Are a law practice and a law office synonymous?

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Published on 9/28/09

Is the location of your office, whether downtown, in a strip mall or in a two-story walkup, critical from a client perspective?

The answer depends on the types of clients you seek to attract and what is most convenient to them.

If your clients are blue collar workers, for instance, you may want to be located close to public transportation. If your clients are accused criminal defendants, proximity to the court house and bail bondsmen is imperative. If you deal mostly with technology clients, location may be irrelevant, since most of the work is done electronically. In evaluating what is most important to the client, personal convenience to the lawyer is one of the last factors to be considered.

Consider what kind of office you have. Your office space and related amenities speak volumes about what kind of firm you are.

A startup entrepreneur might prefer going to a strip mall location with ample free parking, while a corporate client may seek assurance in the prestige afforded by a multi-purpose, marble and glass high-rise with valet parking.

A large office with conference rooms suggests emphasis on team meetings and collaboration; small and simple offices suggest simpler, less adversarial approaches. Such messages define your firm more loudly than any marketing brochure or advertisement.

Lawyers' personal tastes and professional style are also reflected in office space. Some small firm or solo practitioners may like being in a diverse professional environment, sharing space with accountants, brokers and other non-lawyers.

Others may be comfortable with a "Fegen suite," where lawyers share the expense of a reception area, conference rooms, clerical staff and office equipment. And large corporate firms typically want to reflect the hierarchical approach of their clients, complete with corner offices for firm leaders and office perks defined by partner status.

There is also an alternative worth considering: conducting a legal practice primarily through the Internet.

For a lawyer in solo practice, this involves the establishment of a virtual office. The concept is defined by minimal expenditures on physical office space; contact with clients or professional colleagues largely by e-mail, Internet portal or telephone; and use of online "virtual assistants" at another remote location for staff support.

The virtual office has its limits. The flexibility offered by electronic tools is real, but it can become dangerous when used as a replacement for direct client contact. The nature of one's practice and the intention of the lawyer to be "super-connected" to respond quickly are essential to answering the visibility question.

Clients may be more inclined to value the flexibility of a solo practice if they have the assurance that they can always get in touch when they need to. Virtual offices may be acceptable, but virtual lawyers are not.

The bottom line on whether a virtual office makes sense is whether it accommodates client service and client communication. Nothing should be allowed to disrupt the means by which the lawyer learns the client's intent and desires. No matter what technology makes possible, it is not the answer if, in the end, it makes things more difficult for the client.

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