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Hybrid office solutions giving attorneys new ways to practice

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Six years ago, potential clients who called bankruptcy attorney Brad Woolley might be able to get an appointment in three weeks. Now, they likely can get in to see him the next day.

Demand slumped when the bankruptcy laws changed, which had the Monticello-based lawyer looking for ways to draw in new clients. He embraced the old business adage – location, location, location – and opened a branch office in West Lafayette to be near the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Charles A. Halleck Federal Building.
 

rutkowski-annette-15col.jpg Attorney Annette Rutkowski likes the flexibility virtual offices provide. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Woolley added a contemporary twist by not signing a long-term lease agreement and instead contracting with Officescape, an office services and technology provider. He pays about $300 per month for 16 hours of use of an office. About four to six times each month, he drives to Lafayette, plugs in his laptop and helps local residents file their paperwork.

People are happy he has an office in town, he said, because with gasoline near $4 a gallon, few would make the drive to Monticello.

The attorney is part of a growing international trend away from the traditional concept of what constitutes a workplace. This is not the virtual law practice where attorneys offer legal services online and across jurisdictions. Rather, companies like Officescape and Regus rent office and meeting space, and provide administrative support along with other office-related services.

Brick-and-mortar offices are not going away, said Jon Beattie, global business development manager for Officescape. People will still need a place to meet and conduct business, but they will no longer need to be at that place eight hours a day, five days a week.

Woolley compared the move to this hybrid version of a virtual/brick-and-mortar office to the purchase of display ads in the Yellow Pages. Lawyers who initially resisted advertising changed their minds when they saw the return on the investment.

“Yes, we don’t like the idea that we have to go out and generate clients,” he said, “but if we don’t generate new business, we’re going to get passed.”

More than providing a room in a downtown building, virtual office service companies offer a range of products so comprehensive that many clients would never know they are meeting their lawyer or accountant or financial adviser in a space that is rented.

Depending on which products the professional buys, a receptionist may greet clients and show them to a waiting room. Calls to a local number can be answered then routed to whatever phone the professional wants: home, office or cell. Mail will be collected, technical support will be on hand, and even administrative assistants will be available for standard office chores like photocopying and faxing.

The force behind the movement toward these types of professional arrangements is, of course, technology. Laptops, smartphones and access to cloud computing are reducing the requirement that workers travel to a single location in order to access the company data and services. 

In fact, in a 2012 survey of senior IT decision makers, Citrix found that the number of organizations that have implemented mobile work styles will balloon from the current 24 percent to 83 percent in 2014.

Data on how attorneys and law firms are adapting or implementing mobility is scant. However, Grant Greenberg, spokesman at virtual office provider Regus, counts the legal community among the biggest users of his company’s services, along with the financial industry and startups or tech companies.

Both Officescape and Regus expect rapid growth in the coming years. Benefits of contracted or virtual offices range from cost savings and higher employee productivity and satisfaction to lessening the risks in an uncertain economy.

“We think it’s the way the world is going,” Greenberg said. “Why sign a long-term lease when you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next six months?”

Indianapolis-based attorney Annette Rutkowski sees virtual offices as the wave of the future because of changes in the way law is practiced. As bigger firms consolidate and limit the number of equity partners, small and solo practices are growing.

When she moved into solo practice, she contracted an office in Indianapolis with Regus and, more recently, an office in West Lafayette with Officescape.

Using these services, she was able to open her offices without making the heavy investments in purchasing the space, technological support, furniture, computers and staff. She could have opened her own practice without contracting with the office services providers but, she said, it would not have been as easy and it would have required her to put more money up front.

“I think (when you say) virtual office, everybody assumes you’re not there,” said Rutkowski. “Most of the attorneys I know are doing some combination because you have to have face-to-face with clients. Virtual doesn’t mean you’re not there, it means you’re not there all the time.”

Rutkowski said she is comfortable with the current arrangement. She has a professional space to meet clients and she has been able to network with other attorneys and business professionals who also use virtual offices. To her, a virtual office is better than the other options such as mixing her personal and professional lives together by working full time from her home, meeting clients in coffee shops, or having her mail delivered to a P.O. Box.

Officescape has submitted a proposal to the Indiana State Bar Association to offer its services as a member benefit. The Membership and Membership Benefits Committee has been reviewing the proposition and plans to continue the discussion at its January meeting.

“It certainly seems like a service that would be of great benefit particularly to small and solo firms,” said Susan Jacobs, ISBA associate executive director.

Eighteen years ago, Woolley was a pioneer of the virtual office. He used to drive to Kokomo, plunk down $50 to rent a conference room for a day at the public library, and see about 10 bankruptcy clients. It gave him the local office, but missing were the professional services like a designated waiting area and administrative assistant.

Both Woolley and Rutkowski say their virtual offices are providing them the tools they need to reach more clients. However, they also noted, if they ever establish a full-time presence in West Lafayette or hire more staff, they would likely move from the rented space to possibly buying a building or signing a long-term lease.

“Right now,” Rutkowski said, “this allows me flexibility and I don’t see changing that for quite some time.”•
 

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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