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Coworking for a living

Long a draw for techies, new office option is attracting lawyers, too

 

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First article of a two-part series on attorneys who work from unconventional office spaces.

In a gray hoodie and backwards Captain America baseball cap, John Fallone looks every bit like the Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur he once was. But today Fallone is an attorney in Raleigh whose practice focuses on counseling other founders of startups. In a traditional office, such laid-back fashion would draw funny looks, but in his workplace, it is practically camouflage.

Fallon and his law partner, Katelin Kennedy, are among the growing number of Americans who have embraced coworking—employees from unrelated companies occupying a shared office space—as a substitute for more conventional, and pricier, workspace. The firm makes its home in HQ Raleigh, a coworking community in downtown Raleigh. (Lawyers Weekly occupies space in a different HQ Raleigh location; see accompanying story.)

Coworking has surged in popularity in recent years, especially among newer companies. According to JLL, a global real estate company, the flexible space and coworking sector is the fastest-growing segment of the market for office space. WeWork, an American shared workspace company that was founded in 2010, currently manages more than 10 million square feet of office space and is valued at over $20 billion.

If a coworking wave is washing over American businesses, the legal profession is at the moment barely even ankle-deep, with lawyers making up only a very small portion of the sector’s business. But with such spaces comprising a growing share of the office space available for rent, they constitute an added option for small firms and solo practitioners who are looking to cut down on overhead but disinclined to work from a home office.

In the converted warehouse where Fallone and Kennedy work, 70 percent of the tenants are small tech companies. Fallone said that some of the firm’s neighbors have become clients—and some clients have liked the space so much they’ve become neighbors. One of the only downsides Fallone cited about his set-up is that at times he’s actually a little too visible to clients who might pop in with questions. But he said that was a minimal trade-off for the many advantages that came with coworking.

“It’s been absolutely great on several levels because I think one of the really wonderful things about working in a startup community is when you’re building a law practice, you’re not just a lawyer, you’re also an entrepreneur yourself,” Fallone said. “I think the community is just really helpful in solving any problems that you encounter while growing a business. And then another advantage that I think is great is just having that interaction with non-attorneys, people that you can connect with on a social level.”

The social network

The concept of workers sharing office space to spread out costs is not new. Regus, now a subsidiary of IWG, has been offering “virtual offices” since the late 1980s. What makes the business model of coworking, which started blooming in the mid-2000s, different is that companies pitch their spaces as shared communities that offer individuals or small teams the social aspect of office places as much as the practical aspects. Most providers offer both small private offices and also desk spaces set up in an open floor plan arrangement.

That social aspect was one of the features that attracted Stephany Hand Biggs, an attorney who works at iNvictus, a shared workspace in Durham. Biggs had been operating her law practice out of her home before moving to her current office, a situation that she said wasn’t ideal for meeting clients. She said she wanted to go somewhere that she had some dedicated space and could also meet people outside her home.

“I liked the idea of being able to kind of kill two birds with one stone,” Biggs said. “Not only would it allow me to get out of my comfort zone of my space at home, but it would also allow me to meet with other business owners who weren’t attorneys. It was a great opportunity to meet with people who were doing something different and with whom I could network.”

Like Fallone, Biggs specifically cited the proximity to other entrepreneurs and the resulting comingling of ideas as a major benefit of coworking. (It also gives her an opportunity to be closer to her husband, who also works at iNvictus.) She said that clients who have come to see her have liked her office, and she’s had the opportunity to provide legal counsel to other businesses in the building.

Bob Crawford, an attorney who represents clients in professional licensing matters, approached coworking from the other direction. He began working in a Regus office in north Raleigh in early 2017 after having his own space in a traditional office building. Regus operates at the more buttoned-down end of the coworking industry, a space in between traditional multi-tenant office buildings and the new-style communal setting. Its Raleigh location is high in an office tower overlooking the city’s midtown and offers tenants conference rooms and a shared receptionist.

Crawford said that the new home was a significant change from his old office, but that the arrangement was working out well.

“I’ve enjoyed it, and I think it’s a cost savings as well. It’s true that your individual office is quite small, a lot smaller than most lawyers are used to, but I think we’re learning we can get by with a lot less space and a lot less paper.”

A first-person co-working story North Carolina Lawyers Weekly has embraced co-working. After the newspaper left its space in downtown Raleigh in 2015, I began working from home. For many people, working from home would be a dream situation, but journalists are social creatures. I found working from home to be lonely and isolating, and not much news happens on my cul-de-sac.
Circumstances (my wife and I recently sold that home and are moving into a new one) forced a change, and I began scouting co-working locations in Raleigh as a solution.
We ultimately settled on HQ Raleigh’s Glenwood location—within eyesight of the old office, as it happens. The open floor plan in my corner of the building would likely be ill suited for an attorney, but it works great for a journalist: the new neighbors are mostly techies, but there’s that buzz of energy that feels much like the old newsroom.
The new digs do embody every stereotype of urban millennial techie hipster co-working spaces you’ve ever heard of. HQ is a B-corporation, and I get lots of reminders about being eco-friendly as possible. The office space is a converted gym with exposed ceilings and brick walls. There’s free coffee and better yet, free beer (!) at the bar downstairs. (I may have failed to mention this perk in my pitch to corporate.) We’ve been promised that the bikeshare will go live within a few weeks. In short, it’s well tailored to my personality.
I’ve had lots of fascinating conversations with the brilliant people who work around me, talks that have planted all sorts of interesting ideas in my mind. Even if the effects on my work product have so far been mostly indirect (aside from this series, of course), I believe the new environment has been a boon for our reporting, and thus for our readers. And compared to the old traditional office, it’s certainly a much more cost-effective way to benefit from the convenience of being in downtown Raleigh. David Donovan

 

You’ll never work alone

Beside the legal profession’s deeply ingrained conservatism, there are obvious reasons why lawyers might be slower than other workers to take up coworking. For many lawyers, a quiet place to work is a must. Coworking sites typically have spaces to take phone calls in private, but security of physical files can be an issue. Biggs said her set-up has forced her to be more nimble than a traditional law office, and while that’s been a downside, she’s been able to account for it with the use of a sturdy rolling cart.

But research suggests that loneliness and feelings of isolation have become an increasingly prevalent problem for the legal profession. According to a study of data published in the Harvard Business Review in March, 61 percent of lawyers ranked above average on a loneliness scale—a significantly higher tally than for most other educated professionals. Loneliness, in turn, is a significant risk factor for depression, another mental health risk that is unusually rife in the legal profession.

Interactions with non-attorneys could offer a salve. In an earlier, unrelated survey (also published in the Harvard Business Review) respondents said that coworking made them feel like part of a community without entangling any of the sense of competition or intra-office politics that can come with a traditional office space. Co-workers also said that they felt like they had more control over how they did their work, and some said that the social mission behind coworking made their work feel more meaningful.

“I generally just feel comfortable [here] and more at home. It seemed like the better idea for us. I wish they could see the smile on my face when I’m trying to express this.” Fallone said. “And I think that that is one of the really neat, unique things about working out of the coworking space, because it is such a friendly and camaraderie-driven environment.”

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

 

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