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