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Where should a solo work? The options that are commonly available are: leasing your own office space; subletting space from another law firm or in an executive suite; and working from home. Each option has its pros and cons. They key is to choose the situation that best suits your personal and professional needs — and image. LEASING AN OFFICE OF ONE’S OWN This option gives you freedom and control — the private little fiefdom of Solo Practitioner, Esq. You choose the location, select the best available space, negotiate favorable lease terms, arrange and decorate the space in accordance with your own style and put your name on the door. It’s all yours. Unfortunately, the benefits and the ego gratification come at a price. Outfitting an office requires a substantial investment. In addition to paying rent, you will have to buy or lease furniture, equipment (computer, fax, copy machine, postage meter, etc.) and supplies (you won’t have paper clips and coffee stirrers if you don’t buy them). Unless you’re going to do absolutely everything yourself — from writing appellate briefs to putting postage on the mail to answering the door — you will have to hire employees. Of course, you can deduct all these expenses, which will ease the financial burden, but you still have to shell out the money. Also, although you may be ruler over your fiefdom, it’s a lonely prospect. Aside from your employees (if you have them), you’ll be in your office all alone, all day long, without colleagues to ask for advice on strategy decisions, legal issues, whether to take new cases and so on. You won’t even have someone to talk sports or movies with when you need a break. Instead, you’ll have to schedule lunches and get-togethers with colleagues — and we all know how much planning and rescheduling it takes to get two or three busy people together for one lousy lunch. In short, having your own little fiefdom is great if you can afford it, and don’t mind the isolation. If you’re just starting out as a solo, it’s a big investment that could easily backfire on you — what if after a year or so, you decide that the solo life just isn’t for you (or worse, circumstances decide that for you)? You could be stuck with a long-term lease you optimistically signed, or a lot of furniture and equipment you don’t need and can’t use. The warm, fuzzy glow you got from seeing your name on the door may quickly freeze over. SUBLETTING Subletting has worked best for me. I sublet a single office in a small law firm and use much of the firm’s infrastructure and services. The firm’s receptionist answers my phone and brings me my mail. I use the office copy machine, postage meter, library and file storage room. Being able to use these services cuts down greatly on my overhead expenses and frees up a lot of time that I would otherwise have to spend on administrative tasks (or else hire someone to do for me). I also have the advantage of being able to walk down the hall and ask for advice or bounce an idea off someone. I’ve even received a fair amount of work — client referrals and overflow work — from my suite-mates. What’s more, I have my name on the door at a prestigious address in the heart of the downtown business district. I’m not sure how much that has helped my business, but I’m sure it doesn’t hurt. The main downside of subletting is that your fate is tied to that of the master tenant. Most firms aren’t willing to enter into long-term subleases. Consequently, I’ve had five different offices in eight years. My first lessor kicked me out when my one year lease expired because they needed the space. My second bought me out early for the same reason. My third decided to move when their master lease expired, and so on, and so on. I also have had to put up with some employees that I would never have hired, and I’ve endured some truly misguided carpet and painting choices. But I’ve made lot of great contacts along the way and learned a lot about what I do — and don’t — need and want in an office situation. WORKING FROM HOME Frankly, I wouldn’t know — I’ve never done it. I don’t even take work home, except on extremely rare occasions. I developed this habit at the very beginning of my career. As a recent law school graduate burdened with debt, I lived in a studio apartment. Its other occupant, my husband, selfishly insisted on breathing and using the bathroom while I was trying to write discovery motions. Instead of asking him to cease and desist his inconsiderate behavior, I went to the office to get my work done. I still do. The obvious advantage of working from home is that it’s cheap. You don’t have to pay rent, you can get away with less equipment and supplies, and you may be able to deduct some — if not all — of the expenses associated with your home office. You can work odd hours, talk to opposing counsel in your pajamas and take a break in the middle of the day to go for a run or catch your favorite daytime soap. Sounds great! But the downsides are several. It takes a lot of discipline to work from home, so this might not be the best fit for procrastinators. At the office, at least your distractions are pretty much limited to Internet surfing and computer games. At home there are many more distractions, and if you have a family, it may be hard to convince them (especially children) that you really are working when it looks to them like you’re just sitting at the computer or reading a book. Conversely, you may fall into the 24/7 trap. All lawyers — but especially solos — are prone to working all of the time, or at least thinking about work all of the time. Working at home makes it very hard to create and maintain that necessary division between work and “not work.” If you decide to work from home, set aside a separate room (not a corner or a desk or an end of the couch) as The Office. The Office creates the right mind-set for and send the right message to both procrastinators and workaholics. (To procrastinators: Go in there and work! To workaholics: When you come out, stop working!) The Office also gives you a place to keep all your files, papers, books and stuff, and serves to prevent the embarrassment of having to explain to a judge that you need an extension because your kid dumped a juice box on your brief. Another important aspect of working at home to consider is image. There is a real risk that both your clients and other attorneys will take you less seriously if you work from home. This may depend to some extent on the type of work you do and the legal circles in which you move. I once conducted an arbitration before a lawyer/arbitrator who worked out of his home. He did a fine job, but it was tough to take the proceedings seriously — we sat around his kitchen table, and his kids’ toys and Cheerios were spilled all over the floor. One potential solution to the image problem (and the Cheerios problem) is to use a “business image” place for meetings, depositions and conferences with clients or other counsel. Arrange to borrow the conference room in a friend’s downtown office every once in a while, for example. If you plan to conduct major litigation against big, prestigious law firms, I guarantee you that a business address of 132 Cherry Tree Lane will be looked down upon, so you may want to consider a post office box. Additionally, most clients don’t like to think of their lawyer as a nice, “regular person” who lives in a nice, “regular” house like everyone else. They want a “real” lawyer who looks the part and has a “real” office. Our bar association did a survey of clients in the pro bono legal assistance program and found that they were really insulted when the volunteer lawyers tried to bond with them by showing up in jeans and acting like “regular guys.” They wanted a “real” lawyer in a dark blue suit — just like paying clients had. I think, regrettably, that the image problem is worse for women. If a woman works from home, the snobs will assume that she isn’t really serious and that she’s really home with the kids and is just working a few hours to make extra money and keep her hand in the game. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. The image aspect is real. Think about it before you set up shop. Kimberly Fanady is a solo practitioner in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected] Read Fanady’s bio.

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