Solo View

Office hunters: Finding the best space

Tanya Witt

The Witt Law Firm

October 2010

For all firms, finding the right office space can be an involved process. For soloattorneys and small firms, finding a small office with all the required features can be exacting. In the current economic climate, there are diverse office space options available and there are good deals to be found.

As my Harvard Law School colleague Stacey Austin put it recently, searching for a law office can be reminiscent of HGTV's "House Hunters": Will the firm lease office pick No. 1, the traditional, high-rise space in the Loop; will they go for office No. 2, the hip loft space in River North with exposed brick walls; or, will they venture outside the norm with office No. 3, the large space with the neighborhood feel in Roscoe Village?

But before we get into the hunt, the first topic for discussion is this: Does a solo or small firm even need or want a brick-and-mortar office? Traditionally, attorneys were expected to have an office separate from their home, but with advancements in technology it is no longer de rigueur that attorneys must maintain a full-time office outside the home.

The ability to successfully practice virtually is demonstrated by Wang Kobayashi Austin, a boutique law firm founded by Stacey Austin, Jennifer Kobayashi and Andy Wang, concentrating in employee benefits and executive compensation matters. They have been practicing virtually since May.

Austin reports that they have not noticed much of a difference in their practice without a brick-and-mortar office, except perhaps the lack of a commute.

"We work and meet in our home offices, and we are able to serve our clients in much the same way as when we had a separate shared office space," Austin said. "In our practice, much of our client interaction occurs on the phone or via e-mail, or at the client's location [where the documents are typically located]. In fact, at my prior large law firm, most of my clients would not have known if I was practicing from my office at work or at my home office on any particular day.

"With the increase in technology that allows people to work anywhere [in fact, I recently saw a commercial about a product that allowed an employee to get some work done in a cab], the need for a physical office space, especially for day-to-day work, is decreasing."

The firm is looking for office space to have a central location for maintaining files and facilitating working together.

"There is certainly something beneficial to being able to walk down the hall and pop your head into your partner's office to discuss a vexing legal issue. Of course, the benefit of having an office should exceed the cost, which admittedly is not nominal," Austin said.

If an attorney or firm decides that for their practice the benefits exceed the cost, the options are as varied as they would be when searching for a home. Like a home search, the goal is to find a space with the required amenities that falls within a firm's budget.

Jared Fisher, a senior associate with Titan Commercial, says the time required to lease office space can range from three to 18 months.

Most Chicago law firms choose to be close to the downtown courts. Some firms have moved west toward Wacker Drive and the train stations for the convenience of the employees who commute on Metra. Austin notes that the practice of Wang Kobayashi Austin does not require going to court, so the firm does not have to be in the Loop. Proximity to Metra is not desirable to Austin's firm as all of the partners live in the city.

"And our clients are located both in the city and nationwide, so there is no particular benefit, from a client services perspective, to being downtown. Thus, we have a number of options for convenient office space, including River North, Ravenswood and Roscoe Village," Austin said.

Most office space options fall under two broad categories: space leased directly from a building's owner and space rented from and shared with tenants.

Most building owners do not lease space in square footage increments small enough to accommodate a solo or very small firm.

"There are opportunities out there for smaller spaces," Fisher said. "But it comes at a premium and the market goes fast."

So, many small law offices choose to rent from a professional office space provider or from another law firm. With these arrangements, an attorney rents space from an entity that already has a fully functioning office in place. These professional offices usually include a well-furnished lobby, a receptionist, conference rooms, a copier room, Internet, phone lines and office furnishings.

"Leasing office space is a multistep process and making informed decisions requires proper planning. In order to make the best real estate decisions it is necessary to understand the specific requirements that will allow your company to operate and grow most successfully," Fisher said.

Searching for, negotiating and setting up an office is a time-consuming process. But, since a solo attorney has final decision-making power regarding her office space, she has the opportunity to find an office with the location, technology, amenities and aesthetics that fit her needs and preferences.