November 18, 2019
Renee N. G. Stackhouse and David M. Majchrzak, reprinted with permission from CEB.
When it comes to office space, lawyers have many options. Possibilities include working from home or a café (as long as you’re on encrypted wi-fi and use a VPN) with a completely virtual relationship with clients to investing in your own space at a high-end high rise.
With commercial rents at a premium in California, many solo attorneys and small firms are opting to share space to keep overhead expenses, such as rent, receptionists, meeting rooms, libraries, and copy machines down. This can be an excellent plan, as long as you’re careful about it.
Sharing space requires close scrutiny to ensure that you’re acting within the California Rules of Professional Conduct. Here are some tips to keep clients protected:
- Don’t share servers. Lawyers must take affirmative steps to preserve the confidences and secrets of clients. (Rules Prof. Conduct, Rule 1.6.) This applies to electronic files and data, as well as hard copies of client information. Sharing servers can give the wrong people access to files.
- Keep client files physically separated and lock your files when you leave. Along the same line, confidential files of one lawyer may not be accessible by other office sharers and must be securely stored to maintain all confidences. This usually involves locking the files when the lawyer isn’t present in the office.
- Use a privacy screen so no one can see what you’re typing. The same goes for information that can be seen while working. A privacy screen for a laptop or monitor is inexpensive and goes a long way to protect confidential client information in the office or on the go.
- If you share a receptionist, be sure there’s no confusion about firm names. When sharing office space with another lawyer, a lawyer must diligently protect the independence of the practices. Each firm should have its own telephone line and the phones may not be answered as “Lawyer A and B” when the two lawyers are not actually practicing together. (Rules Prof. Conduct, Rule 7.1.)
- Signage must be separate. Lawyers having separate businesses may not use joint letterhead and the signs outside the building should also not lead potential clients to believe that the lawyers are practicing together in an association. Each lawyer must accurately communicate the lawyer’s status. No advertisement, sign, or telephone listing should be established in any way that would lead a potential client to believe that the lawyer is in a partnership, is “associated,” or is “affiliated” with the other lawyer(s) sharing office space.
- Avoid improper solicitation or referrals. The lawyer should make sure that there’s no improper solicitation of clients or referrals of business to or from other independent occupants of the office. (Rules Prof. Conduct, Rules 7.2(c) and 7.3.) A lawyer must also take care to exercise independent professional judgment regarding the legal representation and not be influenced by the office sharing status. (Rules Prof. Conduct, Rule 5.4(c).)
Lawyers who decide to share office space with other lawyers or with non-legal services businesses must carefully consider the ethics requirements for doing so. As long as ethical guidelines are adhered to, however, office sharing arrangements can be both ethical and cost effective.
You can read more about Virtual Offices in State Bar of California Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct Formal Opinion No. 2012-184.
Renee Stackhouse, a founder and trial lawyer at Stackhouse, APC, is a certified specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy in civil trial advocacy and focuses on plaintiff’s personal injury and military defense in San Diego. Dave, a shareholder at Klinedinst, PC, is a certified legal specialist by the State Bar of California in legal malpractice law, and devotes much of his career to counseling clients on how to achieve their professional goals in an ethical way.