|Oregon State Bar Bulletin MAY 2007|
eschewing the traditional office
By Janine Robben
Joel Corcoran didn’t set out to be a lawyer with no law office. It just happened.
"I had to start a virtual practice out of necessity," says Corcoran, who practices what he calls "geek law" out of his home in Southeast Portland. "After I was dismissed as of counsel for a firm that needed someone with a much stronger electronics background, I simply didn’t have the funds to open an office, and I didn’t want to take on the debt necessary to do so. After my practice really started taking off about six months ago, I decided to stay in a virtual practice for the benefits."
Corcoran, whose legal background also includes work for firms that range from a handful of attorneys to 350, is one of a number of Oregon lawyers who have discovered the benefits of working alone and doing all, or most, of their own word processing and billing.
Practicing out of their homes, or in office space for which they pay minimal rent for occasional use or other non-traditional settings, they say they are enjoying the flexibility and relative financial freedom that comes from being their own bosses, setting their own hours and reducing their overhead.
Some of these virtual practitioners see themselves as a throwback to an earlier age — "It’s almost like the old house-call mentality of doctors," says Corcoran — while others are using technology to re-define work.
" ‘Place’ has become obsolete," says "John," a pseudonym for a Willamette Valley virtual lawyer whose clients tend to be younger and technically savvy. "There’s no reason to have the overhead and inconvenience of a stand-alone office; no good reason for clients to leave their offices, drive, park, ride elevators and wait, just to get some legal advice."
While "John" and some of the other lawyers interviewed for this story don’t want to be identified, Corcoran says he doesn’t try to hide the fact that he doesn’t have an office.
"‘I want to come to your office,’ " he describes a typical conversation with a prospective client as beginning. "Answer: ‘I don’t have one.’ Question: ‘What do you mean you don’t have one?’ " I’ve probably lost some clients, but others value that I can go to their business at 8 p.m."
Virtual practitioner Marty Barrack says his clients see a financial benefit in how he conducts his business.
"It’s me and a computer," says Barrack, who hangs out in a client’s office when he isn’t on the road handling technology and real estate transactions. "The reason I wanted to share (my story) is, my competition is big. In a year, I participate in deals worth a couple of billion. Often, the other side of the deals are immense law firms. One last year had 16 times my legal bill. My clients see value."
Beverly Michaelis, a practice management adviser with the bar’s Professional Liability Fund, says she sees "virtual" practices most often with new lawyers.
But the 12 virtual or "semi-virtual" practitioners who responded to a recent Bulletin survey (broadcast on the Sole and Small Firm Practitioners’ list serve) don’t all fit that description. In fact, none of the 12 were younger than their mid-30s, nine had substantial careers prior to becoming lawyers, and nine worked for other firms — including mega firms — before going "virtual."
Now, most of them say they wouldn’t do it any other way.
"I practiced before," says Scott Snyder, who spent 10 years as in-house corporate counsel and an insurance litigation attorney before turning one of his bedrooms into his office six years ago. "It made a big difference: the practice of law is very much the practice of law."
"Studies show most American workers don’t necessarily want to make more money; they want more autonomy," continues Snyder, the divorced father of an 11-year-old daughter. "I have control of my life and my time. The longer I’ve been doing this, the less likely I’d go back to working for someone else."
These are some of the questions the survey participants were asked. Only some answers to each question are included because of space limitations.
Do you have an office now? If so, where is it located? If you don’t have an office, where do you work? Where do you see clients?
"Susan," who does estate planning: I meet with clients around my dining room table. Clients say they much prefer it because they feel comfortable sitting around my dining room table talking about what they want to leave their kids. I wear jeans and a nice sweater. It’s all part of the atmosphere; a business suit would be out-of-place.
"John": My basement, plus part-time rented office space in several cities. My clients are self-employed and relatively young. They get it. They’re just happy to get the legal work (done). This whole working-from-home thing is not new. Prior to the industrial age, everyone worked at home. Abraham Lincoln and the judges he worked for rode the circuit.
"Anne": I work at home and see clients at their businesses or, rarely, my office. On those rare occasions when I need to confer with a private client, I use another attorney’s conference room.
"Malcolm": I work at home and see clients at their businesses or homes or at coffee shops. When I see clients in their environment, I get to know them better. I make house/business calls; it’s a way to distinguish myself from the pack.
Ann Fisher: I see clients in coffee shops and at their premises. I could never work at home; too many distractions. When I talk to a client, I want to give them my full attention. There are a number of lawyers who will offer you their conference room. I plan to get an office in the near future. I want to do more work with small businesses. It would be better if I had a professional setting to talk about all the things you have to do if you are going to have a successful business.
Peter Haas, who prosecutes patent applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office: Most of my clients come to my kitchen table; some I meet at their business or at a referring attorney’s office. When I opened my practice, I didn’t have money for an office. At first, I was actually nervous about not having an office, about what clients would think. But ultimately, clients come to me to save money or for a better personality fit. My office location is inconsequential. Some clients will say, "We started this project at our kitchen table." Other clients may not initially know where I work. I say, "Hey, I’m in the area, why don’t I stop by?" They see that as an added service.
Beate Weiss-Krull: I do rent office space (I share with a friend) in a fairly unconventional space, as it used to be a motel. I meet with clients on my two office days a week, or on weekends or evenings, at either my office or at a coffee shop or at their homes.
How many hours do you think you work in an average week?
"Susan": Hard to say. At least 30; during tax time, probably 60 or 70.
"Malcolm": 45-plus. I work one-half of my time on my solo practice and one-half as a contracts attorney for a high-tech manufacturer.
Marty Barrack: 75. Probably more, but I don’t want to admit it. I have the beauty of having started in big law firms. I don’t need a lot of sleep, and I don’t get depressed.
Joel Corcoran: I bill about 30 hours, and spend another 20 or so on practice management, networking, etc.
Cindy Danforth: 10-50, depending on whether I’m in active litigation.
Ann Fisher: On average, 30 hours real work, but it goes from too many sometimes to not enough.
Peter Haas: 40. I keep pretty steady 9-5 hours. I like to not have patent emergencies, but some clients create them.
Scott Snyder: It varies; 40-50.
Stephanie Thompson, who has a home office: 20-30. It depends on how hard I work. I try to keep regular hours, typically 9-3 weekdays with a lunch break and usually a little between 4-6. Right now I have a 10-year-old working on a science fair project, so occasionally I have to tear away from the computer to work on acids and bases.
Beate Weiss-Krull: 15. I don’t really get anything done at home.
Why did you become a "virtual" lawyer?
"Susan": Although my law firm was very supportive of me and even let me work part-time from home, I always felt guilty about putting in less than a full day for them. The law firm also went through an upheaval, giving me the perfect ‘out’ to do something different.
"John": Almost everyone I work with is either young or young in spirit. I’ve developed a clientele that’s very comfortable with voicemail and e-mail; I often don’t even mail things. E-mail is the easiest thing in the world.
"Anne": It enables me to practice where I live — in a rural area — and to continue an interesting practice.
"Malcolm": I’d been in the Air Force for 10 years and trucking for nearly three years; had an MBA and was 37 when I graduated from law school. Where I went to law school, the average student was 26 and straight out of college. (Being) self-employed…works well (for me).
Marty Barrack: It was not planned; it just wound up this way. I’ve had my (co-office with a client) about two years. I thought I’d just eke by, but as big firms have raised their rates, there’s really an opportunity for people like me. With each month that passes, I get more secure in my long-term. I’m admitted in five jurisdictions. Oregon lawyers, as a group, are the nicest group of lawyers I’ve ever worked with; as a solo (practitioner), I’ve found so much intangible support in this state. I could never, never have done this in another state.
Cindy Danforth: I have a two and a half year old child. I had her when I was 45. I restructured my life around getting pregnant, having a child.
Ann Fisher: Actually, it was a fluke. I hated the infrastructure of a large firm; large firms have infrastructures that require a lot of hours. I was also of counsel, which is kind of a no-man’s land; I didn’t fit in with partners or associates. I made a three-year commitment to the large firm, did it, then decided I would be better served to leave. I almost went to another firm with a buy-in, but I decided not to do that. If I have to pay someone overhead, why not pay myself overhead?
Peter Haas: When I realized that nothing could be worse than working for my last employer, I figured I had nothing to lose by going solo. I just invested in a cell phone, e-fax and a web site and kept costs to a minimum as necessity.
Stephanie Thompson: I’d like to say that it’s what I always wanted to do, but this is sort of my ‘making do’ position until I find a ‘real job’ or my husband’s career path shifts. The idea of continuing in this fashion is gaining greater appeal by the day.
Beate Weiss-Krull: I am the mother of two small children and want to be flexible with taking time off. In addition, I also want to make sure that I enjoy what I do.
What do you see as the major advantages
of this kind of practice?
All of the 12 mentioned flexibility, convenience and/or saved expense.
"Susan": I am my own boss. I accept the cases I want and decline the others. I set my own hours. I prefer practicing law this way, even though at times I’m ready to pull out my hair! I think I would have that problem even if I had an office. It’s just me: I have trouble with the word ‘no.’
Marty Barrack: Very little administrative time, complete independence, no politics, no fighting over management, administrative or financial issues.
Joel Corcoran: I’m able to work on-site with my corporate clients. I get to see their business strategies develop in the workplace, I see directly how people interact and go about their jobs, and I have a better personal connection to the business overall. And some of my clients — particularly start-up companies — value my understanding of the technologies that make a ‘virtual workspace’ possible.
Peter Haas: A significant reduction in life stress and the total flexibility to work whenever, wherever and however.
Almost all of the attorneys mentioned isolation as the most-significant drawback to their virtual practice.
"Susan," who has a home office: My work is always there staring at me. While most clients respect business hours, others know they can drop by or call in the evening and catch me. I cannot really take a break unless I completely leave town. With children at home, it is often hard to get time that is uninterrupted.
Marty Barrack: I work all the time, and taking vacations is difficult. It gets a little lonely, but professional camaraderie so often comes with professional nightmares.
Joel Corcoran: For me, the most significant drawback is not being surrounded by other attorneys. I’m the type of person who ‘thinks out loud:’ I work through problems by bouncing ideas off people…it’s still occasionally nerve wracking when I tackle a new type of project for the first time without a mentor to guide me. Another significant drawback is not having even a small law library readily at hand. I just like the feel of an actual book when I’m doing research, and, even though I can get almost any treatise or resource on line, I miss that tangible aspect of research.
Peter Haas: Isolation is clearly the hardest part of being solo. Once my spouse leaves, it’s just me. There is a group of solo patent attorneys that e-mails each other, and we get together — like a firm meeting — for lunch every few months.
Is your income about what you’d
like it to be? If not, what do you identify as the reasons why not?
"Susan": I have more clients than I can handle (I’m often turning them away), but I don’t make much money because I charge discounted rates to many of my clients who can’t afford much. I am home schooling and therefore cannot work all day. One of my biggest challenges is tracking my time, because one minute I am working on one client matter, the next a child needs something, and then another client calls. I know that I don’t charge for all of the time I spend on a client matter. Weekends are family time, and I hate to work then unless I absolutely have to. I have enough to cover my bills and pay myself a small salary. Really, I am the reason I am not making more money.
"John": I think I probably bill more now without the office than I did with the office. I don’t have to put on nice clothes, drive, park or prepare food in the a.m. It saves at least an hour a day.
Joel Corcoran: Not quite, but getting there. (Reasons): My own lack of information and experience in setting up my business at the start. I didn’t anticipate a lot of expenses, such as paying self-employment taxes, business registration fees, etc., and I didn’t ‘do the math’ correctly when setting my hourly rates for some clients, and I’ve paid for it, literally and figuratively. But there is something to be said for learning by experience.
Cindy Danforth: Not always, but it varies from year to year. Last year was my ‘worst’ year because 1) I chose to spend more time as a mom and less time working, and 2) I devoted about 50 percent of my work hours to a contingency case that has yet to settle or go to trial.
Peter Haas: I’m making as much as I made as an associate at other firms, and my income is steady. I’d like to earn a little more from additional clients, but I really don’t want to work more hours, just more effectively during the time I currently dedicate to ‘work.’ It has been a slow growth from nothing to today. I think time builds a reputation and that is what I am trying to do.
Scott Snyder: Yes. I handle both hourly and contingent fee cases. I think it’s very, very important to discuss fees at the first meeting to set client expectations. I think part of it is screening and communication. I come from a family of doctors. People come to rely on insurance and have that same mindset about lawyers: ‘Oh, you have to pay for a lawyer?’ It is often said that ‘you make money on the cases you don’t take,’ and I believe that is true.
Do you charge clients less than the
going rate in your area because you presumably have less overhead, or not?
"Susan": I charge non-profits 50 percent of my usual rate because many of them do not have much in the way of funds, but they are providing a valuable service. I also often charge reduced rates to my clients who are on a fixed income and cannot afford much, even though I often do not communicate to them that I am doing so. I give a lot of free advice over the phone.
"John": Much less. I offer a free phone consult within a day or a paid office visit within a week. Everyone always chooses the phone consult.
"Malcolm": A little. I generally don’t charge for travel time.
Marty Barrack: Yes, I try to price myself at the rate of third- or fourth-year lawyers at a big firm.
Joel Corcoran: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the competitive advantages for attorneys taking on a virtual practice. I also try to bill on a flat-fee basis whenever I can, and I’ve discounted my rate a bit for clients offering consistent, regular, weekly work over a long period of time.
Cindy Danforth (who is paying for a full-time office but is only there two half-days a week): No, I charge a competitive hourly rate.
Ann Fisher: This is a funny situation. I have to keep my rates comparable else I look like a second-rate stay-at-home (yes, the biases are still there), so if I do reduce rates, it is for a specific assignment or client.
Peter Haas: Yes. I have a fixed-fee price model that ultimately saves the client significant money over traditional practices of hourly billing. Patent applications have the advantage of the steps being pretty well defined. The gamble is how much interaction the client is going to have. I try to assess, in the initial interview, whether he’s going to give me a napkin or a PhD application.
Stephanie Thompson: I charge less than some of the big patent firms. Perhaps I’d charge less in general if I were working 40 hours a week. I do have overhead, even if it isn’t rent. Part of the difficulty of being alone is you don’t get to spread the expenses around. Bar dues, supplies, CLEs just about wipe out a whole month’s worth of work.
Is there anything you’re finding
particularly difficult to do on your own? (i.e., no one to ask for advice
on a difficult case, trouble with document formatting, etc.
"Susan": What I have trouble with is finding time to get everything done in a timely fashion. I often cannot accept new clients because the backlog is too great. I also worry about coverage while I am away in case something comes up. Luckily, with my practice, I have had no problems so far. But I really have no back-up plan if something should happen to me, or no one to answer legal questions for my clients if something comes up while I am gone.
"John": Being forced to solve every problem from scratch makes me a much better lawyer than if I asked a guy who learned from a guy who learned from a guy who had it wrong in the first place.
"Anne": Getting out pleadings in a crunch is difficult without administrative help.
"Malcolm": Litigation, but I regularly stay in contact with a circle of colleagues and use them as a sounding board.
Marty Barrack: Complex formatting in MS Word is too difficult for me. One of my clients has a form they use for policies that has a table of contents in front. Yesterday, I was trying to update it. At the top, the letter "c" appeared. I have no idea where it came from. When I tried to delete it, the whole table disappeared.
Stephanie Thompson: At this stage of the game, it’s really getting the clients. I am having someone work on my marketing materials right now.
Who’s Who in This Article
“Susan,” Willamette Valley
Pre-law school career: None
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: 10 years with firm
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: 10 years
Main practice area(s): Estate planning, tax, advising non-profits
“John,” Willamette Valley
Pre-law school career: None
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: Five as a solo practitioner
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: 1
Main practice area(s): Business, entrepreneurship
“Anne,” outside Willamette Valley
Pre-law school career: Writer, teacher, non-profit director
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: 7 years with government law firm
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: 3
Main practice area(s): Government, land use
Pre-law school career: Military aviator, trucking management,
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: None (worked as financial planner
for three years after passing the bar)
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: 4-plus
Main practice area(s): Transactional business, real property, estate planning
Marty Barrack, Portland
Pre-law school career: Human resources
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: 17 years;
firm size ranged from 2 (in-house counsel) to 400-plus
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: 2
Main practice area(s): Technology, real estate
Joel Corcoran, Portland
Pre-law school career: academics with “a little bit of politics”
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: 5.5 salaried and contract; firm size
ranged from 3-4 to several hundred
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: Less than 1 year
(transitioned from part-time “virtual” practice)
Main practice area(s): Intellectual property, corporate/general
business law, ethics
Cindy Danforth, Eugene
Pre-law school career: Broadcasting industry sales manager
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: 6 years with Oregon
Department of Justice
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: 3
Main practice area(s): Employment and civil rights
Ann Fisher, Portland
Pre-law school career: Homemaker; raised Arabian horses
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: 13 years, including with large firm
and large corporation
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: 10, “of sorts” (had office
most of that time but no permanent staff)
Main practice area(s): business, energy, real estate
Peter Haas, Portland
Pre-law school career: Manufacturing (M.S. in engineering)
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: about 3 years with two small firms
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: 2 years (off and on previous
Main practice area(s): Patents
Scott Snyder, Portland
Pre-law school career: None
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience:10 years as in-house corporate
counsel and insurance litigation attorney
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: 6
Main practice area(s): Personal injury, business/corporate, litigation
Stephanie Thompson, Salem
Pre-law school career: Textile designer, commercial interior designer,
adjunct professor of architecture
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: None
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: Less than 1
Main practice area(s): Contract work with a New York intellectual
property attorney; copyright, trademark, other business law;
Beate Weiss-Krull, Portland
Pre-law school career: Product manager for surgical and dental
Pre-“virtual” law practice experience: None
Number of years in “virtual” law practice: Almost 1 year
Main practice area(s):
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janine Robben has been a member of the Oregon State Bar since 1980. She is a regular contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2007 Janine Robben