If I work out of my apartment, will I be my only client?
February 27, 2008 8:54 PM   Subscribe

Can I run a criminal law practice out of my apartment?

I'm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I'm currently articling (for my American friends, that's a mandatory one-year apprenticeship I have to complete to get called to the bar) at a mid-sized insurance defense firm. I've concluded that I want to get out of this area of the law and I'm interested in pursuing a career in criminal defence. I've been told that I'll likely have to take legal aid cases almost exclusively until I gain some more experience and can establish a full practice. My question is a narrow one: What are the practicalities of working out of my apartment until I can build a practice that can support office space. My apartment is in the business district of the city and about a 10 minute walk from the courthouses. Could I, for example, work out of my apartment, store my files there, and meet clients in public places?
posted by pantheON to Law & Government (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I can't imagine that it's illegal to take your work home with you, even in Canada. I mean, are you really asking just whether you can store files, write briefs, and make phone calls from your office?
posted by 1 at 9:05 PM on February 27, 2008

I don't think the OP is asking if it's legal, he/she's asking if it's feasible. Will files take over the apartment? Will clients think it's weird to meet in public and not in a proper office? Will it not matter because all legal aid recipients are in jail?
posted by clh at 9:10 PM on February 27, 2008

Functionally, I see no reason this can't work: my aunt runs her forensic psychiatry practice out of her home office, and that has a lot of the same concerns.

One hurdle, though, might be in convincing potential clients that you're legit ("What kind of lawyer doesn't even have an office?" I can imagine people asking). That can probably be done by maintaining a high degree of professionalism (separate phone line? business cards. references available.). Do you have somewhere to meet that's quiet, reasonably private, and consistent from time to time?
posted by hippugeek at 9:14 PM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: Sounds like a very smart plan to me. The only things I would caution you about are having a separate phone line, preferably not traceable to your home address, to give to your clients. Same for a mailing address -- a PO Box or some other way to receive your mail without having to give out your home address. In general, you probably don't want clients having unfettered, 24-7 access to you -- and that goes double for criminal defendants. My cousin (criminal and family law) got a second cell phone for personal use after she had one client who abused the privilege of having her original cell number. It wasn't anything scary or dangerous, just someone taking up a lot of her time unnecessarily.

Oh, and being careful about where you meet and who can overhear you. I've overhead way too many lawyers talking about confidential client matters on trains, at Starbucks, and otherwise obviously public places. I don't know Canadian rules, but I'm sure there are ethics standards about confidentiality that you'll want to be especially aware of without a fixed, private office.
posted by katemonster at 9:16 PM on February 27, 2008

Response by poster: Great comments so far. The dedicated phone and mail is a smart suggestion. And I suppose its relatively easy nowadays to erect and maintain a professional facade through the use of technology. I remain a bit stumped with respect to meeting clients. Legal aid clients aren't necessarily sophisticated and likely don't have high expectations. Still, can I just meet them at a coffee shop? I suppose confidentiality would be a concern in a place like that. Still, I can't think of what the alternatives would be.
posted by pantheON at 9:24 PM on February 27, 2008

The real estate lawyer that helped Carl King get an innocent man out of prison worked out of his home at the time. They met in the lawyer's home and in public places.
posted by ignignokt at 9:32 PM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: Another suggestion I've got is to get Jay Foonberg's How to Start & Build a Law Practice, which deals with a lot of the things you should think about in starting your own firm, including several pages about practicing from your home. If I'm recalling correctly, one of his suggestions is to hook up with a lawyer or law firm that has a conference room that you can use occasionally. Another possibility (at least in the States, I'm assuming something similar is available in Toronto) is to rent an office/conference room in a turnkey shared-office situation.
posted by katemonster at 9:33 PM on February 27, 2008

Undoubtedly there is another lawyer in your town who has a conference room that is being underutilized, and who would be very interested in accepting a hundred bucks or so a month from you for the privilege of meeting clients in it. Because you're doing legal aid cases you won't be competing with him or her. Probably you'll have better luck approaching someone who already does criminal defense, because someone with a more upscale practice won't necessarily be too keen to have the legal aid clients traipsing through the office (nothing against legal aid clients, but by virtue of their circumstances they do tend to dress differently, etc.).
posted by Enroute at 9:41 PM on February 27, 2008

Or, on preview, what katemonster said!
posted by Enroute at 9:42 PM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: The answer is yes. You'll need the following: (1) Internet access; (2) fax; (3) Copier; (4) Computer with legal practice software (Recommend for you Gavel & Gown's Amicus Attorney--they are right out of Toronto; (5) Smart Phone (recommend blackberry curve); (5) Website, recommend lawyersites.net; (6) some sort of listing of criminal complaints which you can use as a marketing resource; (7) legal research service, (Westlaw or Lexis).

You can easily rent conference space at a turnkey shared office as indicated above. I recommend Regus. If Canada is like the states, you're going to start out with clients that you meet at the courthouse, so meeting at a conference room won't be much of a need. This is all very doable.

Here are your steps: (1) Create business organization; (2) Get malpractice insurance; (3) Start practicing.

After you get going you either get cheap, irregular office space or go the way of the turnkey office solution.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:51 PM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: When I want to fantasize about that sort of thing, I read this blog:


He goes into all of the details of practicing out of the home, and his blog has further links to attorneys who are doing the same thing. It's a really rich starting place.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:39 PM on February 27, 2008

My lawyer (not criminal) uses a Regus centre. One of the biggest real estate law firms in Vancouver does too. You really just need access to a conference room, so perhaps you could ask around to find an opportunity to share space.
posted by acoutu at 10:40 PM on February 27, 2008

I know lawyers who use their vehicles as mobile offices. So I don't see any problems in running a practice from your apartment.
posted by iceman7 at 12:53 AM on February 28, 2008

Best answer: The Regus centre is a good idea. HQ Global is another. I've met with people there (in "their office") and it was very nice, and didn't seem unprofessional at all.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:28 AM on February 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

There was a criminal defense attorney here in Augusta, GA who lived on and worked out of a houseboat on the Savannah River, so it has certainly been done before.
posted by TedW at 5:32 AM on February 28, 2008

Check zoning. In the US, you'd run afoul of zoning regulations in many places -- probably not if you just kept an office, but almost certainly if clients started showing up at your place. Neighbors don't take kindly to that kind of traffic, especially if they're accused criminals. So, seconding the idea of an arrangement to borrow someone's conference room or spare office for meetings. It doesn't have to be a law firm.
posted by beagle at 6:01 AM on February 28, 2008

This is probably unpractical in this situation, but I like the idea of a mobile office (think Westfalia Vanagon or Eurovan). Provides a private place for meetings and can be used as a camper on the week-end....
posted by bluefrog at 7:10 AM on February 28, 2008

I'd also look into getting a 'not my house' mailing address along with that 'can't be traced back to your home' phone number.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:12 AM on February 28, 2008

Best answer: Having client meetings in a coffee shop or other public location may not give your clients confidence to speak openly and honestly with you. In many jurisdictions in the US, one of the problems that oublic defenders and/or court appointed attorneys face is overcoming their clients' perceptions that a public defender is a "real lawyer." And not having an office to meet in may prevent your clients from being completely open and honest with you. Renting space in a shared office environment which will give you an office or access to a conference room to meet with clients. Otherwise, working from home (especially within walking distance to the courts) is fairly common for solo practitioners.
posted by andrewraff at 7:36 AM on February 28, 2008

I know several lawyers who "share" office space downtown. Their name is on the door and they pay a share for the 1 secretary who answers the phone. There is a conference room and other amenities which they all can use (and I assume costs are allocated in some way).

This might be too expensive for you starting out. In NY, at least, I know that there are placse that "rent" a mail drop, voicemail box and conference room space a la carte.

Having the separate "physical" office / maildrop box will help you keep your home life separate from your work life (even though you're doing most of your work at home).
posted by QuantumMeruit at 7:54 AM on February 28, 2008

The turnkey office bit is important. The largest problem I see is keeping your clients from bothering you at home during off-hours, and privacy. There is a reason attorney-client privilege exists; you want your clients to be able to confide their deepest darkest secrets to you. They can't do that in a public place; you need somewhere you can speak in absolute privacy. You also probably don't want your clients sitting on your couch in your apartment, since if they get tossed in jail and feel like it's your fault, they could come after you.

I'd get an office of some sort, though any of the joint office solutions mentioned above would take care of both of these concerns.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:07 AM on February 28, 2008

do get a calling service, makes you sound professional!
posted by Salvatorparadise at 11:05 AM on February 28, 2008

My downstairs neighbor is a criminal defense attorney, and he works out of his apartment. He said he never has clients over because they are all in prison, and that's where he meets them, or at the courthouse.

He keeps all his files in his home and conducts all his business there, with the exception of meetings. I believe his phone number is unlisted and he conducts all his business with a cell phone.

This is in San Francisco.
posted by paddingtonb at 3:53 PM on February 28, 2008

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