Q. How does one determine which real estate office to join after obtaining the initial license to sell or practice in real estate? There are many real estate companies in the Washington metropolitan area, and I am at loss as to how to find the right company for me. Please advise.

A. As I was thinking about this question, I began to realize how many different kinds of real estate companies there are. The following is not a complete list by any means. There are a wide variety of real estate firms ranging from very large companies to one-person operations. There are national firms and local agencies. There are companies that specialize -- in such areas as commercial or farm property -- and there are full-service brokers that cover all aspects of real estate. There are local firms that concentrate on a particular location such as Georgetown or Bethesda, and, of course there are companies with offices in all three area jurisdictions.

Additionally, there are companies that are on multilisting, and others that do not need the computer service.

And finally, there are companies that offer other services such as insurance or mortgage money in addition to real estate brokerage.

Thus, from this diverse list, you have to make a very difficult decision. Perhaps one of the most important factors is the issue of compensation. Some brokerage companies pay a percentage of the business you generate -- the earned real estate commission. And from my understanding, the percentage paid to the real estate agent varies from company to company.

Other real estate firms will permit you to be an "independent agent" -- letting you use the name of the company but for practical purposes leaving you on your own. For the use of the company's name and backup support services, you pay a flat monthly fee to the real estate company.

There is a lot of mobility in real estate. Agents often switch from company to company. This is perfectly permissible, and indeed there comes a time when a good real estate agent has learned the field, has built up a good name and a good clientele, and opens up an independent real estate brokerage firm.

How does one go about finding the right firm? I have discussed this with a number of real estate professionals, and there's no simple answer. Some agents found that a small firm gave them the best experience; others expressed the opposite opinion, saying they had learned an awful lot by jumping into a large firm, where there were many agents and brokers with whom to discuss their issues and concerns.

My own suggestions follow:

* Choose a firm in an area in which you are comfortable. If you live in Fairfax, you probably should not "cut your teeth" in Alexandria, because you may not be familiar with that area.

* Before committing yourself to a particular firm, spend a few days sitting in the office so that you can get a flavor of the people with whom you may be working. All professional services -- whether real estate, law or medicine -- depend heavily on people-to-people relationships. If there is a lot of tension, pressure or competition within a particular office, you may want to avoid it. I have seen too many real estate offices where everyone was grabbing the telephone, hoping to get that million-dollar listing. This may be good for the professional with experience, but may not be the best way for you to gain the necessary knowledge of the industry.

* Talk to the manager or owner of the office. Will that person be able to give you enough time, on a daily basis, to really teach you the trade? The last thing you want to do is find yourself lost without supervision.

In the final analysis, only you can decide your own needs. Do not jump into the decision, however, without spending time to review all the factors.