Know these five things about your law practice before choosing shared office space and find the best balance of flexibility and stability for your firm.
There are two big takeaways from the COVID pandemic.
First, the business climate can change swiftly and drastically, so striking that balance between flexibility and stability with your office rental is critical.
Second, for lawyers, there’s nothing more important than having an established network of other attorneys to refer you business when you can’t do in-person networking (like if you’re too busy, or precluded from doing so because of a deadly virus).
Picking the right office space requires having a solid understanding of these five things:
1. What kind of people do you want around you?
For most of us, the vast majority of our new business comes from referrals from other lawyers. Building and maintaing a large network of other lawyers is one of the keys to financial success and being able to maintain our independent lifestyle.
But for many, building a good network requires getting out and meeting new people, and that’s not always possible.
Clever small firm practitioners know that having a big network of lawyer colleagues – right in their own office – gives you the edge of being able to maintain that referral network even when you can’t get out of the office.
The bottom line is, law is a profession that is most successfully practiced in collaboration with other lawyers. The ability to brainstorm and get advice about legal issues or practice strategies is essential to everyday practice.
Some firms are big enough to have this collaborative environment on its own. Maybe you just don’t care to be around other lawyers. For the rest of us, it makes the most sense to find shared office space with other lawyers.
But the people you may find in a shared office space may be a mixed bag.
In a typical law office sublet, you may find lawyers who are open to collaboration. These are usually office situations where there are a number of small law firm subtenants.
Multi-professional coworking spaces can be a more collaborative environments, but unless you rent from a coworking space for law firms, you may find an odd mix of clientele ranging from traders to tailors. Different professionals have different work habits that don’t always mix well with a legal practice, which requires quiet and, above all, privacy.
2. How much will your firm grow (or contract) over the next five years?
Give some careful thought about how you want your firm to change over the next five years.
Are you an immigration attorney with ambitions to scale up with 10 paralegals? Do you expect to find a partner for your commercial litigation practice and hire one or two associates? Or, does success for you mean keeping things small and manageable, but maybe hiring a part-time bookkeeper to do your billing?
Change doesn’t always mean growth either. If you are thinking about retirement, going in-house or getting out of the practice altogether, take that into consideration as well.
If you have any ambition to expand or contract your practice from where it is now, you will need a space that is flexible enough to accommodate the change, but stable enough that you won’t have to move short term.
For example, office space leased directly from a landlord offers the most stability but the least amount of flexibility. With a long-term office lease, you are guaranteed to not have to vacate the office for a while, but if there is no extra space available in the building when the firm needs it, the firm could end up with staff in two buildings.
The lack of flexibility in a long term lease often results in firms taking on (or ending up with) more space than they need.
Try to sublet that extra space to offset the cost and you could have a whole other headache on your hands. For this reason, most self-employed attorneys opt for shared law office space as opposed to direct leases.
3. Which working environment will make you most productive?
Your physical workspace can make a meaningful difference in your productivity. Some attorneys thrive off the buzzing energy of a busy office. Others want to work in an office that feels like a law firm: professional and quiet, but not dead.
Give some thought about the different features in your current (or past) office that helped you be most productive. Was the culture collaborative? Sterile? Quiet? Were people friendly or did they stick to themselves? What was your office like? How much space did you have? How did it feel, was it roomy or cramped?
When selecting an office for your firm, we suggest that you consider the following items, which are listed in priority order:
- Building location: Look for something that is not only convenient to you but also your clients.
- Your physical workspace: You can sublease office space in the nicest building, but if your workspace is a hovel, then you will not be happy or productive.
- The conference rooms: Next to your office, you’ll probably spend the most time in conference rooms. Make sure they will meet your typical needs, and more importantly, will be available when you need them.
- The office suite, including reception: If you had to choose between a workspace that makes you happy or a reception area with designer chairs and modern art, go with the former. Those extra lavish furnishings won’t be the deciding factor when a client decides to retain your services.
- The building lobby: Most buildings with shared office spaces have decent lobbies. The market simply demands it. Frankly, the threshold for building lobbies is that there should be nothing offensive about it (odors, disrepair, etc.). That’s a low bar.
- The building exterior: For attorneys the exterior design of the building is irrelevant. The only people who look up in Manhattan are tourists and architects. No client will refuse to retain your firm because of what the exterior of your office building looks like.
4. What’s your real budget?
Our experience is that most law practices can support considerably more in rent than what their attorneys’ think. And I’m not saying this because I’m a landlord and want you to spend more money. Frankly, my profit margin is significantly higher with smaller workspaces.
But if you are choosing between an office that you really like but stretches the budget, or one that doesn’t get you excited but is within the budget, go with the bigger office (within reason, I’m not advocating irresponsibility).
Time and time again we’ve seen that attorneys who take the nicer space play a “bigger game”. As compared to their colleagues who play it safe, the attorneys who stretch not only find a way to pay for the extra expense, but they grow their practices much more rapidly.
So, as you figure out your budget, come up with a range where the high point of which may be a stretch for you. Then go shopping for space.
5. What services must your practice have?
Once you know your budget, think about all the services your firm needs as part of your office (internet, phone service, copy machines, reception services, HVAC, cleaning, kitchen pantry, etc.). It’s best to group these services into three categories:
- What you absolutely require
- What would be nice to have
- What you can definitely live without
When looking at different office options, in order to compare “apples to apples” you need to really understand what is included as part of the deal. If the services your firm absolutely requires are not included (or are inadequate), then you will have to pay for these things on your own. Which will of course significantly increase the cost of your law office rental.
For example, take your typical shared office space. In many executive suites, internet access is included as part of your rental fees. Executive suites, being in the business of renting space, tend to have high-end internet service.
Internet service is usually included as part of the deal in sublet office space as well. But it will only be as good as what the sublessor is willing to purchase. If you’re planning to run your firm from the Cloud, a slow internet connection will not only reduce productivity, it may drive you crazy. You’ll soon find yourself paying for a $700 per month T1 service.
These five tips will help you be prepared for a move into a shared office space. So follow them step-by-step and soon your will be in an office space that provides the perfect amount of balance and flexibility, helping your practice find success.
I wish you would open one of your facilities in Miami Florida. Your article is spot on regarding the problems faced by law firms trying to share space with businesses and other professions.