Even in an increasingly cloud-based world, physical location still matters. The cloud itself, after all, is really just access to remote servers, hosted by someone, somewhere . . . hopefully not in North Korea. Most virtual practices, even, have a mostly local, decidedly not virtual client base, probably because most of us still prefer in-person communication, at at least some basic level — save for our interactions across Amazon Prime. That other species of virtual office, the personal segment of a collective office share, as widely promulgated by Regus/HQ and expanded upon by numerous local and national competitors, is still a downtown engagement, even if it isn’t a full-time one. Suffice it to say, then, that, for all of our purported untetheredness, here we sit, still locked into a series of location-based choices.
Even as the calendar turns to 2015, what’s true in real estate sales continues to ring true in law practice: it’s all about location, location, location.
But, the question remains, how do you decide where to establish your new law firm?
Here are some tips:
I Want To Be Where the People Are. Ultimately, you want to locate your practice where the bulk of your clients are. Even in an age where anybody with an internet connection can talk to anybody else with an internet connection, most practices still require a local client base, especially when starting up. Since most solo and small firm attorneys access their first clients by advertising themselves within a safe community of family and friends, the local option makes even more sense, since most of us still set down roots in proximity to our major support networks. Beyond those first clients, however, and before you begin to reach out to a wider network, you should have in your contemplation a picture of what your target client looks like: What needs does this person have? What is her financial situation? Where does he live? The question of location is particularly important if you are interested in engaging a practice area that is typically community-based, like immigration law, when it helps to become ubiquitous and trusted in the local, often ethnic, community. If you establish your practice from a geographical standpoint near to where your clients live and/or work, everything you do becomes that much easier. Even if you, and your clients, prefer online communications, you can get together if you need to. But, even if you intentionally choose not to locate your law firm in proximity to your clients, you must still consider where you’ve set up shop — because, if your clients do not live and work near your office, there is the potential that they will not be willing to come to you. For example, if you’ve set up shop in a major city, you may draw suburban clients, whose notion is that ‘big city lawyers’ are better — even if it’s only your mailing address, that is established in the city. Alternatively, it may be that your office is situated in the suburbs, and that residents of outlying communities would rather use you than that a big city attorney, because they don’t want to pay for parking, and manage all of the other attendant fuss that encircles the option of ‘getting into town’. No two law practices are the same, and each client base is different; but, lawyers know no client base better than their own, if they are thoughtful about how they develop their practices.
Competitive Intelligence. When you’re deciding where to locate your law firm, you’ll need to determine how you fit into the marketplace. While the more obvious consideration revolves around the competition you’ll have from other law firms (or, who, locally, does the same kind of work you do), most lawyers establishing law practices don’t do an in-depth review of the local attorney competition, short of a perfunctory Google search. But, that’s a mistake for at least a few reasons: Even in this day and age, many established firms do not have even a reasonable web presence, including the basic building block: a website. New attorneys, especially, may not be competing with ultra-local attorneys, because they won’t be able to break their stranglehold on existing referral pipelines, and likely won’t attract savvier, or more traditional clients — at least not right away. Regardless of practice area, it might be that you’re not competing with most of the other local lawyers from a pricing standpoint, particularly in consideration of the fact that prices generally go up as does experience. Even given similar specific practice areas, there can be much differentiation between law firms. Probate and divorce law represent very different practice areas, that nonetheless fall under the general heading of family law. In the end, you’ll have the best sense of the market only if you know who your direct competitors are. And, if you can figure that out, as a new attorney or as an attorney starting in a new practice area, you’ll know who your potential mentors are: at first, the remainder of the group that makes up your indirect competition — because, though these lawyers practice in the same areas that you do, they’re targeting different clients, assigning a different pricing scheme and/or are willing to mentor, as veterans of the field, desirous to give back to the legal community. Of course, as we have said and written many times, finding mentors and using them is a necessary ingredient for new attorneys. Accessing an office share (with the appropriate ethical caveats identified) is another way to create regular access to mentors.
Finding the Cost of Freedom. If you locate yourself/your office far enough away from city hubs, it’s likely that your resource access costs will rise. If you can position yourself near a law library, like Social Law Library in Boston or one of the 18 trial court law libraries in the state, you can use Lexis or Westlaw (and other databases) for free, so long as you are willing to use (and wait for, if necessary) the library terminals. If you’re in a further-flung community, you’re probably on your own, and paying subscription rates for the research platforms you need, or choosing less expensive options. And, although much the same thing can be said about utilizing continuing legal education resources, the movement of those materials to the cloud has made access that much easier — witness the rise of online CLE, like the Massachusetts Bar Association’s On Demand programming and MCLE’s Online Pass. But, if access to in-person networks can also be viewed as a valuable resource, lawyers are able to acquire more and larger networks in the most populous areas.
Going Down? For certain practice areas, it makes sense to think of your place of business through the prism of access, as well. For example, if you’re an elderlaw practitioner, you’ll want to be very careful about settling your office location as close to the core of your client base as you can get. Neither are you going to choose a second story walk-up sans elevator. Because, even if your clients are less frequent visitors than their adult children, who are essentially representing their interests, there will certainly be times when your clients will need to, or want to, come in to see you; and, for an elderly client base, in-person interaction will be far more important than your flexibility to be available via Skype. Similarly, for a transactional real estate practice, you’ll want to be near the registries; and, for a litigation practice, you’ll want to be near the courthouses where you frequently appear.
Work/Life Balance. With the rise of physical virtual offices (as opposed to the virtual virtual office), the question of where you work and where you live continues to get muddled; not that this is a new thing: lawyers have always been taking work home. Even so, most lawyers will choose to meet their clients in one place or the other, and usually the defined ‘office’ space, rather than the ‘home office’. But, it’s still a personal choice, such that one of the decisions you’ll make, if you work out of two, or more, locations is, which location you will advertise as your ‘walk-in’ office space, if you have one; and, this determination will, certainly, be wrapped up in some of the considerations addressed above, including an analysis of market competition.
I Want to Live in a Wigwam. Whether or not that’s true, you’re usually making the decision, when you start a law practice, about where you will work and where you will live, as alluded to above. Most oftentimes that’s the same place — even if sometimes it’s not. For many attorneys, that decision, especially in the early stages of a practice, is a business choice, almost in its entirety: where will my clients derive from, and how do I get close to them? But, you should not necessarily cede the choices you’re capable of making in your personal life, solely to your business model. If not early on in your career, at some point down the line, you’ll want to make the choice to live where you want, and to practice where you can. Let your spouse and/or children be the only ones to box you in beyond that .
State of Maine. In New England, where small states are so closely adjoined, special questions arising related to dual licensure are magnified, as many local attorneys are able to practice in at least two states, without enduring overmuch travel-related fatigue, since Massachusetts conveniently borders all of New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Maine — kind of; we used to own them. If you’re a dual- or multiple-licensed attorney in Massachusetts, you’ll want to locate yourself somewhere in the borderlands, the questions being which ones, and at which junctures: Pittsfield or Pelham? Of course, any law firm located on a shared sate border will feel the lure of dual licensure, if it has not already been addressed by the principals. Though, practicing in the center of Texas – or, in a more extreme case, Alaska — will make it very difficult to wring the best benefit from your cross-jurisdictional super powers, without treading on international law.
A Simple Plan. As with anything you do respecting the marketing of your law practice, you should include an explicit or implicit nod to that activity within your marketing plan. (If you don’t have one, get one.) Where you locate your law office, or the visiting part of it, has an effect on a number of areas of your marketing planning. For instance, How does your geographic location become a differentiator, and at what level? Where does it fit among the categories of price, service areas, value, values, etc. How does it affect the way you buy advertising, or promote your web presence? How does it affect your networking strategy? Just as you should not lightly choose the location of your law firm, neither should you neglect to incorporate that decision into other aspects of your practice.
. . .
So, what’s stuck in my head this week?
This tremendous Richard Thompson composition has been covered so many times, it now resembles a bedsheet. The lyrics for this song are absolutely fabulous; but, I can’t really say that I’m a fan of the original musical composition. I love the Del McCoury Band version, though; even so, I’ve gotta tell you that, for my money, the Red Molly version (the band was named after the female protagonist of the song) is the best I’ve ever heard.