New Jersey and Virtual Offices

I know that I am late to this party, but I have been watching the debate over the joint opinion from New Jersey’s Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics and Committee on Attorney Advertising (note that this link is to a PDF copy of the opinion). I have read the opinion and, in all honesty, it doesn’t make much sense to me. I understand the idea behind having a “bona fide” office. However, I find the arguments advanced in the opinion to be very unpersuasive.

For example, one of the arguments is:

A “virtual office” location is not a place where a client can meet with the attorney unannounced. An attorney is not routinely found at a “virtual office” location and would need to make arrangements to reserve the space. Accordingly, while “virtual office” locations may be listed on attorney or law firm letterhead, websites, or other advertisements, the communication must state that the location is “by appointment only.”

Strangely enough, although I have always maintained an office in a commercial building, I have never considered my office as a “place where a client can meet with the attorney unannounced.” Is this something that happens regularly in New Jersey that just does not happen in Illinois? I mean my doctor maintains a physical office (2 or 3 actually), but I have never just dropped in to see him unannounced. I am not quite sure what the concern is here.

Similarly, the opinion asserts that the receptionist in a virtual office space does not qualify as a responsible person:

A “virtual office” cannot be a bona fide office since the attorney generally is not present during normal business hours but will only be present when he or she has reserved the space. Moreover, the receptionist at a “virtual office” does not qualify as a “responsible person acting on the attorney’s behalf” who can “answer questions posed by the courts, clients or adversaries.” Presumably, the receptionist can redirect a telephone call to the attorney lessee of the “virtual office” much like an answering service, but would not be privy to legal matters being handled by the attorney and so would be unable to “act[] on the attorney’s behalf” in any matter.

The ACPE notes that, in general, an attorney should not permit the receptionist of a “virtual office” to field telephone calls to the attorney. Prospective clients calling an attorney or law firm assume that they are reaching an employee and may disclose confidential and sensitive information.

No offense, but this simply ridiculous. How is contracting with a receptionist to maintain information confidential any different from contracting with a secretary to maintain confidential information. I just don’t understand this argument. The person answering your telephone can handle your calls only to the extent that they have been properly trained to handle the calls. That is true whether the person answering the phone is an employee or a contracted receptionist.

Similarly, by the argument made here, I would conclude that if you are not regularly in the office, your office is no longer a bona fide office if your receptionist is sick or goes on vacation. Even if you hire a temp, the reality is that the temp will not be able to answer questions posed by” courts, clients, or adversaries.” Similarly, there is nothing that would prevent “clients calling an attorney or law firm assume that they are reaching an employee and may disclose confidential and sensitive information.”

Without question, attorneys have a duty to maintain confidentiality, protect client files, remain accessible,  and to ensure that they do not mislead their clients. However, this opinion does not ensure that any of these objectives are achieved. Instead, it simply ensures that good attorneys are limited in the options they can use to best serve themselves and their clients.

Two Lessons I Learned Last Week

Last week I learned two lessons that I plan to apply in my practice going forward. To understand these lessons, a little back story is needed.

Part of my practice is doing mechanic’s lien work. In order to properly prepare a mechanic’s lien, I have to have a title company run a tract search for me. This search identifies, among other things, the property owner, the mortgage holder, and anyone else has a record claim on the property (such as other lien holders).

For years I have used a company that is a subsidiary of the a large title company. I have dealt with two offices in this subsidiary. The suburban office is great to deal with and I have had a good relationship with them. for property in Cook County, however, I cannot deal with the suburban office. Instead, I have to deal with the Chicago office. I have had less dealings with that office over the years, and therefore, do not have as established a relationship with them. Also, in the past, they have not been as responsive as the suburban office.

So, last week I attempt to order a tract search in the same way that I have ordered one in the last 10 years. I send an email to my contact, I give them the information that I have about the property, and I tell them what I need (a tract search). In the past, this has generated a return email telling me that my order has been received and I should have my information in 2 to 3 days.

This time, however, I get an email back with a form attached. The email tells me that I have to complete the form and that I have to pay for the tract search in advance.

In reality, I find neither one of these requirements offensive. Having customers complete a standard order form probably makes things work more smoothly. Also, it is not unreasonable to request payment up front. Given, however, I have not had to do this before, I sent an email back asking if the payment in advance was a new policy, because I had not encountered it before.

In response, I was told that they require payment in advance for anyone who does not have an account set up with them (reasonable), he had checked their records and found that my firm had not ordered from them before (not surprising, it has been in existence for less than a month). Consequently, they require payment in advance from me.

Again, all of this was reasonable. What I did not find in the email, however, was information on how to establish an account with them, or how to pay them in advance. In a return email, I asked how I could pay in advance, and I was told that I could mail a check or drop off payment at their office. This last option is particularly convenient for me given that I am sure my Naperville office is next door to their Chicago office. It would probably take only 3 hours of time and $30 in parking fees to drop the check off.

After thinking about this for a second, I realized that this was a situation in which, in the recent past, I would have used the support staff that I no longer have. When encountering a situation like this, I would push it off to my assistant and let her handle this task. Now, however, I am also my own assistant. I was trying to figure out how to get this resolved without wasting more of my time and worry about getitng the check lost on its way to the title company office.

This is particularly important in a situation such as this. I charge a flat fee to prepare a mechanic’s lien. Thus, any time I spend wasting on administrative stuff is time I could be doing something useful.

As I was thinking, I was struck by inspiration. I am in the process of signing up to be a title agent with a title company. The sales person there has been very attentive during the process. Thus, I decided to use him as my support staff. I send him an email and asked how to order a tract search. In response, he emailed me the order form, with all of my contact information filled in, no less. I completed, the few remaining fields I had to, and placed the order in just a couple of minutes.

So what did I learn last week? First, don’t be afraid to use your vendors as support staff. Don’t be unreasonable here, but there are things that they can do for you more easily than you can try to do them yourself. Second, just because your rules are reasonable, that doesn’t mean they won’t cost you a customer. I have dealt with this title company subsidiary for essentially the last decade. However, because they made it difficult for me to place my order, I placed my order with someone else. As a result, I am reviewing my policies to identify areas that make it difficult for clients to do business with me.

How to Increase Your Productivity

Chief Happiness Officer recently had an interesting post in which he talks about increasing productivity. He begins by explaining:

There’s just one problem: Most people’s view of productivity comes from an industrial age view of work. This leads to some fundamental misconceptions about work, including some of these:

  • If you work more hours, you get more work done.
  • Adding more people to a team means you can finish sooner.
  • Productivity is more or less constant and can be easily scheduled.

For knowledge workers, i.e. anyone who works with information rather than physically producing stuff, these notions are not only wrong, they’re actively harmful.

He goes on to suggest 5 new rules of productivity. As a knowledge worker, I found his rules interesting and applicable to myself as a knowledge worker.

His five tips are:

  • Your productivity will vary wildly from day to day. This is normal.
  • Working more hours means getting less done.
  • Working harder means getting less done.
  • Procrastination can be good for you.
  • Happiness is the ultimate productivity enhancer.

My suggestion is that you hop over to his post and read the entire post. However, I did want to highlight a couple things.

In his discussion, he has a great graph that shows how productivity is affected if you work 60 hours a week for several weeks in a row. In the beginning, productivity is high. By week two, your productivity begins declining and by week four it’s less productive than working only 40 hours a week.

As attorneys there are times, of course, where we will have to work more hours. That is the nature of the business. However, as the author points out, don’t get trapped in the manufacturing thought pattern that more work equals more productivity. Yes, a widget maker that runs 16 hours a day can produce twice as many widgets as one that runs 8 hours a day.

However, we are not creating widgets. We are using our knowledge and experience to help our clients solve their legal problems. Our work is not a commodity. Do not treat it as one.

In talking about procrastination, the author points out that we view tasks differently at different times. He explains:

Sometimes you’re in the mood for task X and doing X is ridiculously easy and a lot of fun. Sometimes doing X feels worse than walking barefoot over burning-hot, acid-covered, broken glass and forcing yourself to do it anyway is a frustrating exercise in futility.

Certainly there are times when we have something that must be done at a certain time. Most of the time, however, we can structure our tasks to work on them when we want. Don’t forget that fact. If you are more productive at a certain time, plan to work then. If you always start to drift off in the afternoon, schedule a break then, or make that your surf the internet time. Think about how and when you best work and try to match your tasks to that.

Like I said, you should read the entire post and think about how you can apply it to your work life..

Closing a Client’s File

One of the things I have noticed is that most attorneys don’t bother to think about file storage and retention until they start running out of room to store their files. The key, of course, is to address file retention, storage, and destruction at the beginning of your client relationship, not years after it has ended and you are trying to clean out your file room.

For some good tips on creating a good file retention policy, check out Jim Calloway’s recent article on Closing the Client’s File.

Check out Jim’s article and start putting your file retention policy together now, not when you are out of storage space.


I am traveling right now and wouldn’t normally be posting. However, I am giving Sean’s challenge the college try.

With Monitors, Size Does Matter

A recent study from the University of Utah reveals something that anyone who uses larger and/or multiple monitors already know: If you use a larger monitor or multiple monitors, you are more productive. Specifically,

People using the 24-inch screen completed the tasks 52% faster than people who used the 18-inch monitor; people who used the two 20-inch monitors were 44% faster than those with the 18-inch ones.

The Wall Street Journal Business Technology Blog further reports:

The study concluded that someone using a larger monitor could save 2.5 hours a day. But James Anderson, the professor in charge of the study, tells the Business Technology Blog to take that result with a grain of salt: It assumes that someone will work non-stop for eight hours, which no one will, and that the tasks they perform will all benefit from a larger screen, which isn’t always the case. But things like moving data between files are ideally suited to bigger or multiple screens. Anderson, who uses a computer with two 20-inch screens and one 24-inch one, recommends that businesses take the time to match employees with the proper size screen based on job requirements.

If you have never tried using multiple monitors, you should. If you are unsure where to start, have an article about using multiple monitors on my Files page. Also, don’t forget your staff. It’s great if you increase your productivity, but don’t leave your staff using 15 inch CRT, while you are using 24 inch LCDs. You want your staff to be productive as well.