by Linda Oligschlaeger
Law partnerships have often been compared to a marriage.If that's so, then office sharing arrangements might be similar to having a roommate.A roommate can provide the benefits of another to share expenses, companionship to avoid isolation and a supportive network, while living and working independently.Sometime in life, there are those of us who may have experienced the downside to having a roommate; nevertheless, in this era of an unsettled economy, an office sharing arrangement has garnered a lot of new appeal that may offset any negative aspects.
Sharing an office suite with other lawyers or professionals can be a good option for lawyers who want or need the benefit of financial savings by reducing their overhead.With many lawyers being laid off from firms or new lawyers without a lot of employment options, an office sharing arrangement may be particularly beneficial especially for start up firms. Office sharing can fill the gap of legal or practice management inexperience and the need for mentoring and fostering the development of a new solo firm. It can also be a good option for existing firms with a need to lean down and shed expenses.Starting a new law firm in good economic times can be risky; during these times, it can be critical to work on a shoe string budget where major capitol outlays may not be an option.And, working from home may not be the best alternative for a variety of reasons including the need for a good working environment that the dining room table in a busy household may not provide.An office sharing arrangement can be a viable alternative provided the ethical and liability issues are covered.
Benefits of Office Sharing
Sharing office space can provide a good economic arrangement and the opportunity to interact with other lawyers or professionals rather than "going it alone". Benefits may include:
Oscar and Felix:Determining if you're a Good Candidate for Office Sharing
Not everyone is a good candidate for an office sharing arrangement, so it's important for any lawyer considering this arrangement to make that determination early on. Setting aside any financial pressures, doing a bit of personal assessment should be the first step. You might recall Oscar and Felix in the Odd Couple as you consider this arrangement. Would the personal habits of your suitemates irritate you beyond the normal tolerance?If you're the type that can't function without everything neat and in order, can you tolerate sharing space with others who might leave coffee cups in the lobby or someone who has a office that looks as if a hurricane just came through?Could you be flexible with sharing staff and equipment?Generally, are you able to compromise when appropriate?Do you function well with others around, or do you prefer quiet and solitude to work?Are you too competitive to be in this environment especially with other lawyers?If so, you might consider other alternatives such as a home office, if appropriate, or renting or purchasing an office condominium instead.
Check Out Potential Suitemates and the Facilities
While assessing this type of arrangement, it would be a good exercise to find out about the other suitemates.What areas of the law do the potential suitemates practice in?Lawyers have a natural propensity to surround themselves with other lawyers who practice in the same areas of the law.This may set up a competitive atmosphere for clients and could cause tensions in the office sharing arrangement.It may be better to have suitemates who practice in complimentary areas of the law to avoid a tug-of-war over clients and may set up an excellent referral system for the suitemates. Conversely, it may be important that the lawyers' practice areas be at least somewhat complimentary.Can you imagine the criminal law suitemate's client, a drug dealer covered with tattoos, sitting in the waiting area with a family law suitemate's client – a couple and the child they're adopting?
Further screening of the prospective suitemates might include such issues as do they have established and stable practices with a good reputation?Even though the law practices will be separate, sharing office space with a firm that does not enjoy a good reputation may not be the best option for you.Check references with prior tenants about the facilities and the suitemates.
In case there was a misconception about the separate practices, do all the lawyer suitemates carry professional liability insurance?
Occasionally, an office sharing arrangement may be an opportunity to "test-drive" a potential partner before forming a firm together.If it doesn't work out, it may be much easier to simply move to another location rather than dissolving a partnership.
Check out the building facilities.Is there convenient and adequate parking for suitemates and clients?What about security, external signage restrictions, handicap accessibility among others?
Together, Yet Separate:How to Make it Work
Before moving in one box, the first step should be entering into an Office Sharing Agreement that clearly sets out the terms of the arrangement.This agreement could be similar to a partnership agreement that covers such matters as how will disputes be handled as well as departures from the arrangement among others.(See sample Office Sharing Agreement Checklist sidebar.)
Ethical and Liability Issues
While sharing office space has its economic advantages, there are precautions that need to be taken to safeguard client confidentiality and avoid being drawn into a malpractice claim or ethical complaint generated by a suitemate.
Practicing in an office sharing arrangement can offer the mutual benefits of sharing costs with other suitemates, a source of built-in referrals as well as providing a supportive network, and the opportunity to learn from others.This arrangement offers the advantage of multiple solo or small firms in a single location where costs can be spread across the group making the practice of law more profitable. Many solos are "solo for a reason" because of their independent spirit, which they cherish.However, the reality of practicing law in an economy with fewer opportunities as well as the burden of high student loan debt and increasing overhead costs make the office sharing arrangement appealing.It can be a viable alternative provided the necessary precautions are taken to avoid ethical and liability quandaries.
Items to Include in an Office Sharing Agreement (not all inclusive)
An Office Sharing Checklist based on one developed by Nancy Byerly Jones, a practice management consultant from North Carolina, may include the following:
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