Lawyers practicing prudence in the sky Saving on the rent: A growing number of attorneys entering solo practice elect to combine their offices with those of other sole practitioners or small firms.

November 22, 1995|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

From the conference room at her law office, Cyd Beth Wolf has a glittering, panoramic view of the Inner Harbor.

So do six other attorneys.

Ms. Wolf doesn't share her practice with the other lawyers, just the swank suite of offices.

She is one of a growing number of attorneys entering solo practice who are combining their offices with those of other sole practitioners or small firms.

Sharing space is a considerable money saver. When they strike out on their own, many lawyers lack the capital to splurge on a rambling suite, the best computers and law library. Joining with others reduces start-up costs.

"I probably could not be in a downtown office if not for this," said Baltimore attorney Tracey Skinner, whose one-woman firm is surrounded by other small businesses in a professional suite in the Legg Mason Tower.

Lawyers also share space because they appreciate the company.

"I'd be claustrophobic" without other lawyers around, said Ms. Wolf, who left the big-firm life at Piper & Marbury in August. She launched a solo practice in a downtown office building.

But working together also requires being a good neighbor.

"We try to be considerate of each other. The last one out turns off the lights and the copying machine," said Ms. Wolf.

"You've got to be flexible," said Bryan Bishop, 30, a solo practitioner who leases space in a downtown high rise.

"There are times I'll say, 'I'm going to need the secretary all morning to get something out. Is that a problem?' So far, we've never had a conflict."

Maryland has plenty of solo and small-firm lawyers. About 60 percent of the state's attorneys in private practice are alone or in firms of five or fewer lawyers, according to figures compiled by the Maryland State Bar Association.

For these lawyers, sharing office space is nothing new. Attorneys have been doing it since the heyday of manual typewriters and carbon paper.

The arrangement can be convenient. Ms. Wolf's office was waiting for her almost before she left Piper.

Her friend, attorney Michael J. Schwarz, had been talking up solo practice for several years. As Ms. Wolf weighed the option seriously, an office in Mr. Schwarz's 26th-floor suite in the Legg Mason Tower came vacant.

He offered her a deal to move in. When he handed her the key, Ms. Wolf was in business.

"I didn't have to waste time getting up to speed. I was practicing the minute I came in the door," said Ms. Wolf, who specializes in bankruptcy and commercial matters.

For lawyers sharing space, the biggest factor is saving money.

Launching a solo firm can be costly. Before seeing their first clients, lawyers going it alone can expect to spend $12,000 to $15,000, according to Joe Molinaro of McLean, Koehler, Sparks & Hammond, a certified public accounting firm.

The largest cost is the lawyer's office. In Class A space, a solo practitioner's rent could be $2,200, Mr. Molinaro said. That figure is about $1,200 for Class B space and as low as $800 when a lawyer moves into a converted home or other less luxurious quarters.

Other investments facing a solo lawyer include a computer ($2,000), office furniture ($3,000), malpractice insurance ($750) and business cards and letterhead ($300).

"Setting up on your own is always an expensive proposition," said Roger Perkins, a former Maryland State Bar president who has been in solo practice for 18 years.

"Alone, you pay for one of everything, from a secretary to a [law] library. In a three-lawyer office, each lawyer needs a third of everything."

Ms. Skinner, 35, practiced with three law firms before launching her solo career three years ago. Options she explored included setting up an office in her home (too informal) and renting a suite downtown (too expensive).

Ms. Skinner hit on an affordable compromise, taking space at the Legg Mason Tower. Ms. Skinner's neighbors in the office suite, known as Execucenter Inc., include accountants and financial consultants as well as lawyers. She and Mr. Bishop share a secretary.

"It's a nice place," Ms. Skinner said. "It looks like you're stepping into a large law firm, but there's no one to deal with except the landlord."

What a client thinks can be critical. When lawyers mislead, they risk sanctions under the lawyer's code of ethical conduct.

That can occur in innocent ways. For instance, lawyers who share office space cannot combine their names on letterhead. That might mislead clients into believing they are hiring a two-lawyer firm. For the same reason, lawyers must keep their names apart on business cards and on their office doors.

Cases of deceptions are rare, however. Mostly, solo practitioners say, they are better off in the company of other lawyers.

"It's a little family with the attorneys on the floor," Ms. Skinner said. "They're very open to me coming into their offices to chat, asking, 'Have you ever gone through this before?' "

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