|Starting a Law Firm - Office Space Considerations|
Office Space Considerations
Now that you have squared away your business plan, you need to determine the actual location of your office. The first and foremost determining factor when picking a location: the client. You must be where the client will come. Location needs also vary somewhat with areas of practice, as some require closer proximity to courthouses than others. Since you or someone from your office will frequently need to make deposits, a convenient location to the bank hosting your trust account is preferable. And while probably not the most important element of location, having nearby restaurants for having lunch would be beneficial as well.
A. Leasing Considerations
When you have a location in sight, it is time to begin negotiating lease terms. If you are locked into a long term lease, what are the implications if you leave practice or merge with another firm and relocate? Think about the need for additional space if the firm grows. You may want to consider Office Suites Plus type buildings until you know what type of space you may need.
When considering a place to lease, think about the actual space you will need to operate your office. Other than reception and your office, will you need a conference room and break room? Files, copiers, and other supplies must also have a place to call home. In addition to the price of the space and length of the lease, you will need to determine if cleaning and maintenance are included in the lease agreement. Any allowance for renovations or relocating outlets should also be predetermined. Do not forget to include building security and privacy in negotiations to ensure client confidentiality.
B. Building Considerations
Besides the actual space and layout needed for a properly functioning law office, there are other items when looking at leasing that should be considered. Available parking could be a key factor in whether or not you can attract staff or if clients consider visiting your office bothersome. Thermostat location and weekend temperature control, if you plan to work on weekends, are issues that should also be addressed.
C. The Home Office Option for Solos
Solo practitioners may opt to practice from a home office if the clientele and the local zoning authorities permit. An attorney who is leaving a firm with an established set of clients may find this easier than a new attorney who has no clients. Consider the home office from a client’s perspective and decorate as you would any professional space. Alternatively, other firms make their conference rooms available for rent as an option for meetings instead of having clients come to your home.
Regardless of your reasons, be sure that the office is clearly separated from your personal space. This is necessary to project a professional image and, more importantly, to maintain client confidentiality. Children should not be allowed to answer the business telephone or interrupt interviews. You may consider an alternate location for meeting with clients to avoid comingling personal and professional lives as some clients may decide to stop by unannounced during non-business hours. Consider staffing, storage and other issues that may arise if you are successful from a home office location.
D. Office Sharing: Benefits and Dangers
Some attorneys, in an effort to reduce overhead expenses, elect to share office space. Office sharing allows firms to split the cost of such expenses as rent, receptionist, and equipment. The key to a successful office sharing arrangement is a written agreement that outlines how expenses are addressed and how the reception area and telephone calls are handled. Include procedures for replacing shared equipment and purchasing common amenities such as office supplies.
One danger in shared office space arrangements is that clients may not realize that the attorneys do not practice together as one firm. To alleviate the potential for such misunderstanding, have all engagement letters clarify that no partnership exists. Maintain separate letterhead for all correspondence. You should have a separate telephone line for your firm and have the receptionist clearly identify your firm by name instead of answering the phone “Law Offices.” Failure to clearly maintain separate identities puts you at risk for liability if your officemates commit malpractice.
With somewhere to call home for your new firm, you now need the proper furnishings and equipment for your space. In addition, you need to obtain the necessary accounts and insurance to operate safely. Staff also must be interviewed and hired. This is probably one of the more hectic times in preparing to open a law office.
E. Vitual Law Office
The number of online legal services available to the public has increased in recent years. Prospective clients of legal services are going online to search for affordable and convenient unbundled assistance and legal guidance. However, many of the existing online companies provide only legal forms or generate legal documents that do not include attorney guidance or review of the final product. Virtual law practice provides a way for the legal profession to respond to this public demand with high quality legal services from licensed practitioners.
Perhaps you are not ready to establish a permanent office space at this time. One alternative is to establish a virtual law office, conducting your practice via secured internet connections.
A virtual law office or firm is a professional law practice that is located online through a secure portal and is accessible to both the client and the attorney anywhere the parties may access the Internet. It may be structured as a completely web-based law office or integrated into a traditional law fi rm. Virtual law practice is one form of elawyering which is defined by the ABA eLawyering TaskForce as:
The key feature of virtual law practice is a secure portal where the prospective client chooses a unique username and password and interacts with the attorney in a secure digital environment. A virtual law office is created through the use of Software as a Service (SaaS), one form of cloud computing. This means that the law office data is stored securely online by a third-party. Transmissions between the law firm and the clients are encrypted from end to end and the data itself is stored on servers that are housed in multi-million dollar data centers with the same high level security that is relied upon by government, banking and financial institutions. Features within a virtual law office will differ depending on the technology chosen, and the structure of virtual law practice the firm chooses.
For example, some features might include document storage, legal form and document assembly, file and law libraries, online payments and invoicing, billing and calendaring, online discussion threads with clients and others in the firm, malpractice checks, and other client and case management tools. Regardless of the technology features chosen, the key purpose of a virtual law office is the ability to deliver legal services online to clients through the secure client portal.