Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A virtual lawyer may need a physical office

I apologize for my absence last week. I had a greater than normal workload and spent most of the week fighting fires. I also closed the deal on my new office lease and needed to select vendors for all the normal office services.

So, why does a virtual lawyer need an office?

I started my own law practice five years ago, working out of my house. On the rear of the house is an addition with a separate entrance, which provided a perfect space for an office. The office looks out on the tall pines and mature maples trees in the woods behind the house. It is also separate from the main house so that I hear none of the family activities. And, the office has tall plate glass windows, which makes it look and feel like an office.

So, why leave? Why not just operate a virtual law practice with other professionals each working out of their homes? I did that for over four years. It was great! I kept my overhead low and built a corporate practice working with start-ups companies and entrepreneurs. Many of my clients liked the fact that my business felt like a start-up, similar to theirs. I liked the fact that I had no commute, no overhead, and more time and flexibility to spend with my family.

The problem is that after 4 years, I got to the point where I wanted to grow my business. I could have just focused on moving up the value chain, attracting better quality clients, raising my rates and letting the smaller fledging clients go. But that was not the kind of practice I wanted to build. I enjoyed working with early stage companies (as well as larger ones) and I believed that the market for small business legal services is underserved. I wanted to build a law firm that leveraged technology and provided high quality, practical legal services for emerging businesses.

To build a business, you need to work with other people. My home office could fit one or two other people, but having other people regularly show up at home would be an intrusion on my family. And no matter how great my home office was, I still had the image of working out of a “home office.” If I wanted to grow my business, I needed more space in a traditional office environment.

Last week, Chuck Newton wrote a great blog on the benefits of working at home. I agree with him and we had an interesting exchange about whether there is a need for a physical office. In my opinion, having or not having an office is all about choice. You have to decide what you are trying to build and whether a home office is a good place to start or a good place to end up. The good news is that today, with the advent of the Internet, you can choose.

In August of last year, I started to move the office out of the house. I rented a single office from another law firm that provides access to a conference room, copier, fax, and Internet. The space was great; I had the collegiality of working in an office with other lawyers without significant overhead. I also noticed an immediate increase in business. No matter how well people know your work or like you, they may not be comfortable referring business to you unless you have a traditional office.

However, there wasn’t much space to grow a practice; I had just one 10 x 13 room. I used the new office as a place to meet clients and business contacts. I used the old office (at home) to maintain files, billing records and primarily did my work there. Since the new office was less than 2 miles away, I could be there in five minutes. So, I ended up having two offices: a front office for meetings and a back office to do the work.

At the end of last year, I realized the business was growing faster than I thought. I had over seventy separate small business clients that actually paid money. That is a lot of clients for a solo practitioner. The dollar figures are not as impressive as the number of clients, but that is by design. As a small business lawyer, I constantly strive to provide value to my clients, partly for reasons of personal integrity and partly because I believe that technology should improve the efficiency of legal services and my goal is to build a model firm.

Although I enjoyed the simplicity of a solo practice, I decided that I want to grow the business and that I am ready to bring on additional people. The bottom line is that I need a physical office in which to build a team that can help provide legal services to clients. As the firm grows, I hope to add lawyers and associates both physically and virtually to the practice. For now, I plan to hire a paralegal who can handle more of the routine paperwork that cannot support my hourly rate.

I’m looking forward to the next step and would welcome your thoughts and comments on opening an office and growing a practice. Which do you prefer: a virtual office or a physical office? What’s the best way for you to grow your practice?

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