Virtual Office Questions Answered

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I did a conference call with 50 of my closest friends (you) recently and answered a slew of questions for about an hour. It was a blast.

I came away with a long list of blog post ideas, plus I got more plugged into where my readers live. I gained a better understanding of your pressing issues and concerns. That hour gave me more insight than I might have gained in days of one-to-one conversation. Of course, I’ll be using the questions I got and the insights I gained as fodder for this site for the next few months. I can’t thank the attendees enough.

Because we practice remotely, I got a bunch of questions about our office arrangement (we have physical space in four cities). I addressed the issues during the call, but today I’m going to elaborate.

“What percent of your attorneys really work in the office most of the time? What percent have a private office?”

No one has a private office (with one exception noted below). In fact, our space is set up with nothing other than conference rooms. We don’t have space arranged in the traditional office (desk, chair, side chairs). We go with a variety of different sized conference tables (four seats to eight seats) and some corner/side tables for lamps, etc. It’s pretty simple.

Our people sometimes choose to work in these conference rooms when they’re not otherwise occupied because they’d like to get away from their homes, coffee shops, co-working spaces, etc. Mostly the conference rooms are empty between client visits.

Certain of our lawyers (those who do lots of initial consultations) come by an office several times a week. Others only come by for client meetings, settlement conferences, mediations, etc. Mostly our lawyers work from home.

“Is your conference room space rented hourly? Is it like a Regus?”

Well, yes and no. We rent space in some Regus locations. We rent enough space so that we’ve always got a place for meetings. We’ll rent at least one room on a full-time basis (and usually sign a one-year agreement) and then use additional space as necessary. So, for instance, on a typical day in our Chapel Hill location, we’ll use the office space for several hours. Then, if we have another simultaneous meeting (or one with more people than our office will accommodate), we’ll book a conference room (and pay for it by the hour).

On a related note, Regus (which is, obviously, the big player in this game) won’t always let you set up a room as a conference room. We have usually been successful at getting Regus to remove its furniture and let us move in our own conference room furnishings and art. My impression is Regus will do it if it has a place for the unused furniture, but it’s not something it’s organized to do routinely, and it likely depends on how booked it is in your location. Make that part of your negotiation.

“Do you tell your clients that you only work in the office on occasion and, if so, what do you tell your clients?”

I get asked this question quite a bit by other lawyers, but it’s not something clients really ask about with any frequency. We’ve always met with clients in conference rooms (we didn’t want them to see our mess), so they’ve never seen our personal spaces. They didn’t ask about it back when we walked down the hall to meet with them, and they don’t ask about it now when we drive over to the space. If they ask, we simply tell them the truth.

As a group, we lawyers tend to worry about the wrong things. Your office space and arrangement isn’t really on the clients’ radar. For them, what’s on the radar is the messed-up life they’re leading and the need to fix it. When your mouth is exploding with pain, do you ask the dentist about his lease agreement on the chair, or do you ask him about how soon he can fix your tooth? It’s the same deal with your clients. They’re interested in their problem, not your office space lease.

“Where does your firm receive its snail mail (P.O. box?), and how is it disseminated to all of your attorneys?”

We have designated a small amount of office space (it could easily fit in 120 square feet) in one of our locations as our “mail center.” It houses one person who manages all of our inbound and outbound paper (and a backup person—one of our intake people—who sits in that space doing other work). These two people are the only people required to show up at a physical location each day (and we’re working on that).

We put our “mail center” information on all communications (pleadings, letters, e-mails, etc.) and, mostly, the mail shows up in the box at that office. Occasionally, mail shows up at another location, and we overnight it to the mail center for processing.

When mail arrives, it is immediately scanned and instantly transmitted to a couple of assistants who handle incoming documents. Those assistants figure out what they’ve received, label it, send it to our repository at NetDocuments, and it’s automatically forwarded to the attorney/paralegal involved in the matter. The attorney receives an e-mail notification of the incoming mail and clicks on a link to view the document.

Working remotely isn’t nearly as complex as it might sound at the outset. Doing it requires some reorienting and reorganizing, but it’s mostly simple problems with simple solutions. It’s a slightly different paradigm, but it’s not something that radically changes the nature of the game.

Right now, I’m sitting at a desk in [büro] on Miami Beach. I’ve got my MacBook in front of me, my iPhone to my left, and my coffee to my right with my earbuds playing some Pandora. I could be sitting in one of our offices, in a tea shop in Tunis, or right here on South Beach. I’m doing exactly the same thing here that I’d be doing anywhere. Working remotely isn’t nearly as different as you might imagine.

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