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March 2001
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Small & Home Office

Getting Fired Gracefully: Going Solo and Setting up a Home Office in a Hurry

The joys of politics means expecting the unexpected. Like sudden unemployment.

By Grace L. Suarez

Getting Fired Gracefully: Going Solo and Setting up a Home Office in a Hurry LIKE Joanie Caucus, I found myself suddenly out of work after a change in my office's administration when Public Defender Jeff Brown unexpectedly quit his post to take another job. At the end of January, in a matter of minutes, I went from being the head of research of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office to being, well, nobody.

Financially, I am okay. I have a modest but sufficient parachute, thanks to our union -- the Municipal Attorneys' Association -- and to a professional parting with the Public Defender. I have my pension, and my husband is still employed. But I had not been without an office since I started working. My office was my little world.

I immediately decided to continue working both as an attorney specializing in criminal appeals and writs, and as a knowledge management consultant. That meant I needed an office, and I needed it fast.

The first decision, obviously, was whether to rent space in a regular office building, or work out of my home. I did have a basic set-up in our apartment, in the study/guest room. The space was small, but the price was right. Besides, the apartment is beautiful and full of light, and has a fantastic view of the Golden Gate and the San Francisco Bay, though not from the study's windows. I didn't think twice about it. I wanted to work at home.

The second decision was whether to replace any of my existing equipment. This included a Sony laptop, a very nice Xerox DocuPrint 8 personal laser printer, a Visioneer Strobe Pro USB sheet-fed scanner, an Archos external PC card CD-RW, and a Zip drive. I was happy with everything except the laptop, which has a passive matrix screen. In the end I decided to make do with what I had, but secretly promised myself a Winbook SI 850 with my first check.

I needed an office, and I needed it fast.

-Grace L. Suarez

I prefer a laptop for home office computing, even though a desktop gives more bang for the buck. The laptop lets me move around the apartment, and begin the morning checking e-mail at a small table with a view of the world in the living room. I can then move into the home office later in the day, and perhaps end up in the bedroom, half-watching a ball game with my husband. Plus if I need to go to a customer's site, I can take my knowledge with me.

The Internet connection, however, had to go. A 56 kps landline connection, after the T1 line at work, felt like the computer had broken down. Cable was out of the question, because the apartment is in an older building. I considered DSL, except everyone I knew was having problems with the installation. I wanted to be up and running within a week. I finally went back to Ricochet, a wireless service that I had been very happy with before, and which now had upgraded to 128 kps service. It was pricey, at $79.95 a month through Juno Online, but I figured that I could write it off; and second, it would make me more productive.

I also wanted a professional telephone service that would screen my calls, yet let me be available wherever I was. My choice was Webley (www.webley.com). The service provided me with a toll-free number, which works for both voice and fax. A voice call is answered by Webley, who sounds like an English butler, or by other voices I can choose from. The call is then directed to any or all of four phone numbers I have provided. If I pick up, Webley informs me that I have a call, tells me the caller's name, which the caller has given Webley, and I have the choice of answering or not. If I do not, Webley returns to the caller, informs her that I am not available, and takes a message. I am then notified by e-mail and pager, and I can pick up the message either through my telephone or at the Web site. Webley does a lot of other things, too, but this was enough for me at the moment.

The next step was to get business cards. Again, I wanted speed and control. I did not want to wait days, or even hours, so I drove to a local paper store, selected packs of business cards, postcards for sending announcements, stationery and envelopes, all in an attractive but professional color scheme. A few minutes with WordPerfect's labels feature and I had perfectly useable cards that certainly did not look like they had come out of a home computer. Because I am not looking to generate foot traffic, I did not list my street address, only my e-mail, my Webley phone number and my Web site address. After that I made up and printed out announcements, using the same font and general style.

Revamp the Site

Of course, I had to re-do my Web site. Fortunately, years before I had obtained my own domain name (electric-law.com) and set up my own site, just for fun. I did it using FrontPage 2000, and it was a simple matter to make changes to it to reflect my new activities. I even changed the color scheme and font (called themes in FrontPage), just for fun.

It was a strange feeling, marketing myself after so many years as a public servant. It felt a little like taking off my clothes in front of strangers. Not that I have taken off my clothes in front of strangers. On the other hand, I felt a bit like Martha Stewart. I was my own product.

Because I was moving from my office computer, where I was still finishing up details and moving stuff, to my home office machine, to my weekend home desktop, and I was working on several projects, I placed them all on a Zip disk. It takes a little longer to save to and retrieve from a Zip disk, but I would not be taking the chance of leaving a vital file in the wrong computer.

I found that I was thinking about my new life almost all the time, planning, reading, coming up with new ideas. Having a computer everywhere I went helped. My husband urged me to take time off. I didn't want to do that. I was eager to launch my new venture: knowledge management consulting.

When I put that title on my business cards, people laughed and said, "What's that?" Knowledge management is about using technology to gather together all the bits of data floating around in our professional and personal lives, all that information, and turning it into knowledge.

Some examples: Information is the name and address of an expert witness. Knowledge is a colleague's opinion of that expert, copies of prior testimony, a recent resume. Information is a citation to a case. Knowledge is a collection of sample briefs on the subject, the downloaded case with hypertext links to the cases it cites, a link to an article by an expert in the field.

Information is a bunch of Post-It notes. Knowledge is a book. Moreover, knowledge is never completely in the possession of one person.

More often, each individual has a piece of information. Assembled together in a coherent, organized, retrievable fashion, it becomes knowledge. Sometimes the information is possessed by one person, but it comes in little bits over time. Trouble is, by the time we get our hands on the transcript of the expert's testimony, we have lost her name and address.

That's where knowledge management comes in. It's the creation of systems for organizing information into knowledge, and making it easily retrievable. And knowledge is the only thing we as lawyers have to sell. Knowledge is our stock in trade. It's our product.

We can create their own mechanical knowledge management systems. In the expert scenario above, we can get a cardboard box and mark it "Experts." Everything we find out about experts we dump into this box. Pretty soon all the information we need will be there. But of course we won't be able to find it. Practical? I don't think so.

The wise use of technology is the key to creating practical and useful knowledge management systems. It's more than simply getting a computer and a printer. It's more than just running out and buying the latest gadget in the vain hope it will magically organize us. It's devising systems and procedures, using computers, PDA's, scanners, databases, Web-based resources, and all the other tools technology has placed at our disposal to gather, organize, catalog and make instantly available well-organized information, that is, knowledge. And in order to do it, we have to know the business -- this is not just getting the closet in shape.

And that's my new life. And even though it's a lot scarier than my old and well-established existence as a criminal defense lawyer, it's very exciting.

Grace Suarez is a solo practitioner and knowledge management consultant. Web: www.electric-law.com.

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