Get a Real Office, Then Get On With It

While some of us here at Lawerist have been drawn into the “what tech stuff do you need vs. what tech stuff do you merely desire” debate, the biggest question for a new solo is more basic: do you need a “real” (brick-and-mortar with your name on the door) office? This is one of the many instances where Seinfeld is your best life coach and lawyer coach. I’m not kidding.

Conventional Wisdom Is Not Your Friend

You may recall that great Seinfeld episode where George realizes that the best thing he can do is to always do the polar opposite of what his instincts are telling him, since following his instincts has led to nothing but one disaster after another.

The office/no office question is a perfect example of how you should follow George’s example, except instead of ignoring your instincts, you should ignore conventional wisdom. It would tell you that if you are starting your solo practice from zero (no clients), you should not get an office yet, since you have no income. But if you have clients (not that you would ever poach them from your current job, of course), you should certainly get an office, so your current and future clients know how serious and already-successful you are in this solo venture.

Nope.

If you are starting from zero, the biggest obstacle you need to overcome is not your lack of clients. It’s the difficulty you will have with yourself chasing down clients. If your home is your office, and you have no clients, you’re not really a lawyer, because a lawyer without clients and a home office is merely a person with a law license and no work. A solo with a real office and no clients is a lawyer who is hustling hard to get clients because that lawyer has rent to cover.

99% of the game is half mental

Yogi Berra, font of baseball wisdom, provided us with that line, as well as, “you can’t
think and hit at the same time.” He knew that he had to feel the pressure to succeed
but also figure out how to overcome that fear of failure through repitition that would
remove his brain from the equation.

If you have a real office, you’ll go there, every day, and then you’ll go interact with people until you either build your business to a sustainable level, or until you fail. If you have a home office, you’re much more likely to get trapped in that nether region between the two—one you can inhabit a long time if you don’t have to pay the rent. Trust me. I spent a year in the nether region. It sucks.

On the other hand, if you have a substantial “book of business” (I’ve always wondered if such books are fiction or non-fiction) you can probably just work at home, because your clients already know who you are. They’ll track you down.

Stay out of the netherworld. Get a real office of some sort, and
you’ll either succeed or fail. But either way, you’ll at least really try.

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  • Andrew

    Respectfully, I disagree. Personally, my work starting out will be almost exclusively court-appointed, so I don’t really need to go out and impress potential clients – I just have to get my name on the roster. Therefore, any mental benefit from having an office seems to be disproportionately miniscule to the cost of actually attaining one.

    That being said, my advice wouldn’t necessarily ring true in all cases. I think it’s difficult to make blanket statements or rules across all practices, because every lawyer has their own little niche.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

      Sounds like you have a stream of clients already set up. That’s great. My advice is directed at those who do not.

    • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

      So where do you plan to meet your court appointed clients, living room or kitchen? Even court appointed clients are human beings, deserving of the finest representation you can provide. They aren’t fodder unworthy of a “real lawyer,” who exist only to provide you with pocket money.

      This was likely not your intended message, but what came across in your views on an office is that these clients are just an ATM for you and otherwise unworthy of proper treatment. That would be a terrible attitude toward you clients, whether retained or court appointed. And by the way, without an office, your court appointed clients won’t refer their friends to you, and that’s one way to get a practice rolling.

    • Shay

      Just wondering where you meet your court appointed clients? I am also on the court appointed list and would not be comfortable with some of my clients being in my home, or knowing where I live for that matter. Many have some serious drug problems and who knows what they are capable of when on meth. If they are out on bond or ROR, you have to meet them somewhere. Seems like an office is a good place.

      • r. dernister

        In New York State, if you’re on the court-appointed list the chances are overwhelming that, at the trial level, you’ll meet your clients at the jail. Court-appointed lawyers for parole revocation cases almost always see their clients at the jail as well. If you’re court-appointed to handle appeals, you’ll never meet your clients at all. Having said all that, however, let me point out this is no way to build a practice: it just keeps you from starving quickly.

  • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan

    If you don’t have enough money to rent an office, I don’t think you have enough money to start a law practice.

    The worst thing a lawyer can do is be desperate, in my opinion. You end up taking on every single case where a guy will pay you $500 to sue his neighbor for emotional distress. Part of developing a successful practice is saying “I don’t want to represent you, keep your $1000.” But if your rent is due, and you desperately need that $1000…

  • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan

    If I were starting at zero… no clients, no money, no network, I would probably try and find per diem jobs for several different attorneys. Or maybe sell real estate.

    Solo practice is a horrible alternative to “I can’t find a job” in my opinion. People seem to think solo practice is a great resort for anyone who can’t find meaningful legal work and don’t have any money in the bank. It’s not.

    Starting a firm should be something you want to do and something you can swing financially. It’s not cheap, it’s not easy, and there are risks involved. If you’re asking “Can I afford $500 a month for an office?” the answer is you probably can’t afford to start a solo practice.

    A year after I graduated, I mentioned to my boss that I wanted to start a practice. He laughed and said “Kid, work for someone else as long as you can. Then, when you think you’ve worked long enough, work a little longer.” When I told him I was going to start one up in 2012 (now having been out for 4 years) he said the same thing.

    I’d love to tell everyone that you simply hang out a sign saying “Attorney at Law” and clients and dollars will flow in, but it doesn’t work like that.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Huh. I worked for two lawyers — one a former big-firm lawyer — who both told me that going solo should be my goal. That’s not the only reason I went out on my own, but it definitely planted the seed in my brain.

      • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan

        My former boss stressed the same thing. His point was to first develop your network, save some cash, and learn how to practice law on someone else’s buck.

        He always stressed developing a practice, but just don’t rush into starting your own with no money, no clients, no experience, and no network. Do it when you’re ready, not just because it’s your only option.

        Definitely put the seed in my head, though.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

      Sam’s written here about the commitment required to succeed as a solo. I think it’s smart to work (doing whatever makes you the most) until you’ve got enough cash to pay office rent for 6 months (or more) before you launch. And there are a lot of low-cost office options out there. What I’m getting at in the post is, are you committed enough to this to put yourself in a position where you have to pay rent every month? That’s a good test of whether you should go solo. As for the chances of success for a particular person starting from zero, I’d say they are poor.

      • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan

        I would agree with that point.

        One of the biggest problems I see with new solos is they’re only doing it until a “real job” comes along. Personally, I dumped every penny I ever had into my practice – wedding money, savings, law firm bonus, etc. It was a tough nut to swallow. You’ve gotta commit 120% to having your own practice.

        When our firm is profitable, we invest a lot of it back into the firm – taking useful CLEs, riskier contingent fee cases, technology that will make us more efficient, etc. I think that commitment is necessary to succeed.

        Sitting around schlubbing in your house and half-assing solo practice while looking for a job is a recipe for failure.

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          Agreed 120%. Going solo out of desperation is a recipe not just for failure, but for disaster for everyone involved.

          • http://myshingle.com/ Carolyn Elefant

            No, no, no – I do not agree. Going solo out of desperation is not a recipe for disaster. If you go solo because you haven’t found a job or are seeking gap-filler on a resume but you are desperate to practice law, then you will succeed – not necessarily at solo practice, but at whatever you hope to transition to. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I started my practice because I was laid off and couldn’t find a job – and I figured that I could run my own firm until something better came along because I wasn’t willing to give up on practicing law. As it happened, within three years of starting my firm, the economy turned around and offers that I would have jumped at before started coming, but this time, I wasn’t buying. So long as a lawyer is desperate to stay in the legal profession, he or she will keep the firm afloat while ably serving clients. The solos who most worry me are those who start a firm because they want to run a business. They are the ones who wind up disappointed (because law is a dull, over regulated business for those who aren’t imaginative) or disbarred, because they thought breaking ethics rules was “risk taking.”

            • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

              I suppose the problem is less about why one goes solo and more about how one does it. The vast majority of lawyers I know who have gone solo out of desperation don’t put any real effort into it. They are just biding their time until something better comes along. Going solo takes commitment, no matter how you ended up with your own shingle.

              • Lisa Espada

                I think the point has been made that if you are half-heartedly going solo while looking for a full-time salaried job, and you are unwilling to invest in the practice, then maybe you aren’t really committed to being a solo. But, it seems like this blog post is saying that in addition to being fearless, you have to have a large chunk of money money to invest, and if you don’t have it, forget about the shingle, go work at Starbucks.

                • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

                  The post says nothing of the kind. It says you should get an office “of some sort,” with that phrase linking to a post Tyler White wrote recently about alternatives to traditional office space. Nowhere in the post do I suggest or imply that you need “a large chunk of money to invest” to go solo.

  • Kirk Caby

    First off, thank you for the advice it was well receive. I am in my third year of Law School looking to gain employment throughout my final year and for a few years afterwards, and then starting my own firm. This question is addressed to anyone that has started their own respective firm. Any advice on things I should take into account or be aware of while I’m beginning the process. In other words, what advice you would give yourself, now that you have the experience, if you got a chance to start over??.. Thank you in advance!!

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      For that list of questions, I think you’d better join the LAB!

  • http://utahcrimlaw.blogspot.com/ Joshua Baron

    Having an office when I first started out made a huge difference for me mentally. When I wasn’t confident pitching my services to clients, it was helpful that I felt like I looked the part. I think it probably made a bigger difference in my mind than in my clients, but it made me brave enough to ask for my fees.

  • http://myshingle.com/ Carolyn Elefant

    As with the conversation on case management, affordability of office space is largely a geographic-specific conversation. While office space can be had in some locations for $400-$500 per month, here in DC, you couldn’t even find a tiny room in a shared office space in any decent location for that price. For DC rents, you are looking at a minimum of $650 in a not so nice building, and up to $1500 for a sublet in a mid-sized or large firm space. I suspect that the cost in Boston or New York City is even higher. Once you’re looking at an $800+ monthly obligation on top of legal research services, malpractice costs and bar dues, not to mention student loan payments, you’re looking at significant risk not to mention pressure to take less than desirable cases.
    I agree that there are enormous advantages to having an office, from added discipline to increased flexibility in working with clients to having law clerks or assistants on site. But unless you’ve reached a point where you’re certain that you can cover the monthly costs including rent, I’d ditch the office before I’d dump a research service (in my case, I am bound to LEXIS because of the energy stuff) or malpractice insurance.

    • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan

      Here in Fishtown, I have two big offices and a conference room for $490 a month. That also includes our internet. Neeners.

      My advice to anyone starting out is not to be afraid to go off the beaten path a little. By not having an office “downtown”, I think it helps differentiate us in a lot of ways. For instance, we offer free parking.

      We have use of an office downtown thanks to my uncle, but I think we’ve used it once this year.

  • Lisa Espada

    Thank you Carolyn Elefant! You give hope to all of us who have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting hired at a decent firm, but won’t be deterred!

    I am committed to getting my solo practice off the ground this summer, but I worry that spending $600 – $1,000 (or more) per month on a small office would be a significant drain on my resources at this point. Since I have no staff, I only need an office to meet with clients. I have searched for a “virtual office” that might meet my needs, but have not yet found one that I find workable. I am hoping to find some way to generate business before I start paying rent and utilities for a full time office space. That just makes sense to me.

    • http://www.practiceprocedure.com Andrew Nettleman

      I know more than one attorney that was able to work out a work for space approach on a sublease with a small firm. Might want to look into that.

  • http://www.whiplashclaimssolicitors.co.uk Steve

    It’s a tough one, a chicken and egg story. Like you say, if you don’t have an office, you’re saving on costs, but you’re potentially less likely to generate clients. An office might be an upfront cost (when money is tight), but it’ll surely help with getting clients (compared to not having one).

    The alternative might be to make the effort to always visit the client at THEIR location, not yours (your home). And use a virtual office for meeting (where this isn’t possible) and to pick up mail.

  • http://www.PAinjurycase.com Dave S

    Some follow up, my view:
    1. I agree, if you are serious, you need an actual office
    2. Virtual offices are a thinly veiled disguise – most clients can tell you’re meeting them in a rent-a-room.
    3. When picking an office- think hard of location. Picking somewhere inside a complex is – to me- not a good choice. You want and need somewhere with roadside visibility.
    4. Speaking of clients, there’s a lot of competition. Think of it this way- if you’re retaining an expert witness, you don’t want the guy working out of his kitchen or who just started out. You don’t want the expert learning on your dime. Most clients with good cases are looking at it the same way when hiring a lawyer. No one wants to be a guinea pig. Ideally, you should be learning from an experienced lawyer(s) before opening up an office (you don’t know what you don’t now). That will put you on the path to becoming a good lawyer and will give you experience even if as second-chair on some (hopefully) good cases. If you decide to go on your own early in your practice, then try to get a mentor- maybe even see if an experienced lawyer will let you assist them on cases. I learned a lot by working for some really good lawyers before attempting to be a principal in a small firm. Paying your dues learning the ropes from experienced lawyers has no substitute. My point is figure out a way to do that – ideally by first working for someone else. If you can’t find a position working for someone else, figure out a way to get that opportunity in some other way.

  • http://www.husseinandwebber.com HWLaw

    I think having an office is critical for a new solo practice, if for no other reason than psychology. Like it or not, the practice of law involves a degree of salesmanship, and confidence is key to making the sale. It’s difficult for you or the client to have confidence in your services if your initial consultation takes place at a Starbucks. The confidence that comes with having a physical location to meet prospective clients and looking professional I don’t think can be understated.

    In most cities, there are reasonably priced office options for those inclined to hang out their own shingle. At a minimum, office sharing with another attorney should be considered.

    Lastly, I would just say- do not be afraid to hang out your own shingle. The notion that you need to take the 15 year junior associate track (waiting ten years before the “senior partner” graces you with the opportunity to attend a simple motion hearing) is pure folly. I can’t tell you how many of my law school classmates took the firm track and still have not seen the inside of a courtroom. Thanks to their senior partner “mentors,” they’re as toothless and green as they were on graduation day.