Should Lawyers Practice Law From a Home Office?

home office

(Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

For years now, there has been a debate raging in the legal blogosphere over whether lawyers should practice law from home offices. Opponents scoff at the idea of a home office, asserting that real lawyers need an office, while proponents of home offices, often lawyers who themselves have a home office, claim that a home-based law office is not only economical and feasible, but is preferable to a traditional law office.

But the question still remains: Should lawyers practice law from a home office? The short answer is: It depends on who you ask. But one thing is for sure, the person you ask is likely to have a very strong opinion on the matter.

Personally, I believe it’s possible, depending on the types of matters that you handle. If you have an appellate practice or do contract work for other lawyers, it is entirely feasible to practice law from a home office. The key is to have a practice that requires very little consumer client contact.

In fact, I did just that in 2005 that after taking a short 2-year hiatus from the law. I hung up shop as a contract attorney and handled writing projects for other lawyers from my home office. I also accepted appointments from local judges to serve as a mortgage foreclosure referee. At the time, it worked quite well for me.

On the other hand, at the Philly Lawyer blog, Jordan Rushie, criminal defense and litigation attorney, falls in the other camp, insisting that all lawyers need a traditional office:

Office space. There is no debate, you need an office starting out. Are you planning on taking depositions in your living room? I pay $490 a month for two offices (mine and Leo’s). However, to get the space in the first place, I had to put up three months of rent. Factor in money for internet, electric, taxes, etc. Plan to have to pay first, last, and a security deposit up front.

And for litigators and attorneys with consumer clients, Rushie may very well be correct. The Solo Contendre blog addressed this issue recently, with lawyers from different practices chiming in with opposing views about home offices. Michael Kemp explained that attorneys handling criminal law and family law insisted that a law office was a necessity, while an appellate attorney opined just the opposite:

The appellate attorney: “I have an office as well, but you probably don’t need one if you’re doing appeals. I focus my practice on ghostwriting appeals for other attorneys, so most of my communication with my clients is over the phone or by email. Some of them aren’t even in the state. Of course, it’s useful to have a dedicated space for work: a place where you can go to separate your ‘work’ space from your ‘home’ space, but I actually don’t spend a lot of time at my office.”

However, even for lawyers who handle cases that are amenable to a home office, a traditional law office may still be a better fit.  My co-author, Carolyn Elefant. who has long been a proponent of the home-based law office (having practiced out of one herself in the past) recently explained over at My Shingle why home offices aren’t for everyone:

I’m not saying that new lawyers ought to spend thousands of dollars on gadgets or fancy office space…But at the same time, why grudgingly spend money on a dumpy office because someone says you should when the place is so depressing that you don’t want to spend any time there?  On the other hand, why work out of a messy table in the corner of a tiny apartment because working from home has been rebranded as cutting edge?

In other words, whether practicing from a home office makes sense may simply a matter of personal preference. Oftentimes, however, a home office isn’t a preference– it’s a necessity.

This is because for some lawyers, going solo wasn’t necessarily a choice or part of their long range plan. Instead, a significant number of newfound solos were either recently laid off from a job at a firm or are new graduates who have been unable to find work. As a result, these lawyers have little if any money saved up to start a practice and are oftentimes burdened with significant student loan debt. For these lawyers, a home office is the only option.

Sam Glover recently acknowledged this reality at the Lawyerist blog. According to Sam, in most cases, a traditional office is a required part of practicing law, but starting out in a home-based office isn’t always a bad idea:

It’s okay to start out working from home, but unless you have a solid plan for running a virtual law practice, you should plan to rent a real office 6–12 months after you launch your practice.

But even for lawyers with home offices because of economic factors, the savings gained from a home office may not be enough to sustain a home-based practice. This was the case for a recent young lawyer who went solo right out of law school. As explained at the Legal Skills Prof blog, 90 days in this young lawyer called it quits, after having been paid just over $400:

At the 90 day mark, this is what “I Just Want to Practice Law” had to show for his efforts:

Total Cases: 24

Currently Open Cases: 16

Completed Cases: 8

Types of Cases: Criminal defense, juvenile delinquency, CINA, termination of parental rights, mental commitment, employment, post-conviction relief.

Total hours billed: 93.8.  At $60/hr, that’s $5,628.

Total other expenses (miles, photocopies, stamps, etc.) billed: $450

Total money ACTUALLY received in payments: $404.10.  (Yup, you read that right.  I’ve got some on the horizon, but I’m just about out of money).

Total car expenses: 2 oil changes, 1 free battery.  Really have been lucky on this one.

The lesson to be learned is that starting your own practice is no simple task. It’s hard work and requires dedication and a well thought out plan. Every decision that you make will impact the sustainability of your practice and whether to practice from a home-based office is one of the more important decisions you can make.

Carefully consider your costs, your areas of practice, whether you’ll need to meet with clients, and your own preferences and work habits. If you do choose to practice from a home office, realize that your needs may change over time. Be flexible and willing to shift to a more traditional law office setting should you outgrow your home-based practice.

Home offices aren’t a good fit for every lawyer or for every type of practice, but for some lawyers, they can be a good choice.  When it comes right down to it, only you know whether a home-based law practice will work for you and your practice.

-Niki Black

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