The politics of offices: Where should you work?

  • March 01, 2015
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

Choosing where to work is one of the most important decisions for solo practitioners and lawyers in small firms, with options ranging from home offices to shared space to virtual offices. What is right for one lawyer may not be a good fit for another.

Mike Beishuizen, the founder of Westcoast Wills & Estates, a small law firm based in North Vancouver, used to work out of a home-based office and met his clients at their homes, but now rents office space.

“Renting office space saves time and money because I don't have to drive in between clients,” he says. “There is the increased overhead involved, but that pays for itself with hiring staff to achieve a more efficient operation.”

Ayesha Kumararatne, an Ottawa-based solo practitioner in immigration and criminal law, shares office space with two other lawyers, a setup that she says helps her to be more efficient.

She considered a virtual office, but determined the business model wouldn’t fit with the nature of her practice.

“In immigration law, people tend to drop in at your office all the time,” she says. “Also people sometimes come in with immigration problems that are very last minute, so having a virtual office and having to book space would be inconvenient for my model of practice. I need the physical presence in an office space.”

“As well, I go to court almost every day for criminal matters, so renting space across the street from the courthouse made sense based on my practice model,” she adds.

Kumararatne says that working from home was not an option for her either.

“The main reason I decided to rent space as opposed to working from home is to get mentorship because as a young counsel I still have so much to learn,” says Kumararatne, who was called to the Ontario Bar in 2014. “I think when you’re just starting out as a lawyer, mentorship is especially important.”

The lawyers who share Kumararatne’s office, including two senior criminal defence counsel, have assisted her in many ways, including giving her a break on rent while she was starting up her practice and providing her with contract work for assisting them with research projects and on trials.

“They also send me referrals for my immigration practice as well as criminal matters,” she says. “For example, if their client has a co-accused, they may send them to me.”

For other new lawyers who are setting up their own firms, Kumararatne recommends that they consider sharing office space with more senior counsel to gain their mentorship.

“I would definitely recommend it to other young lawyers especially those who are practicing on their own,” she says. “I think it’s extremely important to be around people who can help you.”

It’s also important to decide whether you can get along with those sharing your office space before you make any big move.

“Sharing office space is kind of akin to finding the right roommate,” she says. “You want to make sure that you’re working with people you know and are comfortable working with and you know all their quirks.”

She says she’d known her “roommates” for a few years, and was very comfortable around them.

“I knew they would respect my privacy, but they were willing to help me out when I needed them to.”

Mentorship is also an important part of the business model of Mississauga Law Chambers, a members-only business centre based in Mississauga, Ont., that offers virtual and permanent offices.

Gary A. Bennett, who practises labour and employment law and civil litigation, co-founded the Mississauga Law Chambers in October 2012.

He says it’s the first business centre of its kind in Canada, offering a variety of services exclusively to Ontario lawyers and paralegals, including everything from office space to support staff services, banking referrals, assistance with branding and website development and mentorship.

“We offer mentorship as part of all of our packages,” says Bennett. “When you’re starting up your own law firm, no one tells you how to get clients, how to get paid or how to invoice a client without offending them.”

Dawn M. Bennett, a family lawyer and co-founder of Mississauga Law Chambers, says that their virtual office is “not just about renting rooms, it’s about the business of law.”

“We have everything you need to start and run your law practice in a cost effective manner,” she says. “We provide the Bay Street experience without the Bay Street cost.”

Lea Scardicchio, a personal injury and criminal defence lawyer with Scardicchio Law Office Professional Corporation, says that she did extensive research when deciding where to set up her law practice in 2012. She looked at “storefront locations, shared office space in established law firms, shared office space with other professional service providers and virtual offices.”

Scardicchio says that she wanted cost-effective office space that was in a central and accessible location and offered flexible hours so she could “provide all clients with personal service, and to accommodate their own work schedules, wherever and whenever possible.” She decided to set up her firm using virtual office space.

Scardicchio works out of the Mississauga Law Chambers, which gives her access to office space “24 hours a day, seven days a week,” and also uses virtual offices in nearby Oakville, Ont., and Brampton, Ont.

“I would tell other lawyers who may be skeptical of the virtual office structure that the term ‘virtual office’ is really a misnomer,” says Scardicchio. “In my opinion, it is an operational business solution, which gives lawyers the opportunity to utilize a desirable address in a city of their choice for a fraction of the cost.”

Carolynne Burkholder-James is an articling student at Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, B.C. She attended law school at the University of Ottawa and the University of Manitoba. She expects to be called to the British Columbia Bar in May 2015.