More and more lawyers are working from home. But is it something you should consider?
Perhaps the biggest plus of working from a home office is having no outside rent or associated costs to drain your budget. For anyone starting out with limited capital or operating an existing practice affected by the economic downturn (and who isn’t in one of these groups?), that’s huge. Plus you may be able to take a personal income tax deduction for your space. Just be sure you follow the Internal Revenue Service’s home-office parameters (for more, see the article “Working from Home: Ten Tax and Legal Tips,” and check out the IRS website).
There are a number of questions to ask yourself if you’re considering a home-based practice. You may be perfectly suited to working from home—or you may be someone who needs a more traditional office environment to thrive.
First and foremost, practicing from where you live takes discipline. If you’re easily distracted by things you could be doing around the house, by pets or kids running around, or by the chatty neighbor who thinks you should be available because you don’t leave during the day, you might want to keep a standard office arrangement. Conversely, if you’re driven to work on your practice to the exclusion of your personal life, you may need physical distance from your files. But if you can concentrate despite home distractions and learn when to say when, a home-based office can be ideal.
It’s important to set boundaries in any practice, but it’s particularly vital when your home is your practice base. There are two basic types of home office practitioners: those who meet with clients in those home offices and those who don’t. And there are differing considerations for each.
Seeing Clients at Your Home
If you’ll meet clients in a home office, it’s essential to assess your space to see whether it’s client-friendly. Here are a few basics to consider before inviting clients into your domicile:
Is your home accessible? Regardless of whether the Americans with Disabilities Act may apply to your space, your clients should be able to navigate in and around your home office relatively easily. You’ll want to walk around your digs as if you’ve never set foot on your property before. What do you see? How many steps would someone have to climb (or descend) to get into the house? Is your entry well lit so that, if the weather gets nasty, someone coming for an appointment would be able to enter without a problem? This type of evaluation is essential, especially when your practice involves the elderly, young children, or the disabled.
The parking and sidewalk situation at your home is also important. A steep, narrow driveway isn’t very inviting. Neither is a house where a client has to park on the street and pick his or her way across an uneven brick or stone walkway where tree roots have pushed things out of line, where grass or weeds erupt between pieces, or where shrubbery is intruding on the path. The walk from parking space to entry should be as obstacle-free and level as possible.
Is your home secure? Speaking of entries: Most professional home offices have a dedicated entry door straight into the office environment from the outside. It beats having a client walk through the entry past your open living room or kitchen before getting to the inside office door.
It’s also important that any interior doors connecting the office to the rest of your home be secured. Physical separation of the office from your living area is not only more professional in appearance, it’s also a bit of insurance that clients won’t learn too much about you and your family.
Consider that you’ve had clients with whom your relationship eventually soured. Consider that you’ve in all likelihood had some clients over the years who were not “all there” or who were a bit (for lack of a better word) creepy. Do you want these people knowing exactly what you have in your home, and where you have it? Do you want these clients being able to identify, or interact with, your family members who may be around during your appointments?
When nature calls, how do you answer? One thing many people fail to consider when opening their home offices to clients is what to do if the client needs to use a bathroom. If you have a bathroom with a door connecting to the office, great! But make sure that any alternative door to your living space is locked from the outside if you don’t want any uninvited explorers.
If you don’t have a bathroom connected to your office, how far into your living area would a client have to go to get to your closest facilities? It may be worth your while to install a bathroom in your office area, both for your clients’ convenience and your own peace of mind.
Is your space sufficiently large to handle meetings with other parties? If you need to meet with groups of more than two or three people, do you have the space to accommodate them? If not, that’s something you might be able to address by having alternative meeting space at another location. There are many low- or no-cost choices available, ranging from companies specializing in virtual office space to local nonprofits or other businesses that rent out meeting rooms.
How’s your zoning? Many municipalities allow professional practices in residential neighborhoods, provided that they meet whatever requirements the local ordinances might specify. Some local governments may require a special license or other approval before you may open for business.
Signage is also an issue you should check before spending any time or money to place something in your yard. Your local ordinances will likely have size, number, and location limitations for any sign. Check before you commit.
When You Don’t Want to Open Your Home to Clients
There are those of us who aren’t enthralled by the idea of having clients who know where we live. Having phone appointments for most of your meetings and having in-person meetings at an outside meeting space are extremely efficient. This also prevents the sticky situation of the client (or prospective client) who shows up at your house without notice.
Some lawyers call working from home when you don’t see clients there a virtual practice, but a more accurate term for working from home would be home-based practice. In her recent ABA book, Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online, author Stephanie L. Kimbro defines a virtual practice as one operated remotely via the Internet, with the ability to accomplish all work online from start to finish. Whatever you call your home office, there are still questions to consider when setting up shop at home, even if you don’t intend to invite clients there.
The most important question is: Can you stop working? Dealing with clients via telephone and e-mail requires managing client expectations about your availability. When I started my home practice four years ago, I’d send e-mails to (and answer e-mails from) clients at all hours—evenings, late nights, and weekends included. Consequently, some clients thought I should be available at any time.
As a result, I quickly learned to use my e-mail application’s “drafts” folder to store the message between the writing time and standard business hours, setting a calendar alert to mail each draft at the start of the next business day. Another advantage to this delay is that you often find something in the message that doesn’t seem as clear on rereading as it did when you wrote it, or something you want to add. Just make the change and send the message in its new, improved form.
Whether you could be successful as a home-based lawyer may depend in large part on your practice concentration. Really, though, almost anyone should be able to do it with a bit of forethought into the mechanics of his or her work.