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The Virtual Office and Its Impact on Wellness

Benjamin K Sanchez


  • A virtual office may be confused with a home office, but a virtual office could simply be a workspace outside of the home.
  • Working virtually makes it more difficult to stop working because it is easily accessible.
  • A successful remote worker has a strong work ethic already, so it does not matter if the person is working in an office or virtually.
  • Clients do not care if a lawyer has an office if they are satisfied with the services.
The Virtual Office and Its Impact on Wellness
Jon & Taja/ Ascent Xmedia via Getty Images

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More than two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic began and changed the world. For the legal profession, the most immediate change was sending everyone home. After the initial shock, we had to think of ways to keep moving forward. Some practice areas, such as evictions and foreclosures, were all but regulated out of business, while the courts all but stopped any cases moving forward altogether. Eventually, we figured out that business could be conducted virtually. Even jury trials were being attempted virtually. Two and a half years after the pandemic started, we are moving things back to courthouses, but our legal profession has been forever altered. The virtual practice of law is here to stay, from virtual offices to virtual court appearances. With the rise of the virtual practice of law, new questions arise regarding lawyer wellness in this new environment. Does a virtual office help with work-life balance for solos or small firm lawyers? Although the opportunity to have a flexible work schedule exists, does it actually help with lawyer wellness or hurt lawyer productivity? These questions and more will be addressed in this article.

Virtual Offices: What Are They and How Do They Operate?

Whenever someone mentions virtual offices, I can’t help but wonder what they mean. A virtual office may mean one of many setups, depending on who you ask. The classic definition of a virtual office is having no physical office at all. A lawyer simply conducts business by computer and telephone. While that seems relatively straightforward, the rub comes into play when we dig deeper and ask how one deals with client meetings, depositions, and client files. In this all-virtual office, client meetings happen in public places such as coffee shops and restaurants, and depositions are conducted in conference rooms borrowed from other counsel or rented from executive suites. Depending on the practice area and clientele of the firm, lawyers may not have any problems with clients, especially when the clients are basically remote clients.

Some people confuse a virtual office with a home office and thus think a virtual office is not simply a workspace outside of the home. Home offices have existed in our profession for quite a long time. A lawyer may work from a home office and simply meet people outside of the home. (Some lawyers meet their clients at the lawyer’s home office, but that is relatively rare, and I don’t encourage having clients know where you live.) Some home-office lawyers rent space in executive suites for a certain number of hours per month to use conference room space for client meetings and depositions. Many executive suites also have common areas that are included in the conference room plan so that lawyers may sit in a common-area table or booth to work or speak with clients. I don’t encourage lawyers to have client meetings in such common areas in executive suites for several reasons, not the least of which is attorney-client confidential communications. I acknowledge that sometimes it’s better for the client to meet at a coffee shop or restaurant, which I have done myself. I would advise you to keep such meetings to a minimum. I have witnessed too many public meetings between lawyers and their clients that are easily overheard by others.

Some lawyers have a home office for their own private use but use someone else’s address to receive mail, answer telephones, and other services, such as fax and conference room space. Executive suites sell these services as “virtual offices” for their customers. I’ve seen several attorneys and law firms with brick-and-mortar offices offer these “virtual offices” as well, touting that they will have the law firm look and feel for clients because they are a law firm rather than an executive suite. Regardless of your service provider (executive suite or law firm), the idea is that you work at home but appear to have an office someplace else.

So, before you engage in a discussion of virtual offices with colleagues, clients, partners, etc., it would be best to agree on the type of virtual office that is being discussed. All of the above examples are becoming more and more common due to the pandemic. Fewer lawyers are finding it necessary to rent or own full-time, separate offices in which to work or meet clients. Quite frankly, as older generations of clients begin to pass, younger generations will find it normal to work with an attorney without a physical public office. That’s not to say that there won’t be some preconceived notions about the lawyer or how much such lawyers should cost, but I know attorneys who are doing just fine without having a full-time public office space.

Virtual Offices and Work-Life Balance

Regardless of the type of virtual office being discussed, the idea is that such offices lower costs and afford the attorney a better work-life balance. Such sentiment is nice to say and hear, but is it really true? Many business coaches, career experts, and self-help gurus opine that one must leave work at work to maintain a work-life balance. How does that mesh with a virtual office where your work is always near you? Whether you work from your computer on a beach or in your home, your work is constantly around you.

I started my own law practice in my home in 1998, fresh out of law school. I made a spare bedroom my office while in law school and continued to use that office when I became a licensed attorney in Houston, Texas. My wife worked and had “normal hours” of Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. We had no children, so I was able to have peace and quiet during the day while working at home. I did not meet clients at home, so I was meeting clients anywhere I could convince them to meet me. I don’t recall having any depositions early on, so that wasn’t a problem. I simply worked in my home office, met clients away from home (we didn’t have videoconferencing as a normal way of communication back then), and went to court. About six to nine months into my new practice, as I was gaining more and more clients, I felt the need to finally get an office to improve my image and allow for services I couldn’t offer before. I subleased an office from another attorney for a year or so, and I was able to meet clients in my office, have depositions and meetings in the conference room, and have a receptionist answer my phone and greet clients when they came in. I also could use the big copier machine and offer coffee and other beverages to my clients.

While having the space and offering these services appealed to clients, the thing I noticed most about having an office was my ability to separate work and home. Although I didn’t call it work-life balance back then, I noticed I could turn off work when I left the office and not feel tempted by it at home. When I worked from a home office, even though I could shut the door to the office, I knew work was always just a few feet away. Thus, sometimes the anxiety and stress of practice would cause me to work instead of rest; after all, work was so easily accessible, what excuse did I have not to work? No matter how much I tried to relax, work could always get done because the barrier to working was so low. Once I moved into a separate office space outside of my home, it was much easier for me to close the door to the office at night and keep work at work. (You’ll have to remember that this was in the late 1990s, when laptops were not as ubiquitous as they are now, so my computer was a big desktop machine back then and couldn’t be lugged back and forth between home and the office.) Although I’ve never not regularly worked on Saturdays, I was able to go in for a few hours and then leave it there so I could enjoy the rest of my weekend. The difference in not having a home office was refreshing and relaxing to me.

Things have changed in the 20-plus years since then because laptops and smartphones have made it easier to bring your work with you wherever you go. It takes a more concerted effort to turn off work these days, regardless of where or how you work. When you have a virtual office, your work constantly surrounds you, whether you work from your computer anywhere you are or from your home office. Without a physical office outside of your home, there’s no symbolic place to leave work so that you can enjoy work-life balance. It’s certainly not impossible to keep work to certain hours by sheer willpower, but it’s much harder to refrain from working and more enticing to work when the ability to do so is so close at hand.

Flexible Work Schedule Afforded by a Virtual Office

Having a virtual office certainly allows for a more flexible schedule, especially for a solo attorney who has no superior, but is that flexibility detrimental to one’s productivity? The question may not be quite as important when working for a firm where one must still report to a superior, but it’s still important nonetheless because no one has easy access to see you working.

Evaluation of productivity is an important factor in deciding whether to work virtually (or from home) versus having a public office away from home. According to a recent article in Forbes, “remote work is here to stay. . . . 25 percent of all professional jobs in North America will be remote by the end of 2022, and remote opportunities will continue to increase through 2023” (Bryan Robinson, Remote Work Is Here to Stay and Will Increase into 2023, Experts Say, Forbes (Feb. 1, 2022). Several surveys have concluded that “work productivity was the same or higher since employees started working from home” (Statistics on Remote Workers That Will Surprise You (2022), Apollo Tech. (May 11, 2022). “Remote workers are more productive because they have no commute, less or no office small talk, few distractions, more time for family, exercise, a higher quality of life, and better overall work-life balance” (id.).

Do these results match what you are seeing in your local legal communities? Does it matter whether one is a solo attorney with or without staff? Is it different when you are part of a team of attorneys and staff? The bottom line is that it depends on firm culture and individual personalities. For a firm grounded in in-person teamwork and dynamics, with resources and systems in place for a physical office space, productivity might fall off when people escape the office environment and have less access to resources when they work remotely. However, a firm that embraces technology through videoconferencing and other forms of electronic communication and sets up resources appropriate for remote workers may find that productivity increases. Firm leaders must at least evaluate the personalities of their individual team members to determine if they can thrive without in-person oversight. There certainly are ways to address the lack of oversight by having daily team meetings and periodic reviews of the work by individual employees.

In my opinion, productivity is simply a function of the work ethic of the individual team members, whether solo or small firm. A productive member at the office will most likely be a productive member remotely. I understand that the removal of commuting, the need to get totally “dressed up” and “made up” for work, and gossip and distractions at the office could make people on the fence about productivity lean toward being more productive, but it still comes down to individual personalities and overall firm support of remote workers.

What Clients Think

Even if we conclude that virtual offices are here to stay and lead to a better work-life balance and more productivity, should we consider what clients think? It’s important to consider that some clients will require a physical office space. Banks, financial institutions, and certain creditors require certain technology, locked rooms, cameras, and more for any firm that handles their work. That would not bode well for a solo or small firm primarily working virtually. Some clients will require the accoutrements of a traditional law office because that is partly how they justify the fees they are paying to their legal team.

For about five years, I ran a high-volume debt-collection litigation practice. At one point, I had three associates and 15 staff members. My clients were creditors, debt buyers, and financial institutions. I never had clients visiting my office. Clients didn’t care about my office as long as we got the work done. Regardless, I had a nice, large office suite for my team so that everyone could feel good about where they worked. In today’s age, I would seriously consider virtual offices under the same scenario. In fact, I know a lot of creditor litigation attorneys who work remotely without any worries. There’s usually a home office somewhere for some staff, but many of the attorneys are working from home because all they do is talk to opposing parties and their counsel and go to court, while the rest of their practice is sitting at their computer.

Many practices rely on street traffic and clients who really need to see someone in person in order to drop off documents and payments. Some clients just don’t believe a lawyer is a real lawyer unless they see them in a lawyer setting. I gather that will always be the case, so the key is deciding whether you really want those clients if you’re going virtual. Some attorneys won’t take payments other than virtual payments and won’t take documents unless the clients give them electronically. I’m sure they lose some potential clients by doing this, but they are fine with losing those clients and being virtual. In the end, you get to decide who your clients are, so you can decide how rigid or flexible you will be with them in order to maintain a certain lifestyle.

Current State of My Practice

In my own practice, which is now a consumer and family law practice, most of my clients never meet me until a court appearance. I have found there are enough clients who want to come in to see me, talk to me, ensure I am legitimate, or want to give me documents or payments in person to justify a physical office space. Although I have a small cubbyhole at home with a computer for any emergency work, I do my best to keep work at work and leave my home as a sanctuary away from work. I find that keeping a work-life balance means keeping my work and personal life separate. I have a computer that stays at the office and a laptop that I bring with me wherever I go. Sometimes, I just like getting out of the office even if I have more work to do and doing the work someplace else. I don’t allow employees to work remotely, and I rarely contact them away from the office because I believe in their own separation of work and personal life. Virtual offices are here to stay, but I’m staying with a traditional office setting for the time being. How about you?