Declaring Independence is a series by Tishampati Sen, an Advocate-on-Record who quit his job at a top-tier law firm to start his own practice. Setting up one’s own practice at a relatively young age is a challenge, albeit one that can have great rewards. Every month, Tishampati will look at an important aspect of going independent and have useful tips and advice for young lawyers who just want to break free! Read the previous post here.
When I started my career in the law firm that I have mentioned before, I used to sit among the many workstations and long to have a room like my seniors. It wasn’t a better designation, or even higher pay that attracted me (at that time… soon it would be the primary motivator) as much as having a room to myself. Of course at that time, the motivation was that I could sit back, relax (maybe take my shoes off without people staring at me weirdly) and watch stuff on YouTube or play online games with ease. I mean it wasn’t really the same with the middle finger and thumb perpetually stretched out on the Alt and Tab button on the keyboard just in case a partner walks by.
The importance of having an office
In my view, one of the great exciting milestones in setting up your independent practice is the stage of setting up the office. It may seem attractive to operate like Matthew McConaughey in the Lincoln Lawyer, but I highly doubt that it would work so comfortably in reality – I mean where do you have your conferences and meetings – in the back seat? Heaven forbid if your car gets stolen, then off goes your car, your office and the clients whose files were saved in the “office/car”. An office is your own little haven, a chance to give yourself that independent room with your name on the door. It is the opportunity to make it up in the way that best represents who you are and what you wish to give importance and attention to. But most importantly it is also your ‘OFFICE’, the place where you will spend the majority of the day, being creative, being useful and from where you will be building your practice. The office therefore has to be efficient, convenient and comfortable enough for you to function at your best.
As a lot of people told me, it is only when you have your own set up, will the world truly feel that you are here to stay. Having your own establishment shows the clients and your contemporaries that you have the confidence in your practice to invest into the office. Clients need to feel that their lawyer is an established person and not some fly–by–night operator who may tumble in the next storm. An office seems to show that their advocate is invested in his profession and makes his advice and service that much more credible.
But it is also one of the most stressful aspects of establishing your independent practice. For so long the focus was only on developing the knowledge base and the client base, and now for the first time the attention also needs to be on rentals, operational expenses, maintaining cleanliness, ensuring constant supply of drinking water, tea, coffee, etc. Some of the other things that one will need to consider while setting up office are furniture, internet, tools and equipment, office help/staff, etc. In our wonderful country thankfully there are lots of options available for all of the above.
Finding the right office space
In fact finding the right office space with the right amount of rental (and in some cases the right office colleagues) is the biggest challenge in itself – like finding the right house for yourself. In any case, even though setting up the office and furnishing it is entirely in your control, it is likely that it will turn out to have an impact on the finances.
Thankfully there are some options for the kind of office space that you want to have. There are those shared workstations which have become quite the rage with the Start Ups. However, given the inability to customise the same as per your preference, and the lack of storage spaces, etc., it may not be ideal for a lawyer to set up his office there. But on the flip side, the amenities such as coffee, tea, printer, etc., are taken care of. Besides with the start-ups coming up all around you (and most of them are fresh out of college – and they are already confident and rich. Good for them … I don’t care… just saying) there may be the ready client (not to be read as ‘prey’) base for an enterprising lawyer.
However there is a step which a lot of first generation lawyers choose to take before setting up their own office space. Shared offices are conceptually the same as the shared workstations, except the office is shared with other lawyers. As such there is a better understanding between you and your office colleagues. Being in the same profession they understand the importance of perception, and the appearance to clients (unlike the youngsters from the start ups who may with rising enthusiasm shout things like “Bomb Drop” while paying Counter Strike on the LAN). The level of customisation depends on the person who owns the office space or your pre-existing office colleagues, but usually that is not a serious problem. Your own room, which serves as your own chamber (like for a lot of doctors in various clinics and hospitals) is usually yours to make the way you like. It may be worthwhile to consider this step before setting up office completely on your own as it allows you to learn to run your own office while still being able to share the risk and cost of the common areas and amenities. Just pray that your office colleagues have decent toilet manners – for me that is a game changer.
Another perspective, one which is acceptable and one that I strongly recommend especially in the initial stages of the independent practice, is to work out of someone else’s office. You assist this person along with doing your own work and thus may be suitable for both. Working in someone else’s office in the beginning is a great learning experience in terms of understanding the issues that one faces and the innovative ways in which various offices operate. I learnt for example that, keeping a smaller printer rather than the big one (depending on the volume of your work of course) may be better because the requirement of servicing the bigger one is phenomenal. that for some lawyers, it makes sense to schedule all meetings at the same time such that the clients come in more or less at the same time and are made to wait. As a result the Clients end up thinking that that the lawyer is a super busy and competent lawyer. On a lighter note I also learned that when the juniors or the staff is feeling antsy, then circulating plates of Maggi works wonders!
I don’t think the office per se needs to be a masterpiece (especially in the first few years of your independent practice), if you do have the band width to make it big and beautiful – go for it, but if you cant, there is no point competing with the offices out there and taking on that kind of stress. To me, the office is supposed to inspire confidence in you as a professional. It is a place where you can work and be disciplined and perform at the highest level. Many people can do that with even a room dedicated to work in their home. They have the discipline to go into the room everyday at the same time and work / read /research at least until a particular time everyday. But for most of us a separate office space is an exercise in discipline, a place where we can don the professional demeanour and mindset, and something that serves as a reminder of why we went independent in the first place.
Here’s wishing all of us the best of luck in finding the right balance in setting up the office and giving ourselves the ships that we can captain. Godspeed.
Tishampati Sen is an Advocate–on–Record of the Supreme Court of India. He worked with one of the premier law firms of the country (in corporate transactions as well as dispute resolution) for many years before deciding to take the plunge of independent practice. He appears primarily before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, Delhi High Court and the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.