Want the physical perks of a large law firm, with the freedom and independence of a sole practitioner? Sharing office space and facilities with other like-minded lawyers just might be the answer.
For some lawyers, being a small fish in the big pond of a major law firm just doesn’t cut it. They want more freedom to grow their practice the way they want and be in control of their own destinies. But running a sole practice – paying rent, hiring staff – can be costly, and it may be hard to project an image that will inspire confidence in potential clients. If you want the best of both worlds, setting up your practice in office space shared with other independent lawyers could be the answer.
David Rosen has been practising law in Toronto for more than 30 years, most of it as a sole practitioner.
Early on in his career he worked in a small law firm with one partner, and then later, for several years, in a large law firm as a junior associate. He grew his practice, learned from mentors, and refined his skills.
Yet Rosen, whose practice focuses primarily on real estate and commercial law, wanted to find an environment that would let him be more hands on and, in addition, more in control of his own practice.
“I felt I would grow more as a lawyer and be much happier and [more]comfortable if I were to establish my own practice,” says Rosen, a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, who was called to the bar in 1978.
Rosen didn’t forge ahead blindly. He knew that practising in a large law firm has its physical perks, including shared facilities such as boardrooms, a professional-looking reception area, a well-stocked and updated library, and well-maintained equipment.
The challenge was to find an environment that offered him these facilities, but where he could also build a successful career as a sole practitioner.
Rosen has found his ideal environment: he shares premises on the 18th floor of the modern Madison Centre in prime downtown North York. The whole floor is leased to a management company run by a number of lawyers that subleases offices to individual lawyers. There are approximately 35 lawyers on the floor.
In Winnipeg, 12 lawyers on the third floor of a converted apartment block built in the early 1900s share 4,300 square feet of space. Five of the lawyers – the number has fluctuated and been as high as eight – are part of the Broadway Law Group, a numbered corporation that has entered into a lease with the landlord, explains Chris Fulmyk.
In turn, Broadway Law Group subleases space to individual lawyers, almost all of whom practise as sole practitioners, including Fulmyk, a graduate of the University of Manitoba, who was called to the bar in 1982. Controlling his own practice appeals to Fulmyk, who practices real estate, wills and estates, and civil litigation.
“Most of the lawyers on this floor have been practising for 20 years or more,” he says. “It’s not for Broadway Law Group or any lawyer here to tell others how to run their practice: our concern is that each of the lawyers pay their share of the monthly rent and conduct themselves appropriately in a professional manner,” says Fulmyk.
“Our monthly costs for hard costs that can’t be billed back to the client is about $650,” he says. “If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.”
A Lawyer's Checklist for Sharing Office Space
Maintain your own trust account
As a sole practitioner, you may share space, but never, ever, should there be shared trust accounts say Rosen, Fulmyk and Dan Pinnington, director, practicePRO, Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company (LAWPRO).
Put it in writing
While lawyers routinely tell their clients that they need to have a written agreement, they don’t always run their offices the same way, in Pinnington’s experience.
The agreement should “clearly set out how office space is shared: office personnel and priorities, for example, payment of salaries, responsibilities for deductions, CLE expenses, and procedures for the hiring, training, and supervising any staff in common,” he says.
It should also include a very detailed outline of financial responsibilities and, even more importantly, outline what happens when payments are not made. Should there be interest charged, lawyers evicted?”
“While I suppose in some cases it is technically possible to have two lawyers sharing space acting on opposite sides of a matter, I would strongly recommend against it, just for the sake of appearance, says Pinnington.
While obviously the [sole practitioner] lawyer is not going to have access to the client list of the other sole practitioners in his or her shared office, a critical question in the initial client screening process is not only “who is the client on the other side, but also, who is that client represented by?”
Set out a process for when there is a referral from one lawyer to another in the shared office. What happens if the client wants that new lawyer to become their lawyer? What happens if that lawyer doesn’t want to do follow-up work for the client, asks Pinnington?
Avoid the appearance of partnership
Signage and letterhead must make it absolutely clear to clients that the lawyer is a sole practitioner.
“First and foremost you present yourself to the public as a sole practitioner,” emphasizes Rosen. “Your letterhead indicates that you are the sole lawyer. The other lawyers on the floor have their own letterhead.”
The signage on the outer office also makes the status clear: “The sign outside the door of the entrance to the main lobby says “Law Offices” and lists separately the names of the lawyers who occupy the offices,” says Rosen.
On the sign clients see when they come to the floor housing Broadway Law Group, “first there’s the name of each individual lawyer in Broadway Law Group, then a mini-partnership, and a list of all the other independent practitioners,” explains Fulmyk.
The letterhead of the lawyers who are actually part of the Broadway Law Group reads: “Broadway Law Group, an Association of Independent Lawyers” and then lists each lawyer’s name.
“We think that the name has a kind of snap to it,” says Fulmyk. “Broadway Street has a reputation in Winnipeg as a place where there’s a lot of lawyers and courts.” Individual lawyers renting space on the floor each have their own letterhead.
When it comes to making it clear to clients that you are a sole practitioner, it pays to be extra sensitive, says Pinnington. “Lawyers and staff need to be extremely careful not to say anything that implies there is a partnership or other arrangement. This speaks to both the issue of the appearance of being a partnership as well as the confidentiality issue.”
Ideally the client engagement letter or opening file letter should also set out the state of the lawyer’s practice and that the lawyer is not associated with the other lawyers in the shared space, he adds.
Take extra care in protecting client confidentiality
At the Madison Centre, lawyers share a main reception facility, several boardrooms (booked through a central process at reception), kitchen and staff facilities, and library. There is a common fax and mail room where all correspondence is sorted and distributed by staff employed by the management company. There is a slot in the mail room for each lawyer’s correspondence.
While not all of the lawyers have secretaries – it is each lawyer’s choice as to how to practise – Rosen has chosen to have a secretary dedicated to his practice. “She does not work for anyone else unless I agree to act on an agency basis for someone,” he says.
At the Broadway Law Group facility, “the only totally shared staff person we have [among the 12 lawyers] is the receptionist,” says Fulmyk. The numbered corporation has obtained several business machines (fax, photocopier, word processing computers) which all the lawyers share. Behind the reception desk are slots with each lawyer’s name for faxes, mail and deliveries.
“A neat practical idea to enhance client confidentiality,” says Pinnington, “is for lawyers to agree on a protocol for different file folder colours, so it’s obvious which lawyer a file belongs to at a glance,” he says. “Separate phone lines are a good idea too, and should be answered ‘law office of John Smith’, not just ‘law offices’ when the phone is picked up.”
First and foremost, make sure you are familiar with and comply with the rules of conduct for your province: For example, in Ontario check the website of the Law Society of Upper Canada where there are some Practice Management Guidelines that give some direction on this issue.
Both Rosen and Fulmyk feel that, if they had to do it all over again, they would opt for the shared office environment.
“If you [the lawyer] like to have the trappings of a large firm, in a nice building, in a good location – and I believe from a business perspective that it does present a better image – then this really is a positive and good situation,” says Rosen.
With shared office space, you can have the physical perks of working in a large law firm without sacrificing the independence of a sole practitioner and the freedom to grow your practice the way you want.
Bev Cline is a freelance writer and regular contributor to National and CBA PracticeLink.