Home is where the practice is

Dan Heilman, The Daily Record Newswire

On the TV show “Better Call Saul,” down-and-out lawyer Jimmy McGill has his office in the back room of a low-rent nail salon — which is where he also lives, sleeping on a fold-out bed. While most solo lawyers who work from home don’t live in work in quite such a desperate setting, a notable number of solos find that working from home is preferable to being stuck in a firm setting or paying to rent an office.

Bloomington-based business attorney Larry Frost estimates that by working at home, he sees cost savings totaling five figures a year when he takes into account the money he could be spending on rent, gas, parking and other expenses. After a previous career as an Army intelligence officer, Frost quickly became convinced once he earned his law degree that working from home was the only way to go.

“I looked at the situation and realized I had to make money, but couldn’t afford a lot of expenses,” Frost said. “I tried to create a business model that would take advantage of that. What I try to do is work with business owners who don’t want to deal with a lawyer in a big, expensive office.”

St. Paul attorney Susan Dickel Minsberg has used home as her work base for 12 years, following a decade in an office setting. Her reason for switching was more a lifestyle choice than an economic one.

“I wanted to simplify my life a little bit,” Minsberg said. “More than the money, it was also the time and hassle. If it was snowing out, you’d have to look outside and figure out how early you’d have to leave to avoid gridlock.”

Now, Minsberg finds that she can get more work done because that hour in the car isn’t automatically build into her day. She also has more direct contact with her clients, with whom she usually meets offsite.

Newly minted solos are also finding that working from home can be an inexpensive, low-risk way to get a practice off the ground. Solo attorney Corey Cobbervig has worked out of his apartment for about nine months, and he’s enjoying the flexibility that brings while he ponders where and when to get an offsite office.

“When I went on my own, my goal was to keep overhead as low as possible so I could start turning a profit as soon as possible,” said Kobbervig. “I’m saving a ton of money by not renting. I’m in downtown St. Paul, so I’m pretty close to everything.”

Of course, practicing law from home has only been possible in the age of the virtual office. Home-based solos can do what they do by relying on phone and email communication. Minsberg said she maintains dedicated phone and fax lines instead of tangling personal communications with the professional.

As for meeting clients in person, Cobbervig says there are rooms and conference areas nearby that can be used cheaply or free. Frost says he generally goes to his clients’ place of business to talk.

“A lot of small-business owners don’t get the right legal advice up front, so I make a point of going to them and talking to them once a month as a way to prevent legal expenses,” he said.

Of course, working from home doesn’t come without its drawbacks. It’s not uncommon to go days without seeing another person, at least one outside one’s family. And apart from the isolation factor, clients occasionally will find it harder to take your seriously if you’re not in a real, official office.

“Some clients expect to see a fancy office,” said Frost. “I had a client early on who I gave everything he wanted, and he still fired me because I didn’t have those amenities.”

Despite those trade-offs, none of the solos we spoke with have immediate plans to abandon a home office. In fact, Frost said the money he’s saved on rent has allowed him to hire a part-time paralegal.

“I like the flexibility. I can work from home or from a coffee shop,” said Cobbervig. “Choosing a location for your office is a big decision, so this gives me time to figure out where I want to put down roots for my practice.”