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Here in Uis, Namibia, there’s a surprising guest lodge situated in the middle of an old tin-mining town. The tin mine was long ago abandoned. The lodge was once the recreation center for employees enjoying their time off. There’s a giant empty swimming pool sitting smack dab in the center of this desert oasis–the water has evaporated under the blazing desert sun. This place was once a hub of activity.
Now, it’s a very sleepy town. It reminds me of a weird movie set. The desert attracts an oddly eccentric cast of characters. I keep expecting a dog to walk by with a human hand dangling from its mouth.
There’s nothing–literally nothing–happening here at the moment. The petrol station, grocery, and liquor store shut down at 5 PM. That’s when the town is done for the day. The dusty Main Street is abandoned. The only sign of life here at night is the soft chatter at the bar/restaurant by the empty pool. The parrots are whistling from their cage while the owner holds court over a cigarette and a beer. The scene is surreal.
You can work from anywhere
I’m working here at the moment. Oddly, the desert internet in the middle of nowhere is pretty strong (albeit inconsistent, occasionally cutting off and then on again).
Getting my work done while seeing the world has been a great experience for me. I love it. I get to earn a living while visiting interesting spots. We stopped in this town to visit some 2,000 to 5,000 year old rock paintings hidden away in the nearby mountains.
I meet other lawyers who tell me they’re jealous of my lifestyle. Some would like to do what I’m doing. They’d like to travel while they work. Some just like the idea of not being tethered to an office: they’d like to work from home. One lawyer who talked to me about my remote work doesn’t want to travel at all. She just wants to deal with clients via text-based conversation only–no calls, no meetings, no contact except email or messaging.
These lawyers love the idea of a less conventional work arrangement. Namibia might be more than they’re asking for. I’d probably suggest that they pick a work location somewhere other than the Brandberg Rest Camp in Uis, Namibia, even though it’s fascinating for a night or two.
Some lawyers feel stuck in their office-bound arrangement. It’s sad because they don’t need to be stuck. They can shift their work lives in the direction of their dreams. There’s no reason they can’t do what they’d like to do.
The first obstacles these lawyers encounter are often technical. They’re tied to desktop computers, phone systems, office servers, incoming mail, and a host of other physical tethers which keep them in one place. Today, these obstacles are easily overcome. Between cloud-based software, portable devices, and wireless connectivity, it’s simpler than ever to adopt the technology of remote work. I’m not going to devote time to those concerns today.
Instead, I’m focusing on another legitimate concern. Lawyers aspiring to abandon the traditional work arrangement often bump up against economic constraints imposed by their clients. The lawyers believe that abandoning their physical office arrangement will result in clients abandoning them. They think they’ll end up working remotely, but fear they’ll also end up broke.
Just do it
My suggestion is to just do it. Go for it. Make it happen. I stopped going to the office on a regular basis in 2008 so I have some experience with the topic. I made it work. But most lawyers aren’t interested in my “Just Do It” Nike-style advice. They look at me like I’m as crazy as the desert guy running this Namibian hotel.
“But, the clients expect to be able to come by my office,” she said. “They need to sit down and talk to me face-to-face.”
I hear that story all the time. There’s a persistent belief, on the part of many lawyers, that having an office is a symbol of legitimacy, of stability, of importance. These lawyers believe clients will abandon them the moment they abandon their office.
These lawyers have convinced themselves that they’ll have no business if they don’t do it the way the clients expect. They believe they have to do it the usual way, the normal way, the ordinary way, or the clients will choose some other lawyer.
But the reality is that different law firms do what they do in many different ways. There is no one right way to do business in the legal arena. There are lawyers doing different kinds of work, charging differently for it, talking about it in different ways, and imposing all sorts of limitations on what they’ll do for clients. There is no one-size-fits-all law firm style, and the work-while-you-travel scenario is simply another difference.
You get to pick the constraints
Every law firm has self-imposed constraints that govern which clients they’ll accept. There are very few lawyers who will take absolutely anything that walks through the door. The work is too complex, or there’s no money involved, or the client is wacky, or the case is a dog.
There are already limits on your practice. You’ve already imposed constraints. You limit yourself in a variety of ways and you only accept certain types of cases and clients.
Some lawyers have a “no-assholes” rule and turn away clients they quickly identify as being more trouble than they’re worth. That’s just one of the many constraints lawyers impose on themselves.
I’ve met lawyers who refuse to be the second lawyer. They figure that the client self-identified himself as trouble when he decided to switch counsel.
Lots of lawyers decide they won’t take calls or emails during certain hours of the day or night. I know plenty of lawyers who will cut a client loose if they keep calling after hours.
Most lawyers impose certain geographic limits–they won’t go beyond a certain distance, or they limit themselves by choosing not to obtain licensing in nearby jurisdictions, or deciding not to seek admission to certain courts.
Of course, many lawyers limit their practice areas and only accept certain types of cases. Many of us decide we’ll focus on a particular kind of law, a specific industry or type of client, or a very specific problem we enjoy solving.
We also impose some minimum limit on fees. We won’t accept a case unless we know we’ll earn a certain amount from taking on the work.
We impose strict limits on the work we’ll do, whom we’ll do it for, how much we’ll get paid and how we’ll schedule our work
We impose myriad constraints on ourselves. They mostly make sense given our goals and objectives. They keep us focused on getting where we’re going and creating the practice we envisioned.
Remote work is just another limit
When you decide to work remotely, whether from home or from Namibia, you’re simply adding another item to the list of constraints.
You’re consciously deciding to limit the types of clients and cases you handle. You’re deciding to take some clients and turn away others based on another condition you’ve added to your list.
Will working remotely put you out of business? Will all the clients who might have hired you go elsewhere? Probably not. Sure, some will decide you’re hard to reach and they’ll have discomfort with the new arrangement. But remember: that’s what happened when you limited your phone time, raised your fees, and eliminated particular practice areas.
Oftentimes constraints generate more opportunity
When you examine the other constraints you’ve imposed, you’ll find that many of them have grown your business, rather than diminishing it. They resulted in you taking a forward step toward creating the practice you’ve always dreamed of creating.
Raising fees often has the unexpected impact of attracting new clients who believe there’s an association between cost and quality.
Limiting practice areas allows you to focus your marketing, gain expertise and experience, and truly become an expert. The limitation ultimately serves to expand your practice.
Small limits, like restricting phone and email access, keep you fresh, energized, and creative; that results in a bigger and better clientele.
The same will be true of remote work. Traveling the world while working makes you more interesting to some people and attracts them as clients. Working from home appeals to another type of client. Simply doing things differently from other lawyers will have an impact on clients to whom that approach appeals.
You continued to grow your business while imposing a host of limitations. There’s no reason to believe that remote work will have a different impact.
But working remotely–especially from a foreign country–is still scary for many lawyers. Making a change to remote work feels different because it’s a less common move by members of our profession. It feels like you’re operating outside of the normal lawyerly space.
But realistically, in today’s environment, working remotely (whether from your home country or another) is incredibly common in nearly every industry. It’s normal for many types of occupations. It’s something you likely have clients doing themselves as employees or as owners of their own businesses. The internet makes it easy to work from anywhere, and doing so is no longer unusual, unique, or special; it’s a legitimate option, and you can make it work.
Just Do It
Part of the point of running your own practice is doing it your way. Sure, each decision you make comes with advantages and disadvantages. But they’re your decisions. You get the benefits of what you decide and you accept the consequences of your actions.
There’s no reason to let others dictate your choices. If you want some tacky red silk chairs in your lobby, then go for it. If you want to put your office in the empty utility room behind the nail salon, then that’s your choice too. If you want to invest a fortune in the downtown penthouse office space, then spend your money however you like–it’s your money. With each of these choices you’ll attract some clients and alienate others. You can’t please everyone all of the time.
Once you accept that there’s no single right way to make this work then you might as well pick a path which pleases you, meets your needs, and keeps you excited about getting up in the morning. Maybe you need to come on over to Namibia and check it out.
It’s your business. Doing it your way is likely the best thing for you and for the kind of clients you’ll attract. You’ll always find some clients who want it done your way, even if that means red silk chairs in a penthouse office suite positioned right behind the nail salon. Just do it.