I have received this question from lawyers five times in the past week. Then it dawned on me that I have not discussed this subject much in a long time. It is a serious component for many home office attorneys even if it is not so big of a problem for me and my practice. As lawyers think about a move home, this is one of the issues they try to resolve first.
It is not much of a problem for me because I do not meet in person with most of the clients I represent. Oh, I deal with them extensively on the phone, by use of email and with Basecamp. But, I practice in a very narrow niche in which my firm and I enforce the legal rights gained by those filing bankruptcy. In short, my law firm and I prosecute those that violate the automatic stay and discharge injunction as issued to protect debtors in bankruptcy. My referrals almost always come from other bankruptcy attorneys. Because these cases are referred by an attorney who is already representing this person, I seldom have to worry about the credibility issues or concerns of clients that not physically meeting with them might raise. When I do have to meet with a client, I will do it at the bankruptcy attorneys' office (such as for discovery) or at the Courthouse, as for trial. Since Texas is a large state geographically, and since I practice in every bankruptcy court in Texas, I could not really have an office that would accommodate every client anyway.
And, that is my first point. One of the solutions for meeting with clients if you work, or want to work, from home is to build a relationship-based practice. Solicit clients from people, lawyers or other professionals that already represent these people. Other than lawyers, there can be human resource people, counselors or psychologists, CPAs or accountants, social workers, credit counselors, and Realtors, just to name a few. First, since these sources are referring an existing client they have already done, or can readily do, part of the leg work for you, which will allow you to work from home without meeting most of these clients in person. Second, if you need to meet with referred clients, what better introduction than to meet at the office of the lawyer or other professional referring the case to you.
The second thing that I do in my law practice is that I collaborate. We have lawyers that work together on the same cases. All of us work from different locations. We divide a case up into its component parts, and each of us do what we do best. We are not really a law firm in the traditional sense, but we are "regularly associated together", as is the requirement in most states to split fees in this fashion between attorneys. For example, I am terrible at running down the bankruptcy attorney and the potential client, investigating the case in time line fashion, as is needed, determining if there is in fact a willful violation of a court order, getting permission to file suit, getting the client retained, drafting the pleadings, and making sure they are filed with the various courts. It is not that I do not like doing it, it is just that I get wrapped up in trials, discovery, briefing, mediation and settlement negotiations, and then this function gets put off longer than it should. Putting that function off upsets the clients, the referrals sources and either slows down or costs me money in the long run. So, I collaborate with lawyers who do these functions, after the case is referred to me. After all, there are some lawyers that like doing this type of work, and not appear in Court or deal with opposing counsel much. Each lawyer makes their own decision about space, staff and expenses and they cover those out of what they make on the cases we work together.
My point here is that collaboration works. If you want to work from home, do not want to do initial consults or interviews, sign up the clients after contact is initially made, or just to do the meat of the case after filing, then let me suggest collaboration. After a while you get use to practicing with others, even if they do not share all of your ideas of working at home. You will have fewer fights and less anxiety than having partners or associates because you do not have to worry as much about how they operate their practice, or about capital expenses, when they show up to work and go home (as long as the work is done). You can collaborate with an attorney who likes that part of the practice on which you would rather not concentrate, who will do the initial interview or consult at their office, and then package it up for you to meet with them over the phone and follow through.
I have found that lack of formal office space in which to meet with clients is often more the mental resistance of the lawyer than the clients or potential clients.
If what I have stated above is not an option for you, I have notices and discussed with home office lawyers over the years what they done to solve the meeting space problem. Here is some of what others attorneys have done:
1. Meet clients at home. I know many do not want to do this, and it might depend on what type of practice you pursue. Sometimes HOAs, ordinances and deed restrictions might not allow this, especially if it is too visible. Sometime less desirable clients such as personal injury and criminal defense clients make this unpalatable. But, I had one estate planner tell me she did a number of different things to avoid meeting with clients in her home for years, but finally learned it was not that bad.
2. Meet at the clubhouse. Many apartments, HOAs and communities have what many refer to as "clubhouses" for their communities. I know of a couple of lawyers than have houses in these communities. They reserve small rooms at these clubhouses to meet with clients, to schedule depositions, and the like.
3. Meet virtually. This still might be difficult for some lawyers, especially those representing consumers, because not all consumers have the ability to meet up online. But, if you represent more sophisticated or technology savvy clients, it is possible.
4. Meet at the public library. I have met a few attorneys that are allowed to reserve meeting rooms at their local libraries with nothing more that a library card. Some library systems only allow this if the group is not for profit. But, the truth of the matter is that local governments often provide small meeting spaces for little of no costs.
5. Meet at the YMCA / YWCA. Some YMCA and YWCA groups have meeting spaces you can reserve. Often you have to be a member. But, what the hey, you can meet the client after your workout and shower. I have met a couple of attorneys that use this space to meet with clients a couple days a week. I remember one of the attorneys told me he was allowed to use the space because he gave free talks or lectures on his legal subject matter to YMCA members. That is a double win. You get to meet with people in the Ys meeting space and you get to build your practice and reputation by speaking on your legal specialty.
6. Meet at the local credit union. A few credit unions want to provide services to members. They also have meeting space they let other use. They may not care for you much if you practice bankruptcy law, but otherwise I have met a few who make arrangements with their local credit unions to use a small space to meet with potential clients. You might have to have an account there, but what is wrong with with having access to low interest loans by being a member of a credit union.
7. Meet at the local courthouse. People associate attorneys' with courthouses. So meet there. Many courthouses have meeting spaces for lawyers. Often they get full during trial and docket call, so schedule the space later in the day or off days. Many times I meet with clients on a bench somewhere a little out of the way at the courthouse. In other words, I do not even use the meeting rooms.
8. Meet at the local coffee shop. There is a chain of coffee houses in California call the Legal Grind. They cater to lawyers meeting with clients over a cup of joe. If you do not live in the area of the Legal Grind, then find a good coffee shop in your area. Get to know the proprietor or manager. Many of these places have WiFi. Buy your client's coffee and they will not mind that much.
9. Meet at a fast food restaurant. This is probably more challenging for most of us than meeting at a coffee shop. Maybe it just is not as casual as a coffee house. But, I knew an attorney that practices in the area of will contest along the entire eastern side of Texas. He would almost always travel to meet his clients. He figured that every small town had a McDonald's, and he liked McDonald's. First, he could find a booth after breakfast or lunch time that was reasonably quiet. McDonald's are generally clean and well maintained. He could buy his client's a beverage of their choice. Many families brought their children and they could play when the parents and attorney talked. I thought at one point that this is just not professional looking enough. But, it almost always worked. His standard retainer was $10,000.00. I personally saw him walk away from these meetings with $10,000.00 checks a number of times, and this was the first time he had met the clients.
10. Meet at the client's home or place of business. In some consumer areas of law, I personally think there can be some security issues you need to consider in doing this. However, I have met a number of lawyers over the years that practice in areas that make this an allowable outlet. If you practice business law or real estate law, this is often a reasonable option. If you practice in some consumer areas, it is possible to get referrals from human resource people. Believe it or not human resource people run into personal problems all of the time in regard dealing with work issues of their employees. When I started out in consumer bankruptcy I received any number of referrals from human resource people at bigger businesses and local plants. Consider pursuing these referrals sources. Often time the human resource people have to be educated to recognize and remember to refer a case, but as they are educated by you, see if you cannot meet the referrals in their rec area, lounge or offices of the business.
11. Meet in an auto body shop and chiropractor's office. I spoke to an attorney at a seminar that told me most of his small personal injury business came from referrals by auto body shops. I met another Texas attorney that told me he got most of his personal injury referrals from chiropractors. Both of them met with their potential clients at the locations of their referral sources.
12. Meet at churches and funeral homes. Along the same lines, I have met probate and wills and trusts attorneys that get referrals from preachers, priest, rabbi's and funeral home directors. One attorney I met drafted cheap wills as a service for churches on certain days. These attorneys use the site of their referrals sources to meet with potential clients. Regardless if the business is referred from churches, if you are a parishioner many churches have facilities in which you can meet with people in off hours. Just ask.
13. Meet at the law school library. What can seem more legal or professional than that? Especially in Houston, and other cities, where we have three law schools I know lawyers that agree to meet with people at the law library. This is especially true if you are an alumni. They have computer connections, copy machines, meeting space and out of the way tables at which you can meet.
14. Meet at a real estate broker's office. I heard from an attorney that figured out that many of these 100% real estate brokerages partially finance their operations by leasing office space to real estate agents. Many Realtor really work at home or from their cars, but want a place to meet with potential clients. So, these real estate brokerages provide a bank of computers, beverages, printers, copies and the like that a Realtor can use while on site and meeting rooms in which to meet, even if the Realtor does not rent an office suite. These so-called "desk fees" often run as low as $90 a month. The lawyer persuaded a couple of these real estate offices on either side of a large metro area to allow him the same deal. His pitch was that it would probably be beneficial for their agents to have more immediate access to an attorney when he was around. So for less than a couple hundred dollars a month he has all of the meeting space he needed. Many of these offices have hundreds of Realtor that use these facilities from time to time. That can be a built in source for referrals in and of itself, even if you do not directly practice real estate.
15. Meet at the local incubator. Many communities or local chambers of commerce have incubators at which new start up businesses can rent space on some advantageous basis. Where it is true that you might be able to rent an office to meet with clients cheaply, many also have general meeting rooms you can rent cheaply in which you do not have to maintain a separate office.
16. Meet at the airport. I once communicated with a lawyer that maintained a law practice in two separate states in two major cities. He worked from where he was or one of his two houses. I asked him where he met with his clients. He met them at the airport. It seems airlines or airports have business centers for certain classes of travelers. He used that space.
17. Meet at the community center. Many towns have community centers, mainly for more elderly people to meet, eat and have group activities. They have spare offices and space. Look into it. This might be especially good if you practice elder care.
18. Meet at another lawyers office. There are many lawyers that have many offices, and many of them rent too much space so they can lock in growth if needed. If you will ask around you can find arrangements that are not too costly. Maybe they want someone around in a related area. That becomes a built in referral source as well. For example, if the law firm is a personal injury firm, they might like a probate attorney around they can call on. Many lawyers use an office or library of other attorneys, many of them without the payment of any money.
19. Meet at an executive suite. If all else fails, rent time at an executive suite. Some are expensive, but there are less high profile offices that often are not. Many times you do not even have to rent an office. You just have a right to use the meeting space so many hours a month. If you want a more personal office to meet with clients, think of hooking up with two or three other attorneys and renting an office in a law firm, executive suite or other such facility to use just for client meetings. Each of you can block different times to use the office. This will substantially reduce the costs.
20. Meet at litigation support offices. There are a number of companies that provide litigation support. Many of these providers, including stenographer and mediators, often provide or rent out office space in which to conduct depositions, mediation and the like. This space goes unused a good deal of the time. Especially if you use the services, make sure you ask if you can use the space to meet with clients.
There are a few other innovative things you might try as well to market your practice and meet conveniently with potential clients:
1. Think about the possibility of a mobile office. Now, I have not ever known an attorney that has done this. However, if you are home based why not think about it. My dad was an eye surgeon. His practice base came from a large swatch of southwest Arkansas and northeast Texas. One way he assisted elderly patients is that he got a motor home, gutted it, turned it into an eye lane on wheels, so he or other physicians could drive it to define locations periodically and offer free eye screenings for cataracts and glaucoma. Depending on how you market your practice there is no reason why you cannot get a motor home with a retractable awning, clear it out and build a mobile office. Roll down the awning and supply drinks and some seating and you have an outside waiting room while you meet with people.
2. Think about contracting out initial interviews and consults. There is no reason you cannot contract out the initial interview or consult part of the practice to other lawyers and non-lawyers. This is not fee splitting as it is paying someone a fee for conducting this service for you. So, for example, if you are a consumer bankruptcy attorney and you cover a large area, you can retain a lawyer or paralegal to do the initial workup. For that matter there is nothing very legal about handing out disclosures and valuing property, and calculating plan payments. You could hire accountants to do this task as well or credit counselors.
3. Think about a small modular offices. There is an attorney in the county in which I live that simply bought one of those small pre-built modular offices and had it moved to a site right across from the large funeral home and grave yard off of a rural road. The small drive way and parking area is gravel. The sign outside reads "Will, Trusts & Probate" along with a phone number. The sign is as big as the building almost. The office is not open all of the time, and the lawyer obviously does most of his work somewhere else. The building offers a meeting space and advertising to a very specific audience in need of his services.
4. Think about putting you initial interview online. Use YouTube and a reasonably inexpensive video camera and embed on your website a video of the information you provide during an initial interview. And now, with many practice areas, there are rapid import programs that allow your potential clients to fill in the information online in a question and answer format. Then the information can be imported into software you use to form out the legal services you provide. This saves a tremendous amount of time, and it eliminates the need to either meet with the potential client personally, greatly reduce the amount of time you have to spend with the client, or at least it eliminates any follow ups after meeting with the client. This allows you to practice from home much easier.
5. Think about creating your own incubator. If you must, rent a small space and develop it into several small meeting rooms that you and others can use to meet with clients on a scheduled basis. No individual offices are necessary. Then sublease the space to other attorneys in the same situation as you to use for meeting space. You might even make a little money at it.
6. Think about soliciting clients through teaching. I know an attorney that gets the overwhelming majority of his business by "teaching". Every major community has a number of organizations that can assist you in putting together classes for people who are interested in the services you provide. Almost every major metropolitan area has a informal adult lifelong learning company that allows attorneys and many others provide classes on various subjects for little or no cost to you. In Houston it is Leisure Learning Unlimited. In many cities it is The Learning Annex. In addition to these the YMCAs and YWCAs will allow you to hold and help you promote classes. Banks, credit unions and financial institutions will sponsor classes in their facilities. Local community centers will do the same. Many local libraries will sponsor such a class. Sometimes churches and businesses will do so as well. Community colleges often do so. With most of this comes subsidized marketing. You can even set up your own free seminars. If you develop an hour to 90 minute presentation that is part informative, part entertaining, and part initial interview or consult, in which the participates fill in information as they go along. You can eliminate or highly reduce the number of clients you see privately. Add to this a website and blog on which the participants might follow up, phone numbers, and rapid import systems for information, and you might not have to meet with the client again, or very little, outside of the seminar or lecture. Now most of these classes rarely bring in more than a couple to a handful of people, but it does not matter. These are typically serious prospects. And, if you operate out of your home, how many new clients do you need at a time anyway? Think of the magic of doing an initial interview or consult with a group of different potential clients at the same time. Think about how much time that will save you.
There are probably other options. They key is that if you desire to run your operation from home, you niether need to pay very much nor maintain a permanent office outside of your home to meet with clients.