Business of Law

Making the Home Work

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Danielle Van Ess
Photo by Bill Gallery

When Danielle G. Van Ess was house-hunting in Boston five years ago, one item topped her list of non-negotiables: a dedicated home office space.

At the time Van Ess had an infant daughter and a vision that one day she would open a home-based practice. Three years later she purchased the custom-made mahogany sign that now sits in her front yard in Hingham, Mass., welcoming clients who come inside for estate planning, adoption and residential real estate advice.

“Both physically and psychologically, the comfort of being in my own space helps my productivity,” says Van Ess, 34, now the mother of three girls. “I can change the heat, make coffee at any time and tend to my baby privately. I always hear people complaining about how they spilled coffee on their clothes on the way to work and are uncomfortable all day. If that happens to me, I can just run upstairs.”

Those are just a few of the reasons that a home-based office became the ideal practice space for Van Ess, who is among a growing segment of lawyers taking their practices home, according to Susan Cartier Liebel, a Northford, Conn.-based lawyer and founder of Solo Practice University. Liebel says home-based offices have been a hot topic in her online forums. The appeal extends beyond economics, with many choosing to work from home for a better work-life fit.

“How great is it to be sitting in your home office and you hear a knock on the door and it’s your 6-year-old just wanting to say ‘I love you mommy?’ ” says Liebel, who launched a home-based practice out of her bedroom in 1995. “The people I have talked to want freedom to make choices that work for their families.”


But before moving home, lawyers have to be sure that they’re ready for the distractions of a home-based office, says Tory Johnson, co-author of Will Work from Home: Earn the Cash—Without the Commute. Johnson, a Good Morning America workplace contributor, says that while some self-motivated workers thrive in a home-based office, others don’t have the discipline to avoid multitasking; everything from wilting plants to yapping dogs to the refrigerator can reduce productivity.

Isolation is another consideration for home-based workers, and both Johnson and Liebel say that finding ways to engage with the outside world is essential. Scheduling lunch appointments with colleagues and using public spaces (like a courthouse or law school library) to perform research are two of their strategies for staying connected.

But neither of those issues plagued Van Ess, an extrovert who spends plenty of time with her friends and family—time she wouldn’t have if she were commuting to a downtown office.

“Having children and having other pulls on my time makes it easy for me to get my work done and move on,” she says.

And the home-based office was a no-brainer finan cially for Van Ess, who used the money she would have spent on rent for technology and to hire a team of virtual assistants. But her decision to work from home was also rooted in the psychological benefit that the cozy setting provides for her clients, many of whom are initially intimidated by the idea of seek-ing legal advice.

Van Ess greets her clients with snacks and freshly brewed coffee, then welcomes them to a serene oasis, with scented candles almost always lit, to discuss difficult issues. She keeps a box of tissues and a candy bowl filled with M&Ms on her desk. When her youngest was small enough to fit in a sling, she’d conduct meetings with the baby on her chest, and got nothing but praise from her clients.

It works, Van Ess says, because she thinks of clients as guests, noting that many hug her on the way out. And when she goes to her clients’ homes to conduct closings or to execute final documents, they get to return her gesture of hospitality.

“It becomes very friendly instead of a sterile, buttoned-up kind of meeting,” she says.

Becky Beaupre Gillespie is a Chicago-based journalist who writes on issues of work-life balance. Hollee Schwartz Temple directs the legal writing program at West Virginia University College of Law.

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