Office Space Primer For Lawyers, Part III: Sharing
If leasing space on your own isn’t quite optimal or financially desirable, sharing space with another lawyer can be another option to consider.
Sharing space has the obvious upside of reducing cost, sometimes enabling you to be in a location that you couldn’t otherwise (comfortably) afford on your own. However, sharing space with another lawyer can also provide a solo or small firm with valuable direct access to other professionals. That kind of “right there” access to a colleague can be terrific when you’re looking for a common sense check on a pleading, a drafting idea for a contract, or some specialized knowledge or insight on a complex matter.
Similarly, your own insight is likely to be asked for as well and, ultimately, that kind of interaction can directly lead to some quality referrals.
When thinking about sharing space, consider the following:
1. Compatibility. Obviously you want to avoid sharing space with a lawyer you don’t like or respect, or has any reputation issues that can unfairly impact on your practice. If you don’t know the lawyer personally, do your diligence.
Remember too, it’s not just the lawyer you’re concerned about in the compatibility analysis. Her clients matter as well. The lawyer may be a terrific person to share an office with, but her clients may not be the type that mix well with your own practice. A real estate lawyer who spends the majority of her time meeting with clients at the County Clerk’s office presents an entirely different set of office sharing circumstances than a consumer bankruptcy attorney who may been meeting with multiple clients constantly walking in and out of the office, taking up parking spots, and so forth.
2. Watch For Conflicts; Protect Confidentiality. Before entering into a sharing relationship, check for conflicts. If there are potential conflicts between lawyers, your respective fundamental practice areas, or your respective clients – or such conflicts seem likely to arise in the future – it can be a flashing yellow warning light.
Also, sharing office space triggers extra caution with respect to client confidentiality concerns. If you retain a lot of papers (which you shouldn’t need to do anyway), take care to avoid leaving confidential papers where others can see. Hitting “print”, then taking a phone call and forgetting that confidential document sitting on the printer is not going to work in a shared workspace environment.
Actually, sharing space can also serve as another catalyst to migrate away from messy, disorganized “old school” paper pushing. Instead, get that paper scanned and uploaded to a secure, web-accessible cloud application that continually backs up your data. For a lot of lawyers, migrating to the cloud will immediately improve productivity, security and continuity.
3. Clarification of Status. Sharing an office does not create a partnership, but everyone should take care to make sure the public isn’t confused. Make sure that things like the office signage and your letterhead unambiguously communicate that you are individual lawyers independently providing service. If you have staff, remind your staff to be sensitive with respect to this potential confusion. Clients need to be clear that the office sharing arrangement is just that.
Finally, regardless of what you’ve agreed to split or share, NEVER share or commingle client trust accounts. Ever.
4. Write It Up. Similar to the point about “Pay Attention To Details” in Part II, don’t overlook the need to document your relationship. Whether it takes the form of a formal sublease or some other document (which may also require advance permission or consent from the landlord or owner of the property), it’s important to spell out the terms of the sharing relationship. At a minimum, you want to make sure how and what office resources are to be shared, how and when payments will be made, how parking spaces are allocated (if parking is short), and how any conference rooms or meeting areas will be split.
In the next and last part of this Series we’ll take a look at the virtual office, primarily from the standpoint of working from home.