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Solos, small firms share strategies for finding the right office space

Attorney Rhonda Framm has had her eye on the 10th floor of her building for the past decade. On Wednesday, it will be hers.

Rhonda Framm

That’s the day Framm will go from her 250-square-foot shared office on the fourth floor to the 1,200-square-foot private suite on the top floor.

“We need more space,” Framm said. “We want to have more control over who comes into our offices.”

Finding the right space for a solo or small firm can be a challenge, many lawyers said. They struggle to find an affordable space big enough to meet with clients. Lawyers work virtually and rent out rooms from other attorneys or in communal office spaces. Often, property owners don’t want to lease the small amount of space a solo or small firm needs.

“For an increasing portion of today’s work force, people want something in between,” said solo attorney Carolyn Elefant. “They don’t want a full-scale office that sits unused, but they want something more than a mail drop.”

Framm, who moved into the Owings Mills building about a dozen years ago, said she struggled to find a small space in a corporate building. Most real estate agents, she said, wanted to lease an entire floor, space a solo firm does not need.

“It’s much more difficult to find a space, and you have to make concessions,” Framm said.

Framm, who runs a boutique litigation firm, currently shares the fourth floor’s conference rooms, copiers and receptionists with the other professionals.

Framm said she will miss the social aspect of communal space. She said she had probably represented everyone on the floor at one point or another in a legal matter.

“There’s been such a great camaraderie throughout the years,” Framm said.

In her new space, which she calls “the penthouse,” there will be a conference room and an office for her and an office for her assistants, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows.

“I have been teasing people here that we will have to dress better when we go up there, now,” Framm said.

Divide and conquer

Adele L. Abrams has created her own office empire over the years.

Abrams’ firm grew from one attorney with a 1,000-square-foot office to nine attorneys, a paralegal and two full-time assistants in a 4,000-square-foot office today.

As occupants moved out of her Beltsville building, Abrams took over their spaces. She now has a suite with two conference rooms, 12 offices, a kitchen and a lunch room.

“It was baby steps initially,” Abrams said. “I did, at the same time, try to look at what my business plan was in terms of expectations to make sure we would be able to handle everything.”

Abrams started her firm in January 2001. When she decided to cautiously grow, she moved into a suite in a new building the following November with three rooms and a reception area.

“I held my nose and jumped off the cliff into the river,” Abrams said.

After a year, the office next to hers became available, and she acquired the space. A few years later, an adjacent suite opened up, and she took that space, too. This spring, another tenant moved out, and Abrams acquired that office.

Each time she added space, Abrams renegotiated her lease with the landlord. The latest one she signed is a four-year lease, and she pays about $1,900 a month, she said.

Abrams said one of the problems small firms face is that real estate agents try to pressure attorneys into renting more expensive, fancier units.

“You really need to evaluate the type of practice you have,” Abrams said. “If your clients are business people at a high level, you may need a more sophisticated office space. If you are dealing with family law clients, they are not going to be necessarily looking for marble foyers and an attendant in the lobby 24/7.”

Location, location, location

For Ray McKenzie, it was all about location.

McKenzie moved to an office in the Kentlands shopping center in Gaithersburg on July 1. A solo attorney for four years, he previously sublet an office in another law firm’s suite.

McKenzie, who practices corporate and franchise law, spent about seven months looking for the right spot.

“I wanted to be somewhere that was a populous area which was a destination where you could walk to lunch and stuff, because clients enjoy that and the quality of life is better,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie said he found about 30 office spaces he could have rented cheaply around Gaithersburg, but they were in isolated, nondescript office buildings. Then the space in the Kentlands opened up. Not only does he live nearby, but the office also was in the community hub location he was looking for.

“I kept my eye out for something, and when this popped up, I jumped on it because it was where I wanted to be,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie’s new space is above a strip of restaurants and retail businesses. There are four offices in the 1,000-square-foot suite. McKenzie rents out one room and plans to lease another. McKenzie said he paid about $1,000 per month for his previous sublet, and, if he finds a second tenant, he expects to be paying half of that at his new office.

“I could have moved to another office building and paid less rent in a bland office building,” McKenzie said. “It was just a lot of the same. …  The challenge is finding a place where I thought, ‘I can live here.’ I’m a community lawyer in some regards. Trying to latch onto the community is an advantage.”

Criminal defense attorney Michael Bruckheim also had an office in Gaithersburg when he started his solo practice in May 2010.

“It was a great starter office,” Bruckheim said. “I felt as my practice started to grow, I wanted to make my office more accessible. It’s difficult to drive to Gaithersburg. No one wants to sit on 270 North.”

Bruckheim decided on an office in Rockville, close to the courthouse there as well as the Metro station, making it easy for clients to get to him and for him to commute to court in Washington.

Bruckheim moved into his new space in a shared office suite last December, signing a one-year lease. He pays about $350 per month more now, which he figured would be offset by a few extra clients he hopes the new location will attract.

“When I was looking, it wasn’t that I was dissatisfied with the Gaithersburg office,” Bruckheim said. “I was fine there. I thought if I could get those qualities at a Rockville office, it would be better.”

“Location means everything,” he said.

Getting creative

Solo attorney Sean T. Morris found his current space by posting a flier at Starbucks.

Morris used to work in the Rockville suite Bruckheim is now in, but decided his ideal location was in Bethesda, where he could practice among the local business community. Morris has a lot of business clients, and he also lives in Bethesda.

“It was as much a personal preference as any sort of business reason,” Morris said.

Morris rented a 100-square-foot office in Rockville to save on overhead costs in the beginning of his just under two-year career.

Morris said many landlords only offered multiyear leases when he wanted to sign for a year or buildings wanted to rent out entire suites when he was just looking for an office.

“I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a space to sublet,” Morris said. “In this economy, there’s got to be people with empty office space willing to take money every month to use their space.”

Morris posted on Craigslist and answered ads he found in the newspaper. After a couple months, he hung a flier on the Starbucks notice board.

“It said: ‘I am a solo lawyer looking to lease in Bethesda. Here’s my phone number,’” Morris said.

The wife of one of the attorneys at the small firm where Morris is located now saw the flier and told her husband. Last December, Morris moved into an office in the small firm’s suite.

“I’m on a month-to-month lease basically on a handshake with these guys,” Morris said. “That’s how I wanted to do it, and I was comfortable doing it.”

Finding the right fit

Elefant, who blogs at MyShingle.com, said it is essential for solo attorneys to find the right spaces to suit their personalities and practices. Elefant started her own practice in 1993 and has changed offices several times.

She initially sublet an office in Washington from a firm in her practice area.

“I worked with other people in my practice area, so I was able to sort of bounce ideas off of them or share gossip,” Elefant said.

Elefant, who does mostly energy law work, stayed there until 2001, then worked virtually from home for two years before moving to an office in Bethesda. The space had no conference room or common area, though.

“When I needed to meet with somebody, it was impossible to book conference rooms,” Elefant said. “They were overbooked all time, and the office space was small and shabby.”

She then moved back to the city in a shared office on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the shared space, she has to book a conference room and pay a fee. She rents a cubicle for her and a cubicle for her intern, who sits next to her.

“This was sort of the best space I could find for the needs that I had,” Elefant said.

Elefant said it is also hard for a solo practitioner to decide on the right amount of space and the length of his or her lease, since he or she doesn’t know how much the practice will grow.

“It really depends on how big the practice is and if they are looking for a permanent space to occupy with a staff for a period of years, whereas a single person with one other person working for you gives a lot of flexibility in terms of where you go,” Elefant said.

It is, however, in some ways more efficient for a small firm to physically move than a large firm, Elefant said.

“It’s probably easier because it depends on the size of the firm,” Elefant said. “You don’t have a lot of space to consider. You don’t have a lot of equipment. Just because there are fewer bodies involved, it’s probably easier.”

The process

Physically moving a law firm is no easy task, said Washington-based moving company College Hunks Hauling Junk.

The company’s Rockville office moves about 10 to 15 law firms a month, said John Bates, the operations manager at the office.

Moving law firms is usually a heavier business, Bates said, with all the books firms keep. It also requires dealing with more confidential documents, Bates said.

“What is different about law firms is that there are a lot more sensitive documents and private information that needs to be handled by someone you can trust,” said Christopher Jackson, director of marketing and branding at the company.

Law firm moves are also more time-sensitive, since the firm usually moves out of an old office and very shortly thereafter needs to open for business in its new office, Bates said.

“When you move a resident client out of their apartment or home, they are not in a rush to put things back together,” Bates said. “With law firms, you’ve got to get everything in its exact location, unpack them, make sure everything confidential is in order, so the next day they can get up and running and work again.”

The buyer

Small firm attorney John P. Pierce, who works in Maryland and Washington, got so fed up looking for spaces to rent, he decided to buy.

Pierce wanted to move from a sublet space in Bethesda to a D.C., office. He has a significant international practice and spent two years looking for a space in Washington before he turned to buying.

“I wanted to invest in a space instead of continuing to pay rent,” Pierce said.  “The cost of space is inefficient. If you can do something without paying interest, why pay interest?”

Even so, Pierce said he struggled to find space that was zoned commercially, much less in his price range. He eventually bought a four-story historic row house in Woodley Park. The ceilings are inlaid with lattice designs, and there are fireplaces throughout the building.

“It’s just a very old, traditional Washington law firm space,” Pierce said.

Even though his monthly payments are four times more than his Bethesda sublet, Pierce said it’s worth it.

“The advantage is that you are paying yourself rent instead of someone else,” Pierce said. “The disadvantage is that you have to be committed to a piece of property for 15 years, or else it does not make any sense.”

Still looking

Edward E. Sharkey has been working as a solo attorney since 2003 and has tried unsuccessfully to move every time his lease has ended.

“For a solo attorney to find a space which is small and meets your needs, you probably have to consider going in with someone,” Sharkey said. “The countervailing considerations are whether you can effectively and comfortably make that space your own.”

Sharkey works out of a three-office suite in Bethesda, which he shares with another law firm. Sharkey has signed several three- or four-year leases, and whenever one is up, he has tried to find a new space.

In the Bethesda market, Sharkey said, occupancy rates and rents are high. Sharkey pays about $24 per square foot now, and the spaces he looked at ranged from $28 to $36 per square foot. Sharkey has also run into landlords only wanting to rent large spaces.

“When you are dealing with a primary lease, there are certain buildings that won’t make space smaller than 5,000 and 2,500 square feet,” Sharkey said.

When he has found a space that was the right size, it was in an office where a firm was subletting a space, but the leases were short-term in case the firm decided to expand, Sharkey said.

“Typically, they like to keep their options open, so there is no guarantee you can keep it long-term,” Sharkey said.

Sharkey is halfway through a three-year lease and said he plans to look again when the contract nears its end.

“You always have to see what is available,” Sharkey said.


One comment

  1. Very interesting article. In my case, as the managing attorney at Kramer & Connolly, we found it prudent to invest in our own building, a three-story Victorian in Historic Reisterstown. The preservation project was quite rewarding and, when completed, it tripled our firm’s space and was tailor-made for our needs.