Starting Out Fresh: The virtues and vices of the virtual office

October 31, 2012

Solo Practitioner(Editor’s note: “Starting Out Fresh” is a five-part series on common questions tackled by new solo and small practitioners that will appear weekly on WestlawInsider throughout the month of October.)

Week 1: Hourly billing or flat-fee?

Week 2: What can (and should) I charge for as an attorney?

Week 3: Just because you’re “solo” doesn’t mean that you have to do it alone

Week 4: Don’t let the hours set you

For the last post in the series, we’re going to cover a topic that will likely be among the first of your considerations when starting out as a new solo or small law attorney: what to do about an office.

This isn’t so much a question of whether you need an office – you do.

Instead, this is a question of what kind of office you need: physical or “virtual.”

“Physical office” probably warrants little explanation, but the same isn’t true with regard to a “virtual office.”

Although they have become much more common in recent years, many may still be unaware of what exactly constitutes a “virtual office.”

The concept may be most easily explained in comparison with a physical office.

With a physical office, you rent out physical space –be it a single office within a suite of several other offices or a standalone one.

In the case of renting out an office within a large suite of offices, included as part of your monthly rent is access to and use of an administrative staff that is responsible for, among other things, answering and routing phone calls and sorting mail.

With a virtual office, you essentially get the same package as renting out a physical office within a larger suite – just without the physical office itself.

Instead, office space is rented out on an hourly basis, and a certain number of hours per month can be included in a rental plan.

Why opt for a virtual office?

A major reason that lawyers opt for the virtual route is because of its friendlier price, which is often a fraction of the cost of a physical office in the same suite.

Would a virtual office actually work for you, though?

There are several criteria to consider.

First, you need an office space to work.

This means a dedicated space where you can take phone calls, read and respond to emails, draft documents, do research, print what you need, and safely store and secure client files.

If you can’t provide yourself with such an office, a traditional physical office is probably better for your situation

On the other hand, if you can or already have such a space set aside, a virtual office may be exactly what you’re looking for.

Assuming that your previously described workspace is located in your home, a virtual office provides you with the rest of what you need to operate a law practice: a place to conduct client meetings and a business mailing address.

Moreover, your virtual office’s administrative staff can take care of notarizations and service of process via U.S. Mail (assuming that there is at least one notary on staff, which should be the case in most circumstances).

Some of you may be asking about a significant issue thus far omitted: the fax machine.

Attorneys send and receive a lot of faxes, and, as such, you may be wondering if you need to get a dedicated fax machine and fax line for your home office.

You don’t.

In fact, I would recommend against it.

Instead, you should use any number of online service providers that allow you to send and receive faxes via email (the faxes are sent as attachments in various formats (Microsoft Word, PDF, jpg, etc) and received as PDFs or TIFFs).

This allows you to far more easily store your client files electronically instead of having to receive them via fax and then scan them in later (by the way, you should always create electronic copies of your client files).

The steady evolution toward digitalization is also exemplified by the increasingly prevalence of electronic filing options and requirements among courts.

This same technological progress also makes virtual offices all the more workable for many attorneys.

Nevertheless, despite all of the technological advancements attorneys can avail themselves of, the need for a physical workspace remains.

Without such a one as previously described, a virtual office alone may not offer enough to operate a law practice – no matter how small.

On the other hand, if you do have such a workspace, a virtual office may be just the thing to complete the picture of your law firm.