Happy New Year! I am not into resolutions, but I’m setting some personal and professional goals for myself in 2014. One of those goals is to further define who and what my law practice represents, including not only my online presence, but my physical office location.
When I hung my shingle as a solo attorney last year, I intended to work out of my home and arrange for client meetings wherever I could find suitable space. With daycare tuition costing more than our monthly mortgage payments at the time, I believed there was no way I could afford the overhead on renting an office, but I didn’t want that to deter me from finding clients and starting to work for myself immediately. It was the chicken or the egg problem: find some other way to get the money, and hold off on opening my business until I could afford the physical space, or just bootstrap it for a while and then move into a new space once the checks started coming in. I didn’t like the idea of trying to make money in alternative ways and delaying the taking on of paying clients, so I took the risk that it was worth getting started even without a physical space.
I never had any intention of inviting clients into my home, with the exception of trusted friends. When family and friends started asking me where I would meet clients, I didn’t really have an answer right away, but I guessed that I would use the local library or travel to wherever was convenient for them. This probably sounds stupid, but I honestly didn’t think word would get around about my practice, and that people would be contacting me right away. But then the inquiries and referrals came in – mostly from other lawyers. When you have a niche practice, in my case special education, people just find you.
Of course this was a GREAT thing, but it caught me offguard. I hadn’t rehearsed a nice little elevator pitch explaining how I operated. I had planned to be upfront about my bootstrapped at-home operation, and suggest meeting at the library or a local coffeeshop on a quiet afternoon … but I found myself feeling very silly when I actually talked about this out loud. At this point, I had a mailbox set up (to avoid using my home address for business), a separate phone and efax line that went right to my iPhone, and my own domain name with a business email address. I enlisted help in setting up a WordPress blog with minimal cost, and invested in a scanner and printer after shopping around for the best prices. I was also overdue for a new computer, so I chose an HP ProBook (sorry Apple fanboys/girls).
Yet, something still felt wrong about the way I was doing business, as confident I was in my experience and my ability to deliver quality legal services. I found myself acting somewhat apologetically when I had to explain where my “office” was. No one reacted negatively, even in facial expressions or body language, but nonetheless, I found myself wishing I had a real space to call home.
Here are the factors that started to weigh heavily on my mind in favor of traditional office space:
• I was afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a lawyer: people would assume I wasn’t successful, because I couldn’t afford an office, and that there was something wrong with my work.
• I didn’t really want to rely on a public library or coffeeshop as a meeting place. It just started to strike me as unprofessional—like this should be the exception, not the rule, for meetings.
• Although I have the kind of practice that doesn’t require ongoing, regular meetings, I did need a professional space to meet new clients, or potential clients, for the very first time. I wanted to make a great first impression.
• Meeting people in my home, with very few exceptions, was just not an option for me, for safety and privacy reasons, and because I don’t want to stress about cleaning my house. I also worried that my home office would actually appear less professional than the Starbucks baristas calling latte orders out over our conversations.
And here are the factors that kept me a cheerleader for a virtual practice:
• Some people perceive home/online businesses as modern, efficient, and the future of the workplace in general. By positioning myself as streamlined and tech-savvy enough to operate from my computer at home, I could appeal to clients who realize they are getting great value without paying for the overhead of a stuffy, traditional, and expensive law office.
• Representing parents in special education matters usually involves phone and email contact, and occasional meetings with school district personnel at the board of education offices or the schools themselves. After that initial consultation (which can also be by phone), there is very little reason to meet someone in your office.
• I get most of my clients from referrals from attorneys I know. This often results in me meeting the potential client in that attorney’s own office, or in a quick phone conversation that leads to me getting involved in the case on a limited basis, without the need for an in-person meeting. I wasn’t sure how many true cold calls I would get, or how frequently I would truly need my own space.
• I could always rent or borrow a conference room or one of those per diem executive suite spaces in a virtual office. I didn’t really like this option, because it becomes painfully obvious that the space is not yours – but then, I also had no intention of deceiving people. I figured they would understand and not really care.
Here’s what eventually happened:
I started poking around on Craigslist at office space listings I figured would be too expensive to justify the cost. To my surprise, many of the listings were quite affordable, with utilities and other perks included. Eventually, one particular posting for an office share caught my eye. It was a part-time, fully furnished office in a suite with a staffed reception area and access to conference rooms, a copier, and a kitchenette. It was in nearby Farmington, just outside the West Hartford border – perfect for those clients coming “over the mountain” as we say locally. The asking rent was reasonable. I met the family law attorney who used this space as a satellite office and was looking to defray her costs. I signed up for the space. That was over the summer.
I had meant to update my website … cancel my mailbox … send out announcements with my new address … but I did none of these things. I was just busy, I told myself. But then I noticed that I was hardly at my new office. When I did go there – because everyone was home and I needed a quiet place to work, or because I had a meeting in West Hartford Center, or because I wanted to use the printer for a bulk job – I realized that I didn’t really feel at home. I felt like I was using someone else’s space – which of course was exactly what I was doing.
I told myself it didn’t matter, because now I had the nice, professional meeting space to do client intake. But something interesting happened. I do a lot of contract work (think freelance lawyer) for another firm in Fairfield County. Due to this, I spent a lot of time sitting at my computer doing research and writing, or on the phone—all tasks that I can do at home. When I needed to hold meetings, I was setting them up at the firm’s offices. Back in the Hartford area, it just so happened that any time I needed to meet someone, I would offer the Farmington space, but it just didn’t work out for whatever reason. They wanted me to come to them, or drive out to a more convenient location, or their workplace. The few meetings I did schedule in Farmington ended up cancelling.
I never used that lovely, beautifully furnished space to meet clients. One of the attorneys I work with swung by just once, coming from a meeting. That’s it.
As for the idea I had that working in a suite with other professionals would lead to mutual referrals and business opportunities, that also did not pan out. To be fair, I was never there, so that didn’t help. But I came to realize that other attorneys are actually my best sources of referrals. Either that, or an educational advocate or someone in the therapist/counseling profession would have been a better source of referrals. No one in the Farmington office worked in these areas.
I still have a few months left in the Farmington space, but I have moved back into my home office (I never really moved out in the first place). I don’t know if I will end up leasing real space again, or just use one of the many conference rooms that have been offered to me over the past few months.
Today I’m visiting the reSET community, a coworking space for Hartford area small businesses with a focus on social entrepreneurship. It’s snowing out, and it’s a quiet day. I like the atmosphere – there are no private offices, but conference rooms with doors that close, and with a month-to-month arrangement you can use their mailing address and work in the space during regular business hours Monday through Friday. There’s no evening or weekend access, but this working mom has not been doing much work on the off hours anyway. This just might work. But the question still remains – what do I really need, and what do I want out of my practice?
I still don’t have all the answers, but here is what I have learned from the experience so far:
• If you’re a new solopreneur, don’t incur any overhead unnecessarily. Resist the urge to take out office space of any kind, no matter how small and seemingly affordable, until you’re bursting at the seams and truly need the space. I had a hard time facing the fact that I don’t really need regular office space; it was just something I wanted, despite the fact that my fledgling practice is barely out of the nest, and I have childcare expenses and debt to consider.
• I’m still undecided on the home office versus virtual office/executive suite versus traditional office lease debate. I know there are some potential clients out there who will be totally weirded out by my lack of a real office. Others will find my mobile lawyering cool, or realize that it’s convenient for them, and not be fazed by it at all. I do believe that, for the most part, this has been more of an issue in my own mind than in anyone else’s. But most people probably do not care where and how I practice, as long as I’m professional and attending to their needs.
• Your professional and social communities are full of people who are genuinely interested in you, your business, and your well-being. They want to help by sharing their wisdom, knowledge, or resources. If you’re flying solo for the first time, you will undoubtedly get offers for conference rooms, client referrals, and sage advice on running a business. The vast majority of these people want nothing in return for offering these things to you.
Let me know in the comments if this post was at all helpful or interesting, or if it was a complete waste of time. Thank you for indulging me. I hope some other mom out there, or even a non-mom, finds this useful and can relate with a similar experience.