Developing a Solo Law Practice and Office-Sharing

Q: I am a law student considering a solo practice upon graduation from law school. Can you recommend some good resources on solo practice? What are the pros and cons of an office sharing arrangement?

A: I'm not sure what you mean by an office sharing arrangement. In a space sharing arrangement, a group of lawyers rents an office suite -- each moving into one of the offices and split the costs of operating the office, from paying for shared clerical staff to buying coffee for the machine. Lawyers who rent an office from an existing law firm can also be said to be office-sharing. I'm not sure if that's what you mean, or a situation in which two or more lawyers physically share one office. I'm familiar with those arrangements as well.

All of these shared arrangements present potential problems.

In the first, look for partners who are fiscally responsible and who have the funds to cover costs for at least six months absent any income. You also need at least one partner who is willing and able to manage the office. That person is often compensated for the extra work by paying a lesser share of the expenses. Many disputes can occur over expenditures for additional staffing, expensive equipment, new phone systems or other asset purchases. So work only with lawyers who share your style, budget and values.

Renting an office from an existing law firm can work well when the firm is efficiently run and stable. Again, you want to move into a suite that lives up to your standards of cleanliness and decor, and where the shared staff possess skill levels to your liking.

Understand the area of practice and kind of clients you and your office-mates are going to bring into the space. If you are a trusts and estates attorney whose clients are retirees you may not want to share space with a criminal defense attorney whose clients are gang members. Officemates who share the same or a similar area of practice can run into problems of "client poaching." Even if the attorneys themselves agree not to "steal" each others' clients problems can arise, since an unhappy client has another option available under the same roof. On the other hand, some areas of practice draw clients from similar or the same communities and some areas of practice complement each other nicely.

All of the previous considerations apply when evaluating the wisdom of physically sharing one office with another lawyer, but you also need to figure out whether your practice is such that you can give up access to your office on a regular basis, and whether your office sharing partner(s) will respect your privacy and keep their operations separate from yours.

Here are some American Bar Association books to help you develop a solid solo practice: Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for Solo Lawyers; How to Start & Build a Law Practice by Jay Foonberg (4th ed. 1999); Running a Law Practice on a Shoestring by Theda C. Snyder (1997); and Law Office Procedures Manual for Solos and Small Firms by Demetrious Dimitriou (2nd ed. 2000). The ABA also publishes a number of books dealing with building and managing a law practice, in general, and for specific practice areas.