With the incredible range of technical tools available to practicioners these days, I have to think that it has become a little easier to be a solo practicioner with very little administrative overhead. At least that is what I tell myself, considering I voluntarily left the word of the “normal” law firm, complete with regular paychecks and support staff and everything else, to run my own show.
Practically speaking, a functional attorney in 2014 needs the following:
1. A workspace.
2. A place to meet clients.
3. A phone number.
4. An e-mail address.
5. An address.
6. Some way to do legal research.
7. A computer + the internet.
Yes, you need clients, but I just said “functional.” I did not say “busy.” Am I missing anything? A website is optional, I think. (And can be free or only as expensive as your monthly hosting, which can be as cheap as a cup of coffee per month.) This isn’t a list about being uber SEO Lawyer 2.0 of 2014, it’s a list about how to get to near zero in overhead (not including case costs). I know a lot of attorneys who have no web presence of their own, and who instead exist entirely on word of mouth and referrals or old fashioned phone book and newspaper ads. If you’re good and you know people and you leave a trail of very happy clients in your wake, cases have a way of finding you. The second hand lawyer listings that seem to miraculously pop up on the internet without you ever doing anything to create them take care of the rest. (Lawyer listing sites like Avvo.com are big business and there are a lot of players in that game.)
One through seven on that list can, in the modern age, be acquired with a single cellphone and a computer, and for almost nothing. Behold the sub $100/month in administrative costs law office:
1. Workspace? Wherever you want. (Ideally private, with no one peering over your shoulder or intercepting your internet traffic or your emails.) Rent deposition space on an hourly basis either from a court reporter or from a virtual office.
2. Place to meet clients? Rent conference space, meet in public (somewhere private, again) make nice with other lawyers who will let you use their conference space or offices, meet at a local law library… whatever you are comfortable presenting to your clients, so long as you’re upfront with them.
3. Phone number? If you do not want to use your private number, which is wise, Google voice is free. You can tell it to ID the call as your Google Voice line when it rings so you know it is a work call.
4. E-mail? If you do not want to use your private email, which is also wise, and you do not want to use something like lawoffices@gmail, which might be cheesy, it is trivially easy to set up your own domain and get your own email name. A namecheap domain costs around $10 per year. You do not need to set up a website, just buy the domain and then use the free email services that every competent domain registrar provides. You can even set it up to work through a free Outlook equivalent like Thunderbird. Did I mention that is $10 per year?
5. An address? See number 2. Getting a mailing address for people who can handle your mail for you costs between $40-$70 a month. Careful of the nickel and diming that every single one of these virtual offices will do, but they are your one stop shop for mail service, conference room rentals, and so on. If you pay more, like $120 and above, then they will also answer the phones and take messages and so on.
6. Many virtual offices also offer low cost Lexis accounts. (Too bad, since I like Westlaw better.) This is perhaps the one place you cannot skimp, as you need some way to do legal research so you can continue to competently represent your clients. If you live in an urban area consider joining a local public law library (odds are your court might have one) or check out what your alma mater can do for you. Every law library should have Rutters or CEB or whatever practice guide you prefer. In my experience a solid on-topic practice guide like Rutters will usually have you covered for the majority of law and motion issues, assuming they’re up to date. Of course, you would be amazed at how far along Google has come in performing basic legal research. If you have a cite, odds are you can get the case for free, although in a slip opinion pdf or some other format that may be difficult to cite to.
7. A computer and the internet. I almost made this optional, but this list is about functionality, not torturing yourself. Of course if you are reading this the odds are pretty good you don’t need either.
That’s basically it. I’m not including obvious things like bank accounts/IOLTA accounts, a law license, and other things. Optimum? No. Cheap? Yes. This is more a thought experiment on how lean and mean you can go, rather than “you should totally try this,” but it is interesting to me how technology has really changed the practice. Of course you will need to also figure out client billing, accounting, bookkeeping, printing, how to manage all of your files, and how to be a great advocate for your clients (if you have not figured that out already) and all the rest of it, but this list comprises things that could normally cost you thousands of dollars a month, which you can now get for almost nothing. (A free second phone line and you can choose the number? And check your voicemails and texts on any computer? Come on. That’s awesome.)
Drawbacks abound, of course. If you do not know any lawyers well you will be very lonely. You will lose out on referrals you might get in a shared office space. You will have to have a clientele that is comfortable with your very lightweight monthly admin costs. I.e., do your clients want a fancy accent wall with a fountain and oak paneled bookshelves stuffed with old lawbooks no one uses?* This might not be your ideal route to take then.
*(Ever. No one ever uses those. I suppose they will come in handy when we all have to practice law during the zombie apocalypse when there is no power.)