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The well-worn pine floors, 10-foot ceilings, leaded-glass windows and carved mahogany fireplace mantel piece inside this aging structure radiate the kind of warm, welcoming feeling that’s absent in most law offices. Those architectural details are just a few of the reasons why family law solos Lisa McKnight and Keith Becker decided to let their respective office leases lapse earlier this year and to buy a 1909 neoclassical two-story house in East Dallas. It’s now their law office. Both say their decision to buy the historic home together has been the best professional move either has ever made. “I love the hardwood floors, and I’ve never been to a lawyer’s office downtown that had old, hardwood floors,” McKnight says of the 2,600-square-foot house. “You just can’t get that in a high-rise.” When McKnight and Becker are at work, it’s as if they’re still at home, they say. “The actual officing in an old house is great because it’s relaxing, it’s comforting to the client, and you don’t have fluorescent lights glaring down at you all day,” Becker says. McKnight and Becker aren’t the first Texas lawyers to decide to turn an old house into a new law office. From Dallas to Houston and everywhere in between, attorneys have jumped on historic properties that are often conveniently located near downtown courthouses, but aren’t in the best neighborhoods. Most of the lawyers interviewed for this article say the decision to buy an old house usually starts as an economic one — the mortgage payment usually equals about what they’d pay to rent an office. And there are other advantages to buying old houses to use as offices. Old homes often are well-suited for law office conversions because of their large rooms and overall size. Often they are located in neglected areas of town zoned as commercial real estate, meaning that zoning changes are not required to turn a former residence into a business. The house McKnight and Becker bought fits into both of those categories. Best of all, it came cheap — she paid $127,500 — mostly because it is located in a “transitional” neighborhood, which is real estate lingo for dicey. “At first, I was very leery because there was a [rundown] apartment complex next door,” McKnight says. “And that’s why we got the place for the price we did, because nobody wanted to live here as a single family.” McKnight and Becker say there are some tricky aspects to turning an old house into an office. It can be difficult getting insurance, and rates may be higher than standard residential insurance. And sometimes mortgage lenders charge a higher interest rate because they are squeamish about making a loan on a house that will be used as nonresidential property. On the plus side though, the house McKnight and Becker bought will not be taxed for the improvements made to it because it’s in an area Dallas County wants to see revitalized, they say. McKnight and Becker have grown accustomed to the area and have only had to deal with a few repairs and “neighborhood” incidents. They made minor air conditioning and plumbing repairs shortly after moving in. And in the spring, a homeless man broke into the house by shattering a front window. He didn’t steal anything, McKnight says. And for reasons known only to him, the man called the police on himself from an office phone to report the break-in, devouring the contents of McKnight’s candy dish while waiting to be arrested, she says. Some clients have inquired about the safety of the neighborhood when they first arrive at the office, McKnight says. “I have had a client say, ‘Are you sure my car is going to be OK out here?’” McKnight says. But the concern seems to fade once the client crosses the front porch and enters the house, she says. Entering the house, clients are greeted by a tiled hearth, a well-traveled staircase and a large living room that serves as a reception area. The homey feeling tends to put people at ease, McKnight and Becker say. “They feel very comfortable and they usually want a tour,” McKnight says. “I’ve not had anybody not hire me as a result.” FROM DERELICT TO DESTINY Twenty-eight years before McKnight and Becker turned an old house into their law offices, Larry Doherty had the same idea in Houston. He and two former law partners bought a huge — nearly 5,000 square feet — 1905 mansion just south of downtown, figuring it would be smarter to pay a mortgage for a house than to shell out rent for an office building. Doherty says he paid $115,000 for the Georgian style residence and the quarter-block of land surrounding the home. But there was a reason why Doherty purchased the mansion — built by B.B. Rice, whose family started Rice University — at a cheap price. The neighborhood where Doherty bought — now known as Midtown — recently had been cut off by a then-newly constructed highway. The new highway cut the already deteriorating neighborhood off from the rest of the city. And bad quickly went to worse in the neighborhood in 1976 when Doherty bought the house, he says. “It was a derelict city. It was a bum haven,” says Doherty, a partner in Doherty Long Wagner, of the neighborhood where his former office was located. The mansion had been used by an air conditioning contractor for storage the year before Doherty bought it. The house’s cypress wood exterior had been painted a disturbing shade of “hospital green” and all the interior wood floors had been covered with linoleum, he says. About $10,000 later, Doherty repainted the house a more pleasing hue, uncovered and refinished the original hardwood floors, and dug out and refurbished the original coal-burning fireplaces from behind walls that had been plastered over, Doherty says. Clients loved the old house, particularly because they got to park there for free and the location provided a great view of downtown, Doherty says. But the location also had its downside. Doherty had to install burglar bars after “the world’s skinniest thief” broke through a thin window and stole a typewriter. And Doherty had fences and a gate installed around the office parking area to prevent car burglaries. “I began to have an identity that was wrapped up in the building in addition to my identity in the law,” says Doherty, a legal malpractice lawyer. “We gave the biggest knock-down parties there. We started in 1976 to celebrate buying the building.” The party, held in November and billed as Houston’s first law office holiday party of the season, became an annual event. At the last party several years ago, 1,750 invited and uninvited guests drained 20 kegs of beer while they listened to a live band. After that event, Doherty’s staff decided enough was enough, he says. “After 20 years, the staff decided to give it up,” Doherty says. He laughs and recalls that he should have stopped throwing the party even earlier after two judges got in a fight in the hallway of his office during the annual party. In later years, judges avoided the party altogether because “they were afraid they’d get a bad reputation,” Doherty says. But in 2001, the legendary law office party ended for good when Doherty decided to sell the old mansion. That year, Doherty moved to another town and wanted to spend more time there. That was also when his career as a daytime television judge on the nationally syndicated show “Texas Justice” was taking off. By then, the neighborhood had been revitalized as high-end town homes and condos were being built all around the old mansion. His decision to sell the house wasn’t as much bittersweet as it was destiny, he says. That’s because the new owners are none other than Houston-based R&B group Destiny’s Child, which uses the mansion and the surrounding land as its world headquarters. The Grammy-winning group paid a cool $2.5 million to buy Doherty’s house, which he says had once been a pigeon roost. “It was good for me in ’76 when I bought it,” Doherty says. “And it was good for me in ’01 when I sold it.” HOME, OFFICE, MENAGERIE Noemi Collie just wanted a place she could call home — and work. So in 1993, she set up her civil rights/criminal law practice in a two-story brick home built in 1949 that had once been a duplex in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas. As a struggling solo just out of law school, Collie says it made financial sense for her to work and live in the old house on 12th Street, located a few miles from downtown Dallas’ courthouses. “I didn’t have the funds to support a household and office space,” Collie says. She says the home — all 2,300 square feet of it — was perfect for her because it’s located in an area zoned commercial and residential, she could afford the rent and she got along well with the landlord — her mother. “My mother had been looking for an investment property,” Collie says. “And she saw me as being the perfect tenant.” Collie eventually bought the house from her mom in 1998, and it literally turned out to be one of the most valued assets in her practice. The house, located in a stable but once overlooked area of Dallas, has since shot up in value, Collie says. Dallas Central Appraisal District records list its value at $75,950. “For what I purchased my house, I could have never gotten the same house in North Dallas, and it’s probably quadrupled in value without very much investment,” Collie says. To Collie, the old house was the key to starting her business and not going broke at the same time. “I’m surprised most lawyers don’t travel that route,” Collie says. “Most lawyers think they have to have an office, they have to have a secretary and they have to have a legal assistant, and it’s almost like signing their death certificate before they open up.” There’s nothing fancy about the house inside, she says. It has hardwood floors, but little of the historic charm and details found in houses built in the 1920s and earlier. Nevertheless, clients do get a good dose of Collie’s personality once they enter the house, she says. “It’s a little crazy inside. I come from an artistic background so there isn’t a white wall in the house,” Collie says. The downside of the house and the home-office arrangement is there isn’t enough room for a conference room. That means meetings involving more than a couple of people have to be held at opposing counsel’s offices, she says. While most lawyers — especially criminal-defense lawyers — cringe at the thought of their clients knowing where they live, Collie doesn’t mind. That aspect of her practice actually helps her bond with the people she represents. “I find that clients can relate to me better than a lawyer who’s in an expensive office somewhere. They’re trusting to me because I bring them into my home and trust them,” Collie says. And clients may get more than they bargained for when they visit Collie at her office. “They meet my pets whether they want to or not,” Collie says. “They meet my four dogs, one cat, two birds, a fish tank full of guppies,” she says, adding “and my ‘famous poet husband.’”

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