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The law practice and the law office

While some aspects of legal practice have migrated to the Internet, whether through telecommuting or a true virtual practice, a physical office where trial conferences are held and strategy developed remains the best environment for the lawyer-client relationship in small and midsized practices.

The Rules of Professional Conduct do not explicitly require a physical office, but obligations such as those under Rule 1.4 (regularly consulting with a client), Rule 1.6 (confidential communication) and Rule 1.15 (safekeeping client property) are best met in a physical office setting.

Your office space speaks loudly and clearly to clients about what kind of firm you have. If your firm’s clients are blue collar workers, you may want to be near public transportation. If a number of clients are accused criminal defendants, proximity to the court house and bail bondsmen is important. If your clients come more from suburban or exurban locations, they might prefer a strip mall location with ample free parking. Such messages define your firm much more clearly than any marketing brochure or advertisement.

Cost assessment

Office costs can make a statement about the law firm itself, since high or low overhead often translates into high or low fees. Answer these questions consistent with your practice goals:

* Is your rent competitive for the geographic area in which you’re located?

* Is your physical location one that you, your clients and prospects are comfortable with?

* If you think better quarters would improve your practice, can you afford them?

* Would better quarters allow you to take on better cases and charge more for them?

Three factors should define your space: what you can afford, which features are most critical to you and what you are obligated to by the lease. If you are already in leased office space, an impending lease renewal is a good time to assess whether the firm should stay where it is or move in an entirely new direction. Take a macro view and analyze the economics of the firm (revenues, expenses, profitability) within the context of the current lease expense. Take a micro view and analyze the economics of specific practices, or the entire practice of a smaller firm, and whether current office conditions are adequate, or a move would be beneficial.

Space assessment

Selecting an office is a complicated and difficult project and requires considerable thought, preplanning and coordination. Even though the list of things to be done is long, you have to define the space that you want, physically and contractually. The best foundation for planning office space is to survey the precise wants and needs of lawyers and staff: number of electrical outlets in each person’s space, location of data and telephone cables, proximity of copiers and fax machines to work areas. The list becomes a tool to share with brokers and leasing agents as a qualifier for the space they want to show you.

Lawyers often are on the lookout for better space — either because they are dissatisfied with their existing surroundings, or are looking to make a move to a location that offers more expansion room and client convenience, additional services or more lawyers at a new location who practice in other practice areas that can lead to referrals. If you decide to move, you should be more discriminating when you select your next space, even if it costs you a few dollars more. In both the short and long run, you’ll be happier, your clients will be better served and your referral base can grow by enabling you to know more, and better, lawyers in your new location.

Operations assessment

There are other issues to consider. Make sure that the up-front expense of a move is worth it in order to realize greater potential future income. You should be wholehearted about your move — don’t try to sneak into a new building by just putting a line in your email signature that as of such a date you are in a new location. There are many people you should inform about your move: not only clients, but financial institutions, insurance carriers, bar associations and courts, vendors, utilities, landlords, taxing authorities, the local legal media, and the postal service. To do otherwise will cause you far more problems than if you stay where you already are.

Moreover, office space should not be merely managed — its cost, composition and financing must be part of the law firm’s overall strategic plan. If the partners disagree about the firm’s overall goals as well as specific objectives and strategies, then they will not “buy in” to any plan involving the purpose, structuring and cost of office space. It must be agreed by all partners, or by the lawyer and assistant in a solo practice, that office space is not a matter of ordering attractive light fixtures and carpeting, but instead is a defining element of the firm’s business strategy and cost structure. In that sense a law practice and a law office truly are synonymous.

A coach, syndicated columnist and speaker on topics relating to The Business of Law,® Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC is a strategic law firm planner whose ideas have helped thousands of lawyers increase their revenue, improve their profitability and enhance their satisfaction with the practice of law. Contact Ed at (800) 837-5880 and see more at www.lawbiz.com and www.lawbizblog.com.

About Ed Poll