Coworking for Lawyers: First Impressions

As I sit here, on a couch at IndyHall, a coworking space in Philadelphia, I’m watching someone make brownies. Not a typical law firm office activity… but, did I mention that there’s a kegerator next to me? Needless to say, that’s not a typical law firm office fixture. I’m here on a fact-finding mission of sorts. I’d like to determine whether lawyers can join the ranks of the coworking communities.

About Coworking

Unless you live in a forward-thinking metropolitan area like San Francisco, Austin, or (eh-hem) Philadelphia, coworking is a relatively new phenomenon. In general, coworking spaces attract writers, coders/developers, entrepreneurs, and visual artists. While each facility exudes its own personality, many share the same philosophies of collaboration, openness, community, and accessibility. Not only is a coworking space a working environment but, as Craig Baute writes, “[i]t’s a community of ambitious individuals [who] participate in discussions, share ideas, and build relationships.” Baute then lists common coworking community activities such as weekly lunch-ins for members, member led workshops, xTed Talks, Meetup groups, and launch parties.

Therefore, it may be easy to think of coworking spaces as more sophisticated Starbucks locations. In exchange for a little rent, you obtain a secure space where you can leave your laptop or desktop unattended, a kitchen where you can make brownies, albeit with a community of like-minded professionals who know that working alone sucks. Or, it may be easy to think of coworking spaces as casual versions of Regus or other similar rent-a-space solutions. Maybe tear down the walls, throw in a few toys, arcade games, or kegerators as decoration, and pump in a collaborative spirit. However, both of these descriptions fall short of what coworking really means and what coworking really offers.

As Alex Hillman, co-founder of IndyHall explains, “It’s really easy to look at us as space first, community second.” The benefit of coworking and what makes coworking unique derives from “the focus on community and social interactions first, and amenities second.”

So, where does this leave the ethical attorney (not an oxymoron)? Is the legal industry stranded on the outside looking in for fear of potential conflicts of interest or potential breaches of client confidentiality? Or,with the correct preventative measures, can lawyers also thrive in these collaborative environments?

…I hope so but I don’t know. I do know that I’m not at IndyHall to practice law. Therefore, I don’t need to worry about the ethical quandaries that coworking may present for lawyers. (I’m also pretty certain that any answer begins with the phrase, “it depends.”)

Nevertheless, I’d love to see more lawyers take advantage of coworking and share their experiences so that we – the legal industry – can join the ranks of the dilettantes. (I say dilettantes in a positive way.)

In my research, I found a few trailblazing lawyers who may be able to serve as resources. Perhaps coworking lawyers can share boilerplate language in retainer agreements or other tips on ethical coworking. (Note: The coworking community is all about sharing resources.)

To further explore this (serious) topic, our #LawJobChat in March will focus on coworking for lawyers. (Mark your calendars: March 31st, 9-10 pm EST.) We hope to have a panel that includes the voice of the coworking community (Alex Hillman, Co-Founder of IndyHall), practicing lawyers who use coworking spaces (John Koenig, Indigo Venture Law Offices), and practicing lawyers who can speak to the ethical aspects of coworking. (Brian Tannebaum? Carolyn Elefant? We’re looking at you!) Know anyone who would be interested? Tell ‘em to get in touch!

Miscellaneous things to think about:

1. Lawyers transact business at Starbucks, e.g., writing a brief there, meeting a client for coffee, etc. So long as they follow the professional rules of conduct, e.g., keep confidential documents confidential, why not a place with actual desks and a manager who gives you a tour of the place? Google Voice and other technologies allow you to bring your work phone wherever you are so you don’t need a receptionist. For client meetings, you can reserve private conference room space. Explain to clients the nature of coworking spaces, the precautions taken to ensure confidentiality in the collaborative environment, and greet them personally at the door when you have a meeting.

2. What about ethical walls within law firms? How do they apply to coworking spaces? Or, a step backwards, can their principles apply to coworking spaces? If coworking spaces allow lawyers, what warnings/compliance measures do the spaces need to take, if any? E.g., Should all lawyers be told what other lawyers are working there on a given day?

3. On the flip side, why should lawyers be a profession that deserves oversight by coworking facilities?

4. When law firms strive to create an atmosphere of collaboration and community, they may implement a firm-wide wiki, knowledge sharing application, or create a physical space within the law firm that fosters conversation. The firm, as an institution, reaps benefits. How is this different from the collaboration and community that occurs at coworking spaces?

5. ACPE 718/CAA 41 (pdf), the joint opinion by the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics and the Committee on Attorney Advertising, found that virtual offices are not bona fide offices under New Jersey law. Under the opinion’s reasoning, are coworking facilities bona fide offices? Do we want them to be?

Further reading:

Keeping Your Office-Sharing Arrangements Squeaky Clean under the Ethics Rules

More Solutions in Search of a Problem

Virtual Offices May Violate Ethics Rules, New Jersey Opinion Says

Model Rules of Professional Conduct

ABA Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions (pdf)

5 Signs Co-Working Might be for You

6 thoughts on “Coworking for Lawyers: First Impressions

  1. I’ve worked for attorneys for a number of years and I’ve found that lawyers, as individuals, have certain opinions of themselves they wish to uphold. (I’ll let the savvy reader read between those lines.) Thus, I find it hard to believe that any lawyer would opt for a coworking situation. However, of interest in this context, is an article in our local paper a week ago, talking about newly graduated (and passed the bar) lawyers are having trouble finding jobs as associates in the prestigious law firms of choice. Coupled with the fact that, like other new college degree holders lately, they leave law school with a diploma, a head full of knowledge, and a trailer the size of a semi full of debt – then common sense would suggest the lawyer of tomorrow is not going to be so picky when it comes to finding a place to hang their hats. I’ll be interested to see how all this develops. Just FYI….

  2. Melissa,

    I found your post because of Alex Hillman’s link on the global Coworking Google Group.

    I have a few questions for you:

    1. What exactly are these “ethical issues” that could arise? As a layperson, I don’t know what these could be.
    2. Why would one want or need to be in a bona fide office, or not?

  3. @Ryan, the ethical rules differ by state.

    The article in the further reading does a good job going through the potential ethics problems in an office-sharing situation. I’d take a look at that article for a starting point. These include conflicts of interest, client communication, and safekeeping property.

    Lawyers are also weary of direct contact with prospective clients. (Think: handing out a business card at a scene of an accident is *not* allowed.)

    As for the bona fide office, lawyers need to provide their contact information to the public. The NJ opinion to which I referred caused quite a stir in the legal community. (One of the titles of a post that I linked to: “New Jersey’s Bona Fide Office Rules Would Have Me Doubled Over with Laughter…Except that It Will Double the Costs of Legal Services.”)

    @David, your points are well-received. And, in my opinion, one of the reasons why coworking should be a viable option for the legal profession.

  4. Let the lawyer jokes begin!
    I read the link to the ABA article on sharing space. I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. I am a communicator, digital strategist, web producer. But if I did any of the things stated in the article like (I translate for the legal community into real world language) worked for two clients that were competing on or for the same project (happens a lot when proposals are being written) #1 I wouldn’t be working for ANYONE for very long and there is no #2.
    Or the protection of confidential client information. See #1 above.
    It is truly scary that these kinds of rules need to be written down.
    All that being said lawyers need to have some imagination. Not for bending the ethical rules but facing reality and adapt. We have MANY lawyers here in San Antonio who practice out of Starbucks or on the courthouse steps or a bench in the courthouse hallway. That would seem to violate all kinds of ethical rules yet it occurs everyday. It seems the ethical precedent has already been set.
    We have a paralegal that meets clients in our space regularly. (The firm she works for works out of a house down the street and they don’t want the clients coming to the house.) They use our conference room or one of our smaller Phone Rooms.
    Thanks for this post Sara. I’ll be reposting tomorrow.
    And Thanks Alex for posting to the Coworking Google Group!
    Cheers!
    Todd O’Neill
    Catalyst
    C4 Workspace
    San Antonio TX

  5. Do you think there are confidentiality issues with working at a coworking space? I visited a space today and thought I would feel uncomfortable taking calls with so many people around. How do other lawyers do it out of Starbucks, etc.? I would think appeals work would be fine, but I would be wary of talking about sensitive issues. I would love to hear about others’ experiences.

  6. Anyone interested in coworking spaces should check out Servcorp, http://www.servcorp.com/, they offer virtual offices and executive suites in 13 cities across the U.S. and 21 cities worldwide. The Services that Servcorp offers would be much more suited for an attorney who is worried about sensitive material being heard by others (which you should). They offer private offices rather than shared space, as well as state of the art meeting/comference rooms perfect for entertaining clients or depositions. They also offer business address’ in prominate areas (for those who are concerned with that), and phone/mail handeling, and even personal assistants. Check them out!

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