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Moving out: Relocating your practice

ImageAttorney Michael J. Watton needed only a few seconds to tape a piece of paper with the words “The Watton Law Group has moved” to the door of his firm’s office in downtown Milwaukee.

But Watton spent nearly a full year executing the move, from the time he began touring multiple locations to the day he physically relocated the four-attorney firm last December.

After 11 years of renting space in the Mackie Building on East Michigan Street, Watton wanted a larger location closer to the Milwaukee courthouse.

While he and his staff did some of the planning, Watton hired an outside consulting firm to help expedite the move.

“In this day and age hiring someone to get you from the old place to the new one is beneficial, because there are all these details that attorneys don’t want to spend time on,” he said.

Now that commercial office space is plentiful in some areas, interior project consultant Paul Weaver said he is seeing more service professionals like lawyers and accountants considering relocating.

Weaver co-owns Mequon-based IMA Inc. with his wife, and has facilitated several law firm moves recently, including Watton’s.

Aside from lease negotiations, Weaver handles most of the details associated with a move, from assessing and upgrading technology to notifying clients and malpractice carriers.

He also helps attorneys think progressively about how to set up their new space.

“One area I concentrate on is a firm’s law library, especially with the technology today,” he said. “Firms might have 1,000 square feet dedicated to their library, but do they really need that much space?”

Location, location, location

In Watton’s case, the biggest motivation for the move was a desire to be closer to the county courts for the firm’s bankruptcy, consumer protection and class action work.

He decided that the need for convenient court access outweighed the possible difficulties clients might encounter navigating and parking in downtown Milwaukee.

But, he said, other firms considering a move should consider “whether they are a true destination or more of a retail outlet where access to clients is more important than access to court.”

Debt collection firm Gray & Associates LLP took a different approach when it relocated from downtown Milwaukee to the suburb of New Berlin in November.

Partner Duncan C. Delhey said that while many of the 13 attorneys at the firm regularly spend time at the federal courthouse in downtown Milwaukee, a suburban location seemed a better fit long term.

Lawyers and staff at the firm’s downtown location were scattered on four different floors, and Delhey wanted to find a space more conducive to expansion.

“We looked for two years all over the Milwaukee area,” he said. “But we weren’t able to find any one-story sites with lots of parking downtown, so that kind of drove us out.”

Delhey also relied on consultants to help with site planning, implementing IT systems and coordinating the physical move during the long Thanksgiving weekend.

Attorney Dennis Michael Melowski decided to buy rather than lease. He left his former firm in Elkhart Lake back in July, and is now purchasing a new building on the waterfront in Sheboygan.

The drunken driving defense attorney lives in Kohler and said he wanted to establish a new office close to home because he “doesn’t depend on foot traffic or walk-in clients,” given that his practice is statewide.

“I wanted a nice space I could be happy with for the next 15 to 20 years,” he said. “A new space that needs to be built up inside is something that appealed to me.”

All three attorneys stressed the importance of keeping clients in the loop.

Watton said his firm sent out “thousands” of notifications and maintains a centralized registry of current and former clients.

“We moved their files, but they still belong to the client, so we felt the need to let them know where we were going,” he said.

Delhey said his firm started a mass mailing campaign 45 days prior to the move in addition to e-mails to clients and the courts.

Ensuring a smooth transition

Other than a few pieces of mail that did not immediately find their way to the new office, Dehley said the transition was smooth.

The move was planned during the long Thanksgiving weekend — when client needs would be at a minimum — just in case there were any glitches.

“The majority of our clients were closed during that four-day stretch, so we didn’t have to respond to a lot of inquiries during the moving process,” Dehley said.

The firm still had another month on the lease at its downtown location to tie up any loose ends, such as clients who were unaware of the move.

Watton also vacated his Michigan Street location early to provide some flexibility in case any unexpected problems arose.

He closed the office doors at noon on a Friday and by 11:30 p.m. that night the firm was completely moved into its new space. But the staff spent the following few days tidying up the old space and finding a home for old office furniture.

“I think it’s important to have at least a week on the back end,” he said. “Inevitably, you really need everyone asking ‘what did we forget?’”

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