day roundtrip. When adding this to a typical associate’s work-schedule, it left little time for family and personal time. Therefore, I wanted an office close to home but also conveniently located for clients to meet me with me.
Another important consideration is proximity to the local courts in which you primarily practice. Because my practice is fairly equally divided between litigation and transactions, proximity was important, but not an absolute necessity. However, if my practice was solely devoted to litigation in the local courthouse, I imagine that proximity to the local courthouse would have been much more of a factor in my decision.
How Much Space Will I Need?
After selecting my location, I carefully considered the amount of space that I really needed. Obviously, I needed an office big enough for me to meet with my clients and perform my work. However, I knew that my wife was going to join me in my practice as a paralegal as soon as we could afford it. As such, I needed sufficient office space for her as well. Also, I thought it would be nice to have a conference room for client meetings, depositions, and document signings, but I needed to consider whether this was absolutely essential or a budget buster. After all, I could accomplish all necessary tasks within my office if necessary.
What Type of Building Should I Select?
After determining the amount of space I absolutely needed, I then considered the type of office building in which I wanted my office to be situated. The options varied between skyscrapers to restored Victorian homes. I understand the type of structure where an office is situated is important to some, but it was not crucial to my decision-making process. So long as it met my criteria of being close to home, provided a professional atmosphere for my clients and I to meet, and provided sufficient space for me and a potentially growing firm, I was open to different types of structures. I can assure you, however, that in this economy, you will be able to find a particular type of structure that you have your heart set on if it is important to you.
Pounding the Pavement
I was now ready to visit potential office spaces. After an analysis of the market, I set a ceiling to my office budget. I thoroughly reviewed all available information on each property prior to the visit. While I could not afford to take too much time away from my growing practice, I narrowed down my list of potential office spaces by conducting “drive-by” investigations. I ultimately narrowed my list of potential candidates to five locations.
Important Factors to Consider
In visiting my short list of candidates, I made note of the following:
- Is rent negotiable? (It generally is, particularly if you like to negotiate.)
- Is a personal guaranty required for rent? This is very important, because you will be personally liable for the lease even if you close your law practice’s business entity.
- Is the landlord willing to work with me on the rent? Will he be understanding if we need an additional couple of days to make a rent payment?
- Are there telephone lines, fax lines, internet connections already set up? If so, are these included in rent, or do I have to pay these additional costs?
- Are utilities included with rent? If so, will I have control over the thermostat if I am working late at night or on weekends?
- Are there other attorneys within the office complex or unit? As I discussed earlier, it is always helpful to have mentors and networking connections.
- Is the landlord located on the property? If so, is it a corporate entity or a real person that I will have contact with?
- Will my clients feel safe here and view this as a professional office?
- Is housekeeping included with the office?
- Can I bring my Labrador retriever with me to work? Ok, maybe this was not at the top of the list, but my dog Jordy loves coming to work with me. Plus, he is a pretty good paper shredder.
- Is this a location that I feel comfortable committing to for at least one year in which I can produce good work and continue to grow my practice? I recommend committing to a new office for at least one year to establish some degree of stability for your brand and because you will incur expenses in changing letterhead, business cards, etc.
Of course, this list does not discuss in detail the ins and outs of commercial leases, a topic that requires a much more extensive discussion. However, I always recommend having independent counsel review a commercial lease, even if you are a real estate attorney. Because we can get clouded by our excitement and fear, having a neutral set of eyes review such a lease is very important.
Finally, I found it important to view my favorite candidates at least twice at different times of day. I also brought my wife with me, since our hope was that she would be joining the firm in the near future.
In the end, I chose to rent an office from a local attorney that owned an office condominium roughly half-way between my home and the local courthouse. There were three offices located in the office condominium (each occupied by attorneys, one of which was the landlord) and a conference room. We shared resources in a manner that complied with local bar rules (make sure you review these carefully) and held ourselves out as independent attorneys. Nearly two years later, we couldn’t have been happier with the arrangements. The other attorneys became friends and mentors to me.
My wife ultimately joined my firm over a year ago as a paralegal. We both occupied the same office together and despite the close quarters, we were able to survive and ultimately thrive. It can be a rewarding and special experience to practice with your spouse.
As discussed, it is of essential importance to have “the right office for the job.” Choosing the right office for you will involve a careful consideration of your needs and resources. In conducting this analysis, I recommend paying close attention to the reasons you chose to open your practice, such as my desire for better work-life balance. I also recommend making a decision in light of recommendations and strategies I discussed in previous articles, including the importance of networking and adhering to a budget. In the end, I hope you locate an office that best works for you in building your law practice.
This concludes my third article in this series. I look forward to continuing discussing my experiences in starting and building my solo law practice. In the meantime, I welcome ideas from your own practice and perspective. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me via LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
Brian Annino is the owner of Annino Law Firm, LLC, where his practice focuses on estate planning and business formation, management, and transactions. Mr. Annino is admitted to practice law in South Carolina, Georgia, and Massachusetts. He received his B.A. and J.D. from the University of Connecticut and has been published in the ABA Journal.
© Copyright 2011, American Bar Association.