New Meaning for Working "In-House": In-Your-Home Law Practice

by Linda Oligschlaeger

Does the notion of walking a few feet to the office instead of a hectic half-hour or more commute appeal to you? Or, does the thought of flexible hours and working in your sweats or jeans make your heart sing? Then a home-based law practice might be for you.

For some lawyers, working "in-house" has taken on a new meaning. Just as home-based businesses are rapidly growing, home-based law offices are seeing significant growth. As the voice of discontentment with the demands of practicing law in a law firm environment has grown louder over the years, some lawyers have found relief is as close as their own back yards. These lawyers have made a conscious choice and have spent time planning to set-up their law practices in their home; others may have found a home office be a necessity, due to downsizing, changes in family obligations, disappointing job searches or an urgent need to get out of the rat race. Yet others lack the capital to set up their own practice in a more traditional setting and start in their homes until their practice is producing sufficient revenue to move to external office space. For others, working from home has nothing to do with family pressures. It may be an opportunity to wind down to retirement with a part-time practice. Still others have a desire to practice on a part-time basis while pursing other personal interests.

As society has changed from an industrial economy to an information/service economy, the advancement of technology has made working from home not only possible but desirable for many. It is now possible to operate just as easily from a home-based office without the hassle of a daily commute and certainty of ever-increasing costs of overhead.

Technology Makes it Possible to Compete

It's no longer necessary to purchase a library of books to practice law. With online legal research services and Internet access, a lawyer practicing from home can have the same research resources as the largest firm in the state. Communication is much easier with the use of e-mail, advanced telephone messaging systems, conference calling, and cell phones.

Some Types of Practice Are Better Suited to a Home-Based Practice

Some types of practice may lend themselves to practicing from home better than others. For example, you might hesitate to meet criminal law clients or - in some situations - domestic relations clients in your home office for security reasons. You can make arrangements to meet with those clients in another more secure location. Practices dealing in small businesses, estate planning and probate, elder law, taxation, intellectual property, alternative dispute resolution, brief writing and research services, and others generally adapt themselves well to meeting clients in a home office.

New Law Practice as Opposed to Existing Client Base

If you have been practicing a number of years, you may have a client base that will follow you, which is an advantage when you move your practice to your home. Loyal clients depend upon you and will likely not care where your practice is located. Otherwise, it will be necessary to build that client base, which is more challenging.

A Home-Based Practice Isn't for Everyone

Obviously, a home-based practice does not work well for everyone. If you are easily distracted at home and find yourself doing laundry, watching the daytime soaps, raiding the refrigerator, or if you have children, spouses, or housemates who create too many interruptions, then it may not be for you. However, those who have enough self-discipline are doing it successfully and have learned to regulate their work life with their home life. A number of home-based lawyers discipline themselves by keeping regular work hours. Still others dress for the day, put on makeup or shave as a means of self-discipline before they go to their home office to begin work for the day.

You must love your work to be successful in a home-based practice. If work is drudgery for you, then you will likely find too many distractions at home to take you away from your work.

You probably need to have an independent personality to be successful in a home-based practice. If you have a need to constantly be part of a team for work stimulation, this may not work for you. If you expect to handle large, complex cases that require the resources of a law firm environment, this type of setting is likely not for you.

The use of technology is essential if a successful home-based practice is to be competitive. Lawyers who have not developed at least a familiarity with the use of technology may find it almost impossible to practice in a home-based office.

Newly admitted lawyers should gain some experience by working with more experienced lawyers for a few years before going it alone at home.

Some Advantages of a Home-Based Law Practice

Better family relationships. A less stressful life can make you a better spouse or parent, or leave time for you to pursue other interests. For others, working at home is a way to cope with changing family circumstances, such as the birth of a baby or caring for an aged parent.

Less overhead and increased profitability. Two of the most expensive components of overhead are staff and office space. The use of technology in a home-based practice can reduce the need for staff and can produce a considerable cost savings in overhead. Working from home may eliminate the need to work extra hours that would have been earmarked to pay your overhead. Those extra dollars can go straight into your pocket for family vacations or retirement savings.

Be more competitive by offering reduced fees. Because of significantly reduced overhead, lawyers who practice from home may offer more attractive fee structures to their clients than other lawyers with similar qualifications and experience.

Avoiding the stress of daily commutes. Without the daily commute to and from a downtown office, lawyers practicing at home have more free hours to use as they like. They also have more money because their cars don't wear out as fast and don't need to fill up with high-priced gasoline as often.

Flexible hours and working environment. If raising a latch-key child is a concern for you, a home-based law practice can make it possible for you to be home when your child returns from school. Setting your own hours allows you to get more involved with your child's school activities. It can also be appealing to take telephone calls or make appointments with clients in the evenings or on weekends, without having to leave home and drive to the office. You might prefer to work on your own time clock. If you're working at home, no one is looking for you at the office if you don't come in until 10:00 a.m., and you don't have to worry about any security issues if you work well into the night. You can also design or set up your office exactly the way you like it.

Being able to work more efficiently. Distractions by coworkers and demands of staff can rob you of time needed to practice law. You may be able to work more efficiently from the seclusion of your office at home.

Tax advantages of a home-based practice. Having your primary workplace in your home will likely offer you some tax advantages with a home office deduction.

Some Disadvantages of a Home-Based Law Practice

Potential for Distractions. Family members or children can distract a home-based lawyer to the point that it is difficult to get your work done, although it can be understood that respect for work time and space is an important exchange for you being home more often. However, office chitchat in a law firm can equally steal your productive time.

Isolation. Although office visiting can be distracting, isolation at home can raise the opposite concern. Some lawyers miss the ability to go down the hall to another lawyer's office to kick around issues on a case. However, there are ways to fill that void. The Missouri Bar provides an online discussion group to every committee. One of the most active discussion groups is the SFIG (Small Firm Internet Group). This group of solo and small firm practitioners regularly exchanges ideas and information on a daily basis. These groups can fill that need to kick around your case, confidentially, of course, or simply to share a victory or raise a concern with other lawyers without interrupting you or them.

Lawyers with a home-based practice oftentimes offer to meet clients at their homes or businesses, which not only helps to eliminate the isolation aspect of a home practice, but provides an excellent service to their clients.

The feelings of isolation can also be avoided by carefully scheduling breakfast or lunch appointments with clients or other lawyers, attending bar association meetings, civic club meetings, and running necessary errands. All this can provide a good mix of human interaction with the seclusion needed to get your work done.

Image. One major concern voiced by lawyers is the erroneous stigma given to a home-based practice because the lawyer practices from home that s/he isn't successful. Some lawyers have a mindset that unless you practice from an office in the high rent district, you don't look successful and that you will not be successful. However, those who do base their practice from their homes see no reason to hide the truth and are proud of the fact. The best indictor of professionalism (and the success it implies) is evident in how you furnish your home office, manage your practice, and demonstrate your professionalism. What clients really want is a competent lawyer who provides excellent service for a reasonable fee.

There was a time in this country when nearly everyone worked from their homes. Shopkeepers usually lived upstairs or behind their shops; physicians saw their clients in their home or made house calls; and farmers lived on their homestead. This way of life has vanished - but not entirely. Although office buildings are a permanent part of our landscape, the home office is enjoying a resurgence.

Doing it all. Home-based practitioners, particularly if they do not have support staff, find themselves in a position of doing it all - from running errands to secretarial duties to litigating a case. This can become overwhelming. Alternatives are available for secretarial support as well as other support systems that may be well worth the extra expense.

If you have small children at home, it may be necessary to consider hiring at least a part-time sitter or use a day care provider outside your home. Working late at night or early in the morning are other options, although working parents need their rest and this may not be the best option.

Issues with Meeting Clients in your Home. Local zoning ordinances or subdivision restrictions may prohibit you from a home-based practice. Meeting clients in your home may lead to increased traffic and parking problems that bother your neighbors. These issues should be thoroughly explored before setting up your practice from home.

You might reconsider meeting with clients in your home if you live in a maze of subdivision streets that may make your home office difficult to find, or if you have only one parking space available.

You may face issues under the ADA, concerning accessibility, if you meet clients in your home. If clients will have to trudge up a long flight of stairs to see you, your home may not be the best choice for meeting clients.

Children should not be in attendance when meeting with clients; your full attention should be given to your clients. Other noisy distractions in the home should be minimized as well.

If you don't have a separate entrance for your clients, or you prefer not to meet with clients in your home, conference rooms are available to rent in many locations. Hourly-rate business centers offer conference rooms, can provide secretarial support, will receive your mail and packages, and provide other services all in one location. You might also look into the cost and use of shared-services suites that will list you on the building directory. Oftentimes, they will receive mail and phone calls for you as well as providing a conference room.

Another option is to meet with clients at restaurants, private clubs and other similar locations, taking care to preserve confidential conversations. Buying your clients breakfast or lunch when you meet with them, may be good PR, and the cost can be written off as a business expense.

Business clients can also be impressed when you meet with them at their place of business. Not only does this save them time, but you will be showing an interest in the inner workings of their business. The attention communicates your concerns for them and builds confidence that they have chosen the right lawyer - one who will go the extra mile to learn about them and meet their needs.

Space Requirements and Other Essentials. You must have adequate working space, an appropriate place to meet clients and storage that can be separated from your living area. A separate outside entrance is also very desirable.

You consider your home sacred territory. If you are strongly accustomed to your home being an escape from work, a place of refuge or sanctuary, while you consider your workplace as a place of productivity and performance, you may want to rethink setting up a home-based practice. This is especially the case if blending your office with your home might be too much of an invasion by bringing these two zones together. However, you might be able to work out a compromise with an office in an outbuilding or location in your home that could be separated from your living area.

Developing a Market Niche for Your Home-Based Practice. Unless you have a sufficient client base to support the income that you need or desire, you will need to market your home-based practice (which is actually marketing yourself). Being able to offer attractive rates due to your lower overhead, and your willingness to meet clients at their place of business or in their homes can be a marketing advantage.

Maintaining and nurturing a network of professional or community acquaintances can be more productive than an expensive Yellow Page ad. Or, you might spin that Yellow Page ad to reflect the advantages that you provide to your clients because you have a home-based practice, such as cost savings and house calls.

Other productive marketing efforts might include a law firm website, signing up with lawyer referral services, writing a regular column for the local newspaper, providing helpful information on a local radio show, or producing informational seminars about the areas of law that you practice in for church groups, senior centers, or other organizations. For example, home-based lawyers are perfect for producing seminars about how to set up a home-based business. Who better than a home-based lawyer to discuss zoning issues, choosing a business entity, etc.? In fact, you might carve out a niche by representing owners of home-based businesses.

A Few Tips to Get Started

  • A must for establishing a home-based practice is to develop a plan and set goals with timelines. Having a clearly set out plan will help you to organize your time, allocate resources, and achieve incremental goals.
  • Set a competitive pricing structure based on your plans and income goals.
  • Investigate zoning ordinances and subdivision restrictions. Be sure you have appropriate insurance because your typical homeowner's policy may exclude commercial coverage.
  • Although it costs less to set up a practice at home, you will need furniture, equipment, software, and supplies. Arrange for your start-up capital, or assess current assets for financial needs based on your plan.
  • Seek out software that will keep you organized and help you to manage billing and finances; then get trained on how to use these tools to your advantage.
  • Unless you are technologically savvy and enjoy working with technology, find a good technician/consultant, perhaps another home-based business to assist you and be on call for emergencies.
  • Decide whether and how much secretarial assistance is needed. You may decide to hire someone to work full or part-time from your home, use a temporary service, or hire someone to work from their home.
  • Contact those in your professional networks to advise them when you ready to make the move.
  • Maintain a positive attitude and pride in your home-based practice. If you maintain a positive view, others will too.
  • Plan for success, carry out your plan and revisit your goals often.

Conclusion

Lawyers who decide to practice out of their homes are part of a swelling wave of home-based businesses in this country. Lawyers already practice from hotel rooms, airplanes, automobiles and their homes while outside their traditional offices. The advantages of working from a home-based practice may fit some lawyers well and outweigh any disadvantages. It can be done on a shoestring budget, which can make them economically viable for the lawyer and affordable to more clients. Finally, home-based practitioners may lead less stressful lives and enjoy the benefits of marching to their own drum from the comfort of their "in-house" office.

Linda Oligschlaeger served as the Membership Services Director at The Missouri Bar from 1991-2012 where she oversaw the Law Practice Management Information Center.