From traditional office sharing to virtual offices to the recent rise of law firm incubator and residency programs, lawyers now have many options when it comes to cutting costs and sharing expenses without establishing a partnership. While these can be solid options for both newly-minted solos and experienced practitioners seeking to reduce their overhead, when it comes to sharing space, there are some important ethical considerations to keep in mind.
Among other ethical considerations, attorneys sharing office space in North Carolina should remember the following:
Misrepresenting a Partnership
Lawyers in an office sharing arrangement cannot misrepresent that they are partners or part of a single firm. Rule 7.5(e) of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct states: “Lawyers may state or imply that they practice in a partnership or other professional organization only when that is the fact.” Comment 4 to Rule 7.5 provides further clarification specifically in the context of office sharing, stating:
“[L]awyers sharing office facilities, but who are not in fact associated with each other in a law firm, may not denominate themselves as, for example, “Smith and Jones,” for that title suggests that they are practicing law together in a firm.”
As a result, signage, letterhead, business cards, websites and retainer agreements should all be clear about the office sharing arrangement. These items should certainly avoid any misleading references; and, if warranted, they should perhaps even acknowledge the absence of a partnership with other lawyers in the shared space.
Protecting Client Confidentiality
Sharing an office requires special attention to client confidentiality. Both hardcopy and electronic files should be inaccessible to unaffiliated attorneys and staff members in the shared space. Likewise, lawyers must ensure that they do not inadvertently disclose their clients’ confidences through thin walls or open doors.
Avoiding Conflicts of Interests
Attorneys in office sharing arrangements must also be careful to avoid conflicts of interest. The Rules of Professional Conduct allow for unaffiliated attorneys in a shared office to represent clients with conflicting interests, so long as they “maintain separate telephones and have different secretaries.” CPR 274.
This means that unaffiliated attorneys with a shared secretary must: (i) conduct conflict checks, and (ii) adhere to the provisions of Rule 1.7 regarding adverse representation. As with the other pitfalls discussed above, failure to observe these requirements in a shared office could result in disciplinary action by the North Carolina State Bar.
Cheshire Parker Schneider & Bryan, PLLC | Raleigh Professional License Defense Attorneys
Cheshire Parker Schneider & Bryan, PLLC represents North Carolina attorneys in disciplinary matters before the North Carolina State Bar. If you have questions about the ethics of office sharing or need to inquire about our services, please call (919) 833-3114 or submit our online contact form today.